Cultural differences in pedestrian behavior

How you act as a pedestrian is influenced by your culture:

Much of the piece focuses on the research of Mehdi Moussaid, a crowd scientist at the Max Planck Institut for Human Development in Berlin. A great deal of Moussaid’s work looks at how pedestrians respond to sidewalk traffic. When a person is walking straight toward another, for instance, a decision occurs whether to go right or left to avoid a collision. The decision has nothing to do with driving customs; in Britain, walkers avoid to the right despite driving on the left. Still people end up choosing the proper side through the some sort of implicit social understanding, Moussaid concluded in a 2009 study…

Not every society reacts to pedestrian congestion the same way. A recent comparison of Germans and Indians revealed that although people from both cultures walk “in a similar manner” when alone, their behavior varies greatly in the presence of others. As one might expect given the densities of their respective countries, Indians need less personal space than Germans do, according to the researchers. As a result, when Germans encountered traffic during a walking experiment, they decreased speed more rapidly than Indians did. “Surprisingly the more unordered behaviour of the Indians is more effective than the ordered behaviour of the Germans,” the study concludes.

Moussaid has found that it’s a natural tendency to clump together on the sidewalk. In a 2010 study published in PLoS One, Moussaid and colleagues reported that 70 percent of walkers travel in groups — a custom that slows down pedestrian flow by about 17 percent. That’s because when pedestrian groups encounter space problems on the sidewalk they flex into V-shaped clusters that “do not have optimal ‘aerodynamic’ features” just so they can continue to talk, according to the researchers.

I have been known to get frustrated with pedestrians on sidewalks, particularly those who suddenly stop in clumps, forcing other people to go around them. In high school, I remember thinking that the school could paint/put traffic lines on the floor to help remind students that they shouldn’t walk four across.

But I am very fascinated here by the idea that people of different cultures act in different ways as pedestrians. This must be part of the socialization process: children learn how to walk with other people around even though no one ever explicitly says do this or that. What happens in notable tourist spots – which sidewalk behavior “wins out”? Do some people have consistently quicker paces compared to others? Do different cultures have different goals in the average walk, say getting to their destination versus enjoying the stroll?

One thought on “Cultural differences in pedestrian behavior

  1. I have travelled extensively and have noticed how very differently different cultures work on the sidewalk. I am currently in Japan and I am awed by how people consistently pass directly in front of your own path at the very last moment. This may have to do with the large populations. There is also a strict code when passing. Often eye contact is made and a bow of the head or body indicates that you are allowing a person to cross your path or to apologize for crossing theirs. The city western method of walking directly in a straight without acknowledgment of others can get a frosty response in Japan and can often inspire an uncharacteristic aggression from your approaching Japanese counterpart. The same is true for a pedestrian running to catch a green light. I found motor vehicle drivers speed up at your haste if you have not acknowledged their kindness for for allowing you to walk, even if the light is green for the pedestrian. Interesting stuff


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