Pedestrian Anarchy

New York City is, bar none, the most pedestrian-forward city in the United States. It’s possible to walk to almost every corner of the city without having to cross major freeways, walk on the shoulder of a sidewalkless road, or trek for miles before hitting the next inhabited neighborhood. Cars and public transit exist only as a supplement for those who can’t get where they’re going by foot. Inhabitants are (in)famous for their walking prowess. I may not have grown up in the city, but even in the suburbs I was indoctrinated by my father, as he was instructed by his father, to “walk like you mean it.”

To walk through New York, Manhattan in particular, is a lesson in efficiency. The goal when trying to get from points A to B is to never stop walking, which in Manhattan’s grid means a constant zig zag between streets and avenues. If, for instance, one was to walk from 6th Ave and 34th St to Lexington Ave and 42nd St, the uninitiated may walk in a straight line down 6th Ave and turn right on 42nd St, while the correct approach would be to cross whichever street has the right of way. This allows the walker to arrive at their destination with more time to spare, which when trying to make a train or be on time to work can mean everything. 

To that end, walking speed in general is also of great concern. Unless you have a valid excuse, walking at a leisurely pace won’t cut it. Slow pedestrians will be passed, even if it means veering into the bike lane, through a restaurant shack, or dancing through traffic. Given the pace of the average New Yorker, it’s a wonder that the city doesn’t have a lock on Olympic race walking. Once I get going, my personal average pace is somewhere between 3-4 mph, though that can fluctuate depending on the weather, or how lucky I am catching lights. In NYC’s fast-paced environment, 3-4 mph is about average for a native New Yorker.

One of the greatest assets to pedestrian efficiency is to walk on the correct side of the sidewalk whenever possible. It’s a general rule, wherever one is, to walk on the side of the sidewalk that mirrors how local traffic moves on a two-way street, which in the case of New York is the right side. This avoids the headaches of folks approaching each other head on and keeps things moving smoothly. Walking in large groups at least 3 people abreast is discouraged, since doing so clogs up sidewalk space and constricts how folks can pass on either side. Staying in one’s lane is perhaps one of the most important points of efficient city walking. There are exceptions to this rule including, but not limited to:

  • Dogs walking on the side of the sidewalk with better smells
  • Avoiding barriers like puddles or scaffolding
  • Giving way to the elderly, the visually impaired, or others who may have a more difficult time maneuvering
  • Following someone who is walking on the wrong side of the sidewalk, dictating the flow of pedestrians walking towards and behind them 
  • Walking around people who aren’t paying attention to where they’re going
  • Any other scenario where efficiency is maximized by walking on the opposite side

The first draft of this post, which I began while on my first leg of my European vacation in London, focussed squarely on how flummoxed I was at the state of anarchy that were the “pavements” of London. As I traversed the streets of the British capital, I found little rhyme to the rhythm of foot traffic. People walked on the right, left, and middle of the sidewalk in both directions. Incidentally, I had similar observations during my first tenure in the city 9 years prior. The British Isles have defied the near-global standard of driving on right side of the road, and thus what should be their preferred side to walk on is also reversed. In high-traffic areas, such as stairs to the Tube and narrow walkways on bridges, signs and floor markings will indicate that people should keep to the left. Throughout central London, these norms are hardly respected. A large proportion of those in the Tube’s Zone 1 are foreigners, and given that the majority of the world drives on the right, it stands to reason that many default to that side without thinking. In some of the outer portions of the city, except for during the small sample size of heavy rush hour traffic I participated in, even native Brits seem to have a hard time deciding where they’re supposed to walk. The result of this mixing of wires causes a nightmare on the sidewalk. Of the hundreds of thousands of steps I took in London, many were to zigzag around careless pedestrians who were unaware of their place on the sidewalk/in the universe.

After continuing on my journey to cities on the European mainland, as well as walking around New York upon my return, I was reminded that this isn’t necessarily a British exclusive. While the bad pedestrian problem is worse in London, other cities are not immune. Ignorant people the world over enjoy walking wherever they damn well please. My average New York speed was much faster than most I passed, which meant that I had to do double duty criss-crossing to avoid collisions. The fact that every aspect of traffic is reversed in London (save for, somewhat surprisingly, how to walk/stand on escalators) is likely what elevated awareness of pedestrian issues.

While it would be seemingly safe to assume that I’m the weird one for overthinking all this, I know I’m certainly not the only one. Scrolling to the bottom of that 2013 blog post will reveal comments about walking patterns from 2 of my Emory peers, each studying in other countries with driving patterns opposite those in the US. Both were originally from the Midwest, which though a small sample, goes to show that it’s not just the überpedestrians of New York who dwell on such things. I really shouldn’t be throwing stones, considering I live in the glass house that is the outskirts of Times Square, but there was something about the pedestrian experience in London that just didn’t sit right with me. After all, trying to figure out which way to look when crossing a London street can give a person whiplash, even with the reminders posted at intersections. At its core, it’s a very walkable city, but try telling that to the people living there. To paraphrase a tired meme, it would seem all one could do while walking in London (or anywhere, really) is keep calm and walk on.

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