The crowd dynamics of the city safari

The Economist has a fascinating article about the weird way that pedestrians behave as they walk through cities and how this knowledge is being applied to make city-living easier and safer.

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 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. There is no instruction to head in a specific direction (South Korea, where there is a campaign to get people to walk on the right, is an exception). There is no simple correlation with the side of the road on which people drive: Londoners funnel to the right on pavements, for example.

Although seemingly a trivial difference, the impact could be quite significant when, for example, trying to design emergency exit routes for international sporting events when people from many cultures mix.

The article is full of curious culture observations about how people move in crowds and the science of how and why people select their peoplescape navigating strategies.

Fascinating stuff.

Link to Economist article ‘The wisdom of crowds’ (via @mocost).


  1. Posted December 18, 2011 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    As a “professional” pedestrian (I am not a driver), my experience is that it is far easier* to walk on crowded pavements in Manhattan than in London. I have often wondered whether this was due to a greater percentage of stay-right-unless-passing pedestrians in Manhattan.

    * by length of time walking non-stop, by lack of piling up, and by speed.

  2. Jarmo Pystynen
    Posted December 19, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Many animals try to keep the potentially dangerous items of their life on their left side. This has something to do with wiring of the eyes. Humans may have the same tendency as well unless it’s culturally overwritten.

  3. Posted December 19, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Glad to see this article, I hope it explains mysteries mentioned by a blogger in my town; he wrote about “most annoying places to walk” based on which stores have pedestrians who exhibit clueless behavior, such as stopping in the middle of the plaza and blocking the narrow walkway, or people who have no clue how to use double doors.

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