It's Christmastime in the city, when the nation's fastest, most aggressive walkers practically march up the backs of slow-footed visitors.

"I could scream," muttered Gail Pollman, 27, a photographer late for an assignment on Fifth Avenue and stuck behind a group of tourists. "It's the same every year. They come to see the Christmas tree and FAO Schwarz and they stop anyone else from getting anywhere!"She's on to something, says an expert who has studied pedestrians around the world.

"You can tell 'em in a minute, the way they dawdle along," grunted William H. Whyte, who also happens to live in New York City. "We sort of look down our noses at tourists. They're so slow, they drive us crazy."

The problem has three elements:

- The city is more crowded than ever this Christmas, thanks to a robust economy and a currency exchange rate that is favorable to foreign tourists.

- The streets are narrowed by holiday fixtures: sidewalk Santas, Salvation Army kettles, illegal vendors with fast-folding tables. Cheap windup toys crawl along the pavement, spooking pedestrians the way mice do circus elephants.

- A male Manhattanite - according to Whyte, author of the books "The Organization Man," a look at corporate America, and "City," a treatise on city life around the world - walks down Fifth Avenue on a midmorning weekday at an average speed of 350 feet a minute, or just over 4 mph; out-of-towners walk about 250 feet per minute, or just under 3 mph.

And they do so three or four or five abreast, not counting children, who invariably lag behind and sometimes have to be dragged along, their shiny patent leather shoes scraping along the pavement, their cries torturing all within earshot.

It is a scientific fact that people in big cities walk faster than people in small ones, and pedestrians in Manhattan walk faster longer than anywhere else in America, according to Whyte.

Not only do they frequently cruise at 4 mph, with passing speeds of up to 5 mph, they also will go 20 percent to 40 percent farther than residents of a typical Sunbelt metropolis.

Out-of-towners don't even TRY to walk fast.

Whatever the mean daytime foot speed back home, their most pressing tasks in Manhattan are locating St. Patrick's, being fleeced in one of Fifth Avenue's perpetual GOING OUT OF BUSINESS sales and finding a bathroom.

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They want to get a look at Saks' windows, but they're going to get run over by some high-strung commodities trader racing to his annual bonus review.

"I know we're slow," said Alice Harrity, a senior citizen from Gloucester, Mass. She was glancing over her shoulder, as if expecting a blow at any moment. "But we're here to have fun. We're not here to run."

The Japanese are one group of visitors who should have nothing to apologize for; according to Whyte, denizens of Tokyo's Ginza section are the only pedestrians in the world faster than Manhattan's.

But the Japanese have a problem in Manhattan, according to former city transportation official Samuel Schwartz: "They're obedient. They see a blinking `Don't Walk' sign and stop. New Yorkers think they're holiday decorations." And nudge the visitors into traffic.

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