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Pedestrian wisdom
December 27, 2011 5:19 AM   Subscribe

IMAGINE that you are French. You are walking along a busy pavement in Paris and another pedestrian is approaching from the opposite direction. A collision will occur unless you each move out of the other’s way. Which way do you step? The answer depends on the wisdom of the crowd.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (43 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think body language has a lot to do with how pedestrians interact. If I walk with my hands in my pockets, people don't give me any room on the sidewalk. If I walk with my hands swinging, people get out of the way.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:31 AM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


Which way do you step?

In Paris, the immediate consideration is to step away from the dogshit.

I'm not entirely thread dogshitting here. There's a certain saccadic pattern everyone uses there which sweeps the oncoming footpath for crottes de chien; having safely plotted a path for the next small while, you've also located the lower extremities of oncoming pedestrians. You then look up to negotiate which side you will pass each other on.
posted by Wolof at 5:32 AM on December 27, 2011 [11 favorites]


The walking 'spin' (left/right distinction pedestrians tend to pass each other) is not really an arbitrarily emergent side in my experience. It depends on which side of the road you are forced to drive on by law.
posted by panaceanot at 5:42 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


>The answer is almost certainly to the right. Replay the same scene in many parts of Asia, however, and you would probably move to the left. It is not obvious why.

Stopped reading right there. Sorry. As panaceanot says, you tend to stick to the same side of the road that you drive on. This is hardly unobvious.
posted by w.fugawe at 5:48 AM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's actually common knowledge here that you move to the right when crossing someone on the street here (in France, where I don't have to imagine I'm French, because I actually am, heh). Kids are raised that way. The main exceptions are for encumbering things: baby/kid strollers, grocery trolleys (we have personal ones here, not talking about store carts), dogs, and so forth. The less-encumbered person will move so that the encumbered one doesn't have to. Another exception to keep in mind are popular stores: if moving to the right means that you'll be trapped in a throng at the entrance of a big store, you tend to hop-skip-jump a different route (I've been known to skedaddle to the left, into a street, checking for cars first of course, just to avoid the "collision vs. store crowd" choice).

This is also true on hiking and cycling trails – you move to the right, unless this would complicate things too much. If you're on a mountain bike and are faced with a group of runners shoulder-to-shoulder, you brake and stare at them pointedly until one of them moves to let you through :)
posted by fraula at 5:51 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


In Boston of course, the correct answer is to step forward as if nobody else is there.
posted by Hutch at 5:53 AM on December 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


Stopped reading right there. Sorry.

No need to apologize, I appreciate you proclaiming your stubborn ignorance as it lets know to step the right when I see you coming.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:55 AM on December 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


I came here to post the same thing as Wolof. Dogshit (presence/absence, location, volume) is the primary concern when navigating the sidewalks of Paris.

They love their dogs, les parisiens.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:06 AM on December 27, 2011


Stopped reading right there. Sorry.

If you kept reading, you'd find that the author addresses this, and that this pattern does not necessarily follow local traffic laws.

The article is about much more than that however. Its an interesting look into how crowd dynamics are modeled, using models based on both particle physics and cognitive science.
posted by mach at 6:06 AM on December 27, 2011 [7 favorites]


I never saw too much dogshit in Paris, Wolof, not by French standards anyways. Try Lyon.

I wonder if you could reduce the dogshit problem by sprinkling beef broth powder or similar on dogshits, thus ensuring that another dog ate the shit.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:10 AM on December 27, 2011


But what about those moments where you are dead on to someone, both are studiously not making eye contact, the body movement simultaneously goes to the same side, each differ the opposite, then again, then finally make eye contact and laugh.
posted by sammyo at 6:12 AM on December 27, 2011


I seem to have read slightly farther than most commenters here, but I'm still not convinced walking swerve direction is completely unrelated to side-of-road driving. Isn't that going to be a major factor in what the majority chooses?

The idea of studying pedestrian patterns is great, but in order to convince anyone you're being scientific, something more convincing than a "well, it doesn't" is really called for.
posted by DU at 6:16 AM on December 27, 2011


This is way too interesting before caffeine. BRB
posted by Splunge at 6:25 AM on December 27, 2011


And then there's the trainwreck that's Toronto. Combine hundreds of different cultures with a nominally overarching British colonial sensibility and Torontonians' legendary passive aggressiveness, and you get the only place in the world where “sorry” actually means “fuck you”.
posted by scruss at 6:36 AM on December 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


you tend to stick to the same side of the road that you drive on. This is hardly unobvious.

The article mentions that this is actually not true. Indeed, here in Japan people do move to the left when passing on the sidewalk, and people drive on the left here.

However, not everyone in Japan behaves the same way when walking. Notably, people in different parts of Japan travel up escalators differently.

Japan is a busy place, and there is definite etiquette for riding an escalator. If you're not in a hurry, you stand to one side so people who are in a hurry can climb past you. In western Japan, people stand on the right, and walk on the left.

In Tokyo, people stand on the left, and walk up on the right. The dividing line for this behaviour is Sekigahara in Gifu, the old boundary between "west Japan" and "east Japan".
posted by KokuRyu at 6:40 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


See also: Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking.
posted by empath at 6:44 AM on December 27, 2011


They love their dogs, les parisiens.

But not their sidewalks, it seems.
posted by notyou at 6:46 AM on December 27, 2011


I kept running into people in New York until I started watching faces instead of just bodies to see which way their eyes were looking (and they could see mine). But generally you went to the right unless there was some reason you couldn't (open manhole cover, giant pile of slushy snow, dead body).
posted by emjaybee at 7:41 AM on December 27, 2011


Sammyo - there should be a word or this (is there? in any language?) as the phenomenon serms so universal.
posted by parki at 7:49 AM on December 27, 2011


Don't you just walk until your smartphone collides with someone else's?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:51 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


When this happens to me I stop dead right where I am. The other person, whether they go right or left, goes around me (and to them it looks like I went the other way, I guess, depending on how fast they're walking) and we both avoid the uncomfortable dance. This has only backfired once, when the person I encountered, their style was to just keep barreling forward and hope the other person went right or left around them. This is how I got bodyslammed into the window of a Jamba Juice.
posted by troika at 7:51 AM on December 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


Of course, when dealing with people on their cellphones, all bets are off.
posted by monospace at 7:52 AM on December 27, 2011


Toronto ... only place in the world where “sorry” actually means “fuck you”.

Do you know what "Bless your heart" means in the American South?
posted by benito.strauss at 8:00 AM on December 27, 2011 [6 favorites]


> when dealing with people on their cellphones

If they didn't have the TCAS 2 upgrade on their cellphone by now, and you do, you're allowed to just bump'em into traffic.
posted by hank at 8:12 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do you know what "Bless your heart" means in the American South?

General usage normally involves someone else (his, her, their hearts); I hear blessing the listener's heart much less seldom. But yea, an insult (usually slight) wrapped gentility.
posted by achrise at 8:19 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


There was some kind of pop-psychology book that had an experiment about this. You use your gaze to indicate the path you will take, even if its not the normal choice. The cue is read subliminally by the opposing walker, so if you send the cue, then switch, your opponent will bump into you thinking its their own fault and apologize.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:32 AM on December 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


I've been making an informal study of this for years. It's one of the cultural cues I look for when I travel.

My conclusions:

Small cities ( < 10k ) and rural areas tend to default to traffic customs but are highly negotiable. You are expected to go out of your way to accommodate people

Medium size cities ( < 100k ) tend to default to traffic customs but are far less negotiable. You are expected to go out of your way to conform to whatever the local standard is.

Large cities are total chaos. There is some order near transit stations where people have been funneled to one side or the other, but it dissipates fairly quickly.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:27 AM on December 27, 2011


I have to laugh at people who think Toronto or any other large North American city is bad. Come to England. Outside of the London the norm is that there is absolutely no norms other than pretending you are alone in an empty universe and avoiding eye contact. People seem think courtesy is a thing women do when they meet the Queen.

You really have no idea how efficient even large city pedestrians are until you are somewhere where people really don't give a rat's ass (or arse if ur bovvered)

I suspect the UK takes about a 2.5% GDP hit just due to horrendously inefficient high street walking.
posted by srboisvert at 9:42 AM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


If you walk in a straight line down the sidewalk with a hat pulled low enough so people can't see your eyes, they get out of your way. This has been tested in various countries and cultures, work like a charm.
posted by signal at 9:57 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


If I walk with my hands in my pockets, people don't give me any room on the sidewalk. If I walk with my hands swinging, people get out of the way.

And if I walk swinging one of these, I get the whole sidewalk to myself.
posted by dirigibleman at 10:18 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Kokuryu: In western Japan, people stand on the right, and walk on the left. In Tokyo, people stand on the left, and walk up on the right.

Actually, that's part of the legacy of the 1970 World Expo (Banpaku) in Osaka, when they had PSAs advising people to stand on the right and walk up on the left in order to avoid bumping into or be bumped into by all those foreigners.

After the Osaka Expo, those PSAs apparently were all replaced by ones urging you to hold on to the handrail or some such drivel, that leave a tiny empty void in your brain if you listen to them once to many...
posted by sour cream at 10:18 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Actually, that's part of the legacy of the 1970 World Expo (Banpaku) in Osaka,

There are more theories about that.

Not that I buy any of those. But honestly the idea that a single World Expo changed it seems a little dodgy as well.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:32 AM on December 27, 2011


In DC there is a strong cultural imperative to stand on the right side of an escalator, and walk on the left side. Except we have so many tourists who do no understand THAT WE ARE TRYING TO HAVE A CIVILIZATION HERE!

I kid, it's not just tourists. But we have official suggestion and general custom and I still get dirty looks from people with all the room in the world in the world on the right when they are standing on the left and I ahem them to get through. You're obviously from here, you just can(t be arsed you goddamned monsters. If I miss my train and have to wait 20 minutes I start to feel like causing mayhem.

Pedestrian folkways are odd things. Something that is sensible and logical in one place is madness in another.
posted by X-Himy at 10:50 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


[A few comments removed. If you're only commenting to declare that you're not reading the actual link in the post, skip the commenting-in-ignorance bit entirely and go read a different thread.]
posted by cortex at 11:35 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Boy, that was an interesting article on the development of pedestrian modelling, and the use of these techniques in planning for crowd control at events and public transportation systems.

The article focuses on Helbing's work; I think his 1995 paper with Molnar [PDF] is one of the original papers setting his ideas of social force out. This article by Moussaid, Hebling and Theraulaz is a little more recent, and far more approachable.

Thanks; just in case you were thinking that posting "HAY guyz wich side do people wallk on wher YOU live??!" would have garnered the exact same response.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:39 AM on December 27, 2011


“Pilgrims on the haj have the attitude that, if I die there it is God’s will”

#signsofanabsenceofwisdom
posted by herbplarfegan at 12:33 PM on December 27, 2011


Metafilter: ensuring that another dog ate the shit.
posted by herbplarfegan at 12:34 PM on December 27, 2011


There was some kind of pop-psychology book that had an experiment about this.

Oh, I was thinking of that. Wouldn't it be perverse fun to go out and deliberately have the 'shifting direction dance' with oncoming pedestrians all day?! Force interactions with troublesome human barriers? Do it as a way of recalibrating "human crowds and biological swarm" habits. I'm just thinking of ways to make patterns more transparent (direct action through social friction).

Or it could just be a funny flash mob youtube video (would have been great in holiday mobs).
posted by Surfurrus at 2:21 PM on December 27, 2011


It seems a little odd that they end with the throwaway 'of course we can't model religious fervor'. Wouldn't you start by approximating it with a reduction in the level of 'repelled by other pedestrians' and increase the attraction to what they are trying to do?
posted by jacalata at 4:52 PM on December 27, 2011


I was well into my thirties before I found out there was a preferred side pedestrians dodge to, and even then I only found out because someone explicitly told me so. I'm a committed pedestrian and walk hours most days, yet I actually believed my friend was having me on by suggesting folks in Vancouver dodged right. Once I started paying attention, I found that to be true about 80% of the time, and bumped into people a lot less often. This despite the multicultural nature of the city. Now I'm in Ottawa and, as far as I can tell, the sidewalk policy is to not move at all, so that my choice is to either get body slammed by passers-by or walk in the gutter. Or maybe that's just my neighbourhood.
posted by looli at 10:08 PM on December 27, 2011


I came here to post the same thing as Wolof. Dogshit (presence/absence, location, volume) is the primary concern when navigating the sidewalks of Paris.

You know, this is one of those stereotypes that seems wholly unconnected with my experience of somewhere; in this case Paris was delightfully clean. Admittedly, my frame of reference was six months in the UK, mostly Birmingham and London, where they may love to be snide about the French having dogshit and being smelly, but in my experience, they're projecting. Paris has the dirt of a busy city that gets cleaned. London has the filth of ages, and England is the second filthiest country I've ever spent more than a day in. Only the canals of Venice are worse.

In New Zealand the norm is pretty much, as noted above, a tendency to be on the same side as driving, that is, the left. Of course, in Wellington that flies out the window when it rains heavily and everyone clusters under shop awnings, giving me many chances to LOSE AN EYE TO YOU FUCKING INCONSIDERATE SHITS WAVING YOUR UMBRELLAS AT HEAD EIGHT WHILE WE'RE UNDER A COVERED FOOTPATH YOU SHITCOCKING FUCKING MIDGET WANKERS.
posted by rodgerd at 2:01 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh rodgerd, tiny people with unstable umbrellas at eye height is one of the things I don't miss from Glasgow.
posted by scruss at 7:25 AM on December 28, 2011


Is it just coincidence that the authors are in Zurich, where orderliness is such a norm? The Swiss seem rather harmonious in public, and maybe the basic patterns are easier to see in the first place here.
posted by Goofyy at 7:57 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


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