City flow

Slate has a wonderful article on the science of city walking that examines how pedestrians behave when moving through the city and how our behaviour is being captured to model the flow of people through the urban landscape.

The piece is full of subtle observations of city psychology:

Block by block, they emerge: The way people drift toward the shady side of the street on hot days; the way women (in particular) avoid subway grating on the sidewalk; the way walking speeds are slower at midday than before or after work; the way people don’t like to maintain the same walking speed as a stranger next to them; the way tourists walk in inappropriately spread out groups (a phenomenon captured by this satirical call for “tourist lanes”); the way sidewalk planters, parking meters, and other obstacles reduce the “effective width” of sidewalks, which have been under slow and steady spatial assault since the early 20th century…

Since Zupan’s research, a few new behaviors have come on the scene. One behavior pointed out to me by traffic engineer Sam Schwartz is people pausing before they enter the stairs of a subway station to check their mobile device one last time. Who knows what this social hiccup does to the overall efficiency? Recent research by the New York City Department of Transportation has found that when walkers talk on the phone, they walk more slowly, and when they wear headphones, they actually walk faster. As Zupan told me, “There are a lot of really microscopic dynamics—as Yogi Berra said, ‘You can see a lot just by observing.’ ”

It also discusses how these behaviours are now being included in statistical models to help town planning and architecture.

It’s an interesting problem that has a parallel with thermodyanmics. While we need to understand the interaction of single particles it is the macro level and how it excerpts pressure on the system which allows us design better mechanisms.

By the way, the science of pedestrian dynamics is becoming increasingly important and if you want to read more, a recent Economist article comes highly recommended.

Link to Slate article ‘Sidewalk Science’.

7 thoughts on “City flow”

  1. It’s also made me feel very conspicuous when walking and then hearing music, and walking in time to the beat until the music fades away…

  2. Quite interesting. I’ve always found it facinating how many people “lead the crosswalk” like it’s a game of baseball, standing part way into the road while traffic is still going.

  3. I remember when i worked as a fundraiser stopping people on the streets. Certain streets had different vibes depending on things like the buildings on it and the width of the pavement. We used to warm up on a street first by taking in its flow and trying to match. It wasnt always about tempo though. The type of people you would get also affected the mood such as business folk or homeless. The staggering homeless would always be happy to give their time and the fast moving suits would complain that they were late an i’d have to be quick. Why stop if you were really in a rush?

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