Thursday, March 13, 2008

Rush hour sucks for drivers but is wonderful for me

Today's Thursday. I'm working at a desk. It's 11:30 AM and I'm bored. This firm is paying me $20 an hour to run through all the old paper files, separate the dead files, categorize and repair the folders so that they're easier to access, manipulate and mine for data, at a rate of about 100 files a day.

But I'm waiting for the emotional high of rush hour. NYC, at rush hour, finds that plans made for effective traffic flow come to naught when more traffic is flowing than they planned for. That's basically the problem: everyone wants a ride or is walking.

About 1.7 million people will get on the Subway tonight. Roughly 1 million of them ride between 5 and 7 PM. 200,000 more will rush to Grand Central (GCT) for the Harlem, Hudson and New Haven trains home. Another 120,000 will hurry to Penn Station for the LIRR and NJT trains. And another 150,000 will hike to Port Authority for their buses. These three terminals are not lined up with each other, which makes for confusion and traffic hell. Getting from Penn Station to GCT can take an absurdly long time in a car. 25 minutes' ride is not uncommon, after a 25-minute wait for a taxi. 50 minutes to go less than a mile!

You see, Midtown Manhattan has three basic problems at 5 PM.

1. Thousands of people scoot out of their offices and either hire limos or drive their own cars out of garages headed for the bridges and tunnels off this island. This clogs Midtown streets by 5:10.
2. A million people -- literally a million -- come out of the skyscrapers and start walking. There have been no pedestrian rules since 2000 AD (thank you, Giuliani), so people walk in the street, between cars, in the bike lanes, against the light, ...and every single one of them slows motor traffic by some percentage. That percentage adds up when multiplied by a million. Last I read, for 1996, the average Midtown car speed was something like 6.5 MPH, about where it was when vehicles were pulled by horses. And that was before the pedestrians had cell phones.
3. Yellow cabs change shifts at 5 PM. This pulls professional drivers from the system, right about the time when unprofessional drivers--old guys slowly cruising in sedans, young hotshots honking and screeching in SUVs--wreak havoc on the streets.

Midtown's side streets shortly become inefficient single-lane roads. Imagine a 19-foot-long car with one person in it, keeping a 6-foot distance from the car ahead. That's 25 feet. Between 5th and 6th Avenues, 43rd Street is 600 feet long. At one car per every 25 feet, that's 24 cars, or 24 people, waiting in a 600-foot line. To their right and left are about 5 feet of open space, not quite enough for cars to maneuver into or out of, with parked cars taking up the rest of the 30-foot space from curb to curb. The car ahead blocks the view of that open space, so most don't dare getting out of line; they might miss their chance when the line moves up. The fear is, "What if someone's double-parked ahead?"

That's why I love rush hour. I use the five-foot space between moving and parked cars. When I come up to the inevitable double-parked limo, I use the space between moving cars to slip across to the other side, then shoot forward again, passing car after car after car. Traffic jams can be exploited. Imagine sitting in a little vehicle that passes all the big vehicles.

My pedicab averages about 8 MPH, 2 MPH faster than the traffic average. I usually carry two adults from the corner of 42nd & Vanderbilt to Penn Station in about 11 minutes. In fact, a guarantee is posted on the side of the trike: if I don't get you across Midtown in 10 minutes, the ride is free. (Penn is actually a block outside of Midtown.) People like and trust the written guarantee. Yes, it costs more to ride in a pedicab than a taxi. Typically, I charge $20 for one person and $25 for two. Though that's a lot for just getting across midtown, the rate is coupled with a guarantee that they'll get from Grand Central to Penn Station in 11 minutes. They hop right in. They feel the need: the need for speed.

To recap, I'm going to make about $150 sitting here for eight hours. Then I'm going to make $100 more between 5:30 and 8, while getting to meet people and proudly show them my town.

That's why rush hour is wonderful. I become the fastest guy in town, and people need my services.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Once around Greenwich Village

A young couple from Mississippi saw either the web site or the YouTubes, and they emailed, looking for a tour while visiting NYC. We scheduled a Greenwich Village Comprehensive tour ( for 2 PM Monday, at Union Square. They also wanted to find out what SoHo was all about, and it's the off season. I usually bill $85 an hour, but it's the off season and I'm glad to get the work. So I wrote up a 90-minute comprehensive Village tour that would dovetail into a SoHo Tour by going east on Bleecker, just like our old Double-Decker route, then south on West Broadway and into the gallery district. Just $100 total for over two hours. We met, they sat on the heated seats, I put the carriage blanket over them, and we were off.

BTW, this is how we talk now, this "about" stuff. Ten years ago I would have written, "They wanted to find out about SoHo" but now it's to find out "what SoHo is about." Every subject spoken of by those under 40 is about something, and they set out to state what it's about. In the '50s there was only one "about" and that was The Hokey Pokey. That's what it's all about!

We put our whole selves into it, too.

So. Village tour.
We went south on Broadway, stopping in front ot Blatt Billiards,where a gorgeous handbuilt inlaid pool table stands in the window. "Governor Schwarzeneggar shops here." Yeah, he owns one of those Blatt tables, the best in the country. After a peek into Grace Episcopal Church (James Renwick, arch.) we hung a right and into blocks of historic houses.

They saw the house that was accidentally blown up in 1970 by student activists who were building a bomb in the basement while the parents were out. And the toy bear who stands in the window there, dressed this week in a bright green outfit for St. Patrick's Day. That bear has an outfit for every occasion! Jets, Mets, Nets and Yankee uniforms for whoever's in the playoffs, a fireman's outfit, and a tux around New Year's Eve. The current owners of the house have put a lot of thought into that bear.

Down near the end of the next block, a couple of historical notes: the second cemetery of the very first group of Jews in the western hemisphere. They came in 1653, literally victims of the Spanish Inquisition. A little further down the block was the site of the old Grapevine Tavern, through which people "heard it," if you get me.

St. Vincent's Wall Of Remembrance is still gone, that ghastly wall of "HAVE YOU SEEN MY SON WHO WORKS IN THE TWIN TOWERS" posters of the dead-yet-hoped-only-missing, that cluttered kiosks and bulletin boards all over downtown in the days following The Attacks. Saint Vincent's had them on a sheltered south-facing porch on West 11th, but they are gone now, supposedly for cleaning and refurbishment. They've been gone for almost a year; I should check into that with Mark Levy, who started a "friends of" group.

On to Greenwich Avenue (not Street) to see the tiles that kids all over North America sent in after The Attacks, and across Perry Street. It was named for Matthew Perry, but not that Matthew Perry. Google him with"Japan" in the search box and learn some American history.

And so on. Bleecker Street's generations of live folk music at The Bitter End, The Peculier Pub's proud listing of 500 beers, single-spaced on its 3-column beerlist. The Blue Note, the IFC Cinema, the Directors' Walk of Fame, the building used in the TV series Friends (that Matthew Perry) Saint Luke's-In-The-Fields, and the usual smattering of 150-year-old houses.

Then down into SoHo.

What makes SoHo unique is its architecture. SoHo is made largely of lofts. The area had been residential until the revolutionary store of A.T. Stewart, which opened on Broadway in 1842. Then what is not SoHo became known as the "cast-iron district." Stewart's idea was to use an entire building, essentially a house, and fill it with goods of different kinds in different rooms. So, cutlery and dishes on the left, linens on the right, men's clothing down the hall, women's clothing upstairs front, etc. It seems to the modern mind as if things were always done this way, but it was a New Yorker who made up the concept. He called it the "department" store.

And it was the only one in the world. Stewart made a fortune!

That was 1842. By 1850 there were dozens, up and down Broadway, north of the financial district. They absolutely revolutionized the concept of shopping, revolutionized architecture and revolutionized women's civil rights. How?
Aha, you'll have to take the tour to find out all that. But here's a teaser: at the end of this one-minute YouTube is A.T. Stewart's house.

It's a full three stories and L-shaped, at the interior corner of a Village sidestreet. Out front a circular staircase and working gas lamp. And a plaque to let the world know that Stewart invented the department store.

My guests had a great time in the Village and SoHo. They got off on Grand Street at Ferrara's, one of my favorite eating establishments. Everything is dessert.

Stan O'Connor
licensed sightseeing guide

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

First post 3/4/08

I am Tourguide Stan, a sightseeing guide of New York City. I like meeting people from around the world and showing them my town. Their viewpoint is important, so I make things easier for them while they are here. As "TourguideStan" I have videos about NYC on, and a set of photos on My business web site, for those of you wanting the finest personalized aid in sightseeing, is .

This blog is to be an informal take on what it's like to help people see the best that New York City has to offer. It will host personal observations, quoted conversations, issues with city government, notes on organizations I belong to, celebrity mentions, and funny stories bordering on jokes. This blog will be a place where you can look into Midtown Manhattan through the eyes of an expert with 15 years' experience in getting people here and taking care of them during their stay. There will also be the occasional complaint about tourists who you'd think weren't smart enough to make enough money to come here, but who do come, and make amazing -- sometimes appalling -- assumptions about what NYC is like.

Case in point: On a group tour before The Attacks, we were at the World Trade Center. I said, "The World Trade Center's eight buildings, including the Twin Towers, hold about 50,000 people during the workday. The site sits atop the PATH trains from New Jersey. Rush-hour PATH trains bring about 1000 people here every five minutes. Also, seven subway lines are very close by, which can get an additional thousand people into or out of the area every minute of the day." A guy who knew nothing about trains then responded with the query, "Where do they park?"

Wherever possible, terms will be shortened into acronyms, like these:
New York Times (NYT)
Statue of Liberty (SOL)
Guides Assn. of New York City (GANYC)

My Nikon Coolpix L1 is always on hand, so I take lots of videos and photos of life in the big city. Lots of space on my computer is devoted to that. If possible, I'll post photos here, or links to them through Flickr and Youtube. For Youtubes about NYC, search for TourguideStan. Likewise, look on, where I field questions about sightseeing and other NYC-travel topics.

My basic problem in life is that I am kind of in a box of my own design. A middle-aged owner of a pedicab who would rather do bus tours, what we call 'step-on' work in the trade. But I get very little step-on guide work. Instead, I take people around town on the pedicab. Ten years from now, I hope to be doing step-on work rather than still pedicabbing, since it's way easier to sit in a seat and talk, than to pedal people around and talk. My bike has no motor; it's all me. I don't want to make my living pedaling a 160-pound bike with two passengers ('pax' in tourism jargon) weighing 400 pounds when I'm 65.
Then again, I am in truly exceptionally good health. Biking builds muscles while letting you change the view in front of you, and you get to sit down the whole time. I lost about 35 pounds when I stepped off the double deckers for good, and my back, shoulders, butt and legs are really strong now. (Additional dividend: double-decker guides wear long underwear from October through April. I don't.) The doctor is impressed by my heart. Blood pressure averages about 110 over 80. I've never had an operation or broken bone.

Biking is a passion of mine. I strongly believe America needs more bikes and fewer muscle cars. Buying a high-powered motor vehicle you don't need tricks you into a fake feeling of personal power, while depriving cold homeowners of oil they need for their furnaces. An out-of-shape guy in an SUV is like Charles Atlas' 97-pound weakling wearing a muscle costume. My muscles are real, and capable of getting two adults and their suitcases from Grand Central to any midtown hotel in less than 10 minutes during Friday rush hour. No Hummer will ever match that.

I've done RAGBRAI, Cycle America and the Moosa Tour. I'm getting married soon and putting a road bike on our registry!

My politics are center-left. I read the Times and the WS Journal, but usually don't agree with the Journal's editorials. I don't always agree with the Times' either. While I believe in fiscal responsibility, my opinion of Republicans who say they want both a small government and lots of government spies, soldiers and hi-tech weaponry is that they are seriously fooling themselves. You can't have a giant military and a small government. I wish our president were more like his father. Maybe the Dollar wouldn't be at an all-time low if he believed in a peace dividend and not a five-year war costing us nearly half a trillion dollars.

But that all-time low is good for me and for my business: tourism is one of the few American industries helped by the rise of foreign currencies vis-a-vis the Dollar. Business is good. And everyone wants to come to New York City.

Let me tell you a few tourism-industry facts.
The western hemisphere's biggest draw is the United States of America. The United States' citizens come more to NYC than to any other American destination, God bless 'em. They may only come for "Gray-ound Zee-row" but they come.

That said, I won't be getting into long arguments with those who want to change me into something I'm not. No time for that; there is a never-ending supply of travelers who need a little help.

People keep telling me I should write. Here we go.