Rachel Pincus was born and raised in New York City, where she still lives. She has written about architecture and design for PSFK.
A primer on the rules of the pedestrian road.
City dwellers are able to live by unwritten rules. Though we don’t often think about it, we’re constantly making tiny decisions that coordinate with others’, especially when we walk around. We try to behave like people who know what we’re doing, not like atoms bouncing frenetically off of one another.
It should be pretty easy to pull off. But it isn’t.
As bikes have complicated the pedestrian/car binary in many cities, there’s been more analysis of how we share—or hog—space. Many municipalities have started collecting data on where we walk, and how quickly. The average walking speed in New York City is about 4.27 feet per second, found a 2006 study from the Department of City Planning. (Tourists stroll 11 percent slower.)
The intricate dynamics of pedestrian behaviors have even spurred new types of jobs. For example, a new breed of crossing guard called pedestrian/traffic managers direct foot traffic in high-stakes, tourist-packed areas such as Lower Manhattan.
When we take to the sidewalks, our manners kind of fizzle out. Hence the need for snarky faux infrastructure like the “texting lane. Here’s how to be better at sharing the space.
Stick to your right
In an odd imitation of car traffic, people quietly decided that it was ideal if everyone agreed on one side of the street—their relative right—as the direction of travel.
Sure, it might not make a ton of sense. But unless you want to unleash sidewalk chaos, don’t be the guy who tries to subvert convention by strolling on the wild (left) side.
Keep your ears open
Sound cues play a subtle but surprisingly important role in helping you anticipate the movement of others around you. Overheard chatter and even the little movements of air around you really helps you establish your position in space.
Keep a good speed
Pedestrian traffic has a rhythm. Fall behind, and you'll soon find that someone is tailgating you. If you have to move more slowly, stick to the margins—and pull over to text or rummage in your bag, unless you don’t mind careening into a pothole or one of those scary flights of underground steps.
Look where you’re going!
Multitasking, even if you think you’re pretty good at it, makes you a less attentive pedestrian. You’re less tapped in to your environment whenever you divert your eyes from the street. A study published in Psychology and Aging found that this effect was particularly exacerbated as we get older.
Even if the sidewalk is sparsely populated, that doesn’t give you free license to cut around corners and charge headlong into the streets—after all, quiet blocks have speeding cars, too.
No vehicles, please
Bikes have their own lanes, but now a bonanza of other person-powered vehicles are also trying to squeeze into the precious pedestrian space. (Think: scooters, roller skates, skateboards.) Are you a speed walker, or a very lightweight motorist? If it has wheels and can go as fast as a bike, you are probably terrorizing other people on the sidewalk—best to ride in the fast lane and take the bike lane instead.
Don’t walk with a posse
You know the people who stroll four or five in a row, gawking at buildings. A study published in PLoS One found that groups of people tend toward either side-by-side movement or an outward-opening V-shape, which isn’t great for making room for others. Groups probably don’t intend to clog up the traffic flow, but they snag the pattern, big time. Even wide sidewalks are ill-suited to a gathering of more than two people. Catch up with your crew at the next intersection.
And, for your own good, beware of stopping to snap a photo on a crowded sidewalk. Even if you manage to get a picture without tons of peoples’ torsos in it, they’ll give you the stink eye for blocking the way.
Put the kibosh on sidewalk rage
In some cities, there is a half-joking culture of commiserating about these habits. Imagine if pedestrians were taken to task for a litany of offenses, such as hitting people with bulky bags, slow walking, or clogging up prime jaywalking territory. As Sarah Goodyear reported for CityLab, a facetious memo circulated around New York City’s East Village, envisioning a fantasy world in which all visitors would have to pass an exam to earn a permit from the Department of Pedestrian Etiquette. Violations included:
- Blocking the sidewalk or any public area in a large group or just standing like an idiot in the middle of pedestrian traffic. Also referred to as “Clumping.”
- Weaving from side to side oblivious to busy New Yorkers trying to get the hell around you.
- Walking with your face in a map or mobile device.
- Excessive arm swinging or bag swinging.
- Stopping on a bike path with a big group to take pictures of squirrels.
It’s fun to be snarky about it, but actually seething over annoying sidewalk behavior can trigger something akin to road rage. Dr. Leon James, psychology professor at the University of Hawaii, developed a Pedestrian Aggressiveness Syndrome Scale. You’re edging into this territory when you exhibit behaviors like muttering or bumping into others. When venting about such behaviors are encouraged, it can set off conditions like “intermittent explosive disorder.”
“If you feel yourself getting angry, change the way you think,” says Dr. Shonda Lackey, a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York. “Tap into your sense of humor.”
Use data to avoid crowds
And of course, you can always try to avoid crowds altogether. Startups like Placemeter, which uses sensors to “quantif[y] the movement of modern cities, at scale,” have also collected quantitative and qualitative information about walking habits.
The company studied pedestrian traffic in highly congested Times Square to see whether there were ideal times to go to skirt the sidewalk madness.
They discovered that there were blissful lulls on weekdays between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Those hoping to avoid sardine-style travel conditions should leave a wide berth on the weekends.
“We’ve found that each block has an individual personality—an individual profile—that is determined by how people interact with and travel through it,” says Placemeter co-founder Florent Peyre. “In Philadelphia, we’ve been working with the Center City District to understand how people use the new public plaza, Dilworth Park, in front of City Hall. We’re looking at the volume of pedestrian traffic as well as patterns in pedestrian flow within the park.”
As the movement of people in public spaces continues to attract the attention of intrepid startups and civic organizations, we’ll no doubt start to learn more ways that we can all move around together without driving each other crazy.