Phil Gyford


Sunday 26 September 2004

PreviousIndexNext Walking on the right

A few years back, a couple of weeks after I began my stay in Houston, Texas, I met someone who joked that he thought I must be British because he’d driven past me and noticed I was walking on the left of the sidewalk. I was a bit taken aback as I hadn’t been aware that there was a convention of walking on the right in America (or Texas? or Houston?) as if everyone was a car. And it must have been coincidence that I happened to be walking on the left when he’d passed.

After this I noticed that people did tend to walk on the right, but by now I wasn’t sure if I was just looking for proof, rather than being objective. Several months later I discovered Houston’s downtown tunnel system (background, map) where the quiet corridors were filled with scrubbed people in officewear, all walking on the right. It’s certainly a sensible and efficient convention but in air-conditioned tunnels it does lend an air of omnipresent computer control, as if everyone should be wearing silver jumpsuits.

Then, recently, I read Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn (UK, US) and on page 207 a caption to a photo of three doors reads:

“Please use other door.” Which other door?! This is the Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe. I watched visitors try one door after another (the middle one is locked too) before entering in wrath by the left-hand door — against the deeply internalized convention of going to the right in two-way traffic.

So, there are three explanations:

  1. In the US there is a convention of pedestrians passing each other on the right and there isn’t in the UK — something to do with Americans spending more time in cars?
  2. This convention exists in the US and is mirrored by a convention of passing on the left in the UK and I’ve been oblivious to it my entire life.
  3. This is all nonsense, and there is no such convention in either country.

Can anyone tell me which is correct?


It also seems that shoppers in supermarkets push their trolleys/carts on the side they drive their cars on, and that this behaviour is consistent and measurable enough to influence decisions about where to place products on shelves. See Paco Underhill's book, _The Science of Shopping_.

Posted by He Who Walks Down The Middle on 26 September 2004, 6:10 pm | Link

As a long time US Citizen, I feel I can answer your questions to your satisfaction without fear of inadvertantly passing on incorrect or false data:

Nobody walks in the US; we drive everywhere we go, even if it's only to the corner store or the subway station or to our kitchens. (Oh, that's a horrible lie; there's no parking at the corner store.)

In general, bi-directional transit in this country flows on the right-hand side. That is to say, when you have a two-way street or subway or escalator, you'll find yourself on the right-hand side.

There isn't a spoken, directed convention per se, however, when it comes to foot traffic. It's pretty much considered rude to drive on the wrong (left, in this country) side, and that kind of translates to sidewalks, malls, and cube farms (anywhere you find a mass of zombie-like people shuffling from one place to another).

There *is* an explicit direction (in some places I've been) that on escalators and walking slideways you should stand on the right-hand side and only walk (or run) on the left-hand side. Generally you see this in airports or subway stations. Sometimes you'll see other people doing this without explicit direction, which is good, but then you sometimes get the traditional US backlash of "I know exactly what you're doing, and because it's not posted anywhere that I have to be doing it too, I'll explicitly *not* do it and make your attempts at efficency more difficult because it's my right to do so," which is not so good.

Having been in the UK - though not as extensively as someone who might, you know, live there - I can't be certain if the same holds true but in reverse. All I remember of my last few trips to London was that there were a metric buttload of pedestrians, and that looking at them move around for a sufficiently long period of time yielded no pattern, only a jumble mess of walking ("sufficiently long" in this case is like, 45 seconds).


Posted by gilbert on 26 September 2004, 6:11 pm | Link

I thought we *did* walk on the right in Britain. Maybe it's a generation thing, but I remember the voice from the Beeb telling one to "Keep to the right / And you'll never go wrong / Tra la la la / Striding along" (may have those last two lines wrong...).

Mind you, I grew up in the era of Andy Pandy, the Woodentops and Reith Lectures, so maybe it's all different now. The logic, I think, and it works on country lanes, is that you are facing the oncoming traffic.

Er, so that means that the Americans *ought* to walk on the left, doesn't it? Maybe it's a Texas thing - don't think anyone admits to being on the left there ;-)

Posted by Jolyon on 27 September 2004, 7:30 am | Link

That's interesting Jolyon - I'd forgotten about walking on the right on country lanes, which makes sense of course. But it reminded me that in train/tube stations it's sometimes indicated that people should "Keep right", and I always thought this a bit counter-intuitive, what with driving on the left.

Posted by Phil Gyford on 27 September 2004, 9:12 am | Link

I'm a native U.S. resident and have lived in Texas for 20 years. It's routine, though not universal, for Americans to pass to the right on staircases, sidewalks, and so on. Not that it has to be done that way, but if two Americans approach each other in a narrow hallway or stairwell, chances are they'll each default to the right-hand side.

Isn't there something in the notes of the California ed. of Pepys about rude people forcing oncoming pedestrians toward the muddy (street) side of the sidewalk? My memory on it is surely imperfect, but I thought the note even said something about when the public habit of passing to the right on sidewalks (in England) was established.

Posted by Tim on 27 September 2004, 12:42 pm | Link

Many North American cities have large areas of parkland with trails running through them. These trails are used by some people to get exercise at lunchtime or to commute to and from work, using rollerblades, bikes and if you are far enough north, cross country skiing. The peaceful coexistence, of joggers, walkers, cyclists and rollerbladers encourages the observence of convention with regard to walking on one side. Watch people in Londons Hyde park, one of the few parks where cycling is encouraged in London, and you will see there is less convention.

Posted by Richard Hyett on 27 September 2004, 4:07 pm | Link

On Tube escalators you stand on the right and walk on the left, woe betide any foolish mortal who breaks this natural law.

Posted by Nick on 27 September 2004, 4:56 pm | Link

on the water, whether a river or the ocean or anywhere, you drive on the right. Or rather you always pass 'port to port' ('port' being 'left' at sea). I've heard that actually this is kind of a limiting case of the 'rules of the road' - if the rules say you pass port to port, the easiest way to do that consistently in a narrow channel is to sail on the starboard side of the channel.

The standing on the right on escalators makes absolutely no sense in a country that drives on the left AND is relatively strict about slower traffic staying in the left hand lane.

I think it's just done so that we can shout 'get out of the way, you stupid merkin' whenever we encounter a yanqui tourist loitering on the wrong side of the escalator.

Posted by Stefan on 27 September 2004, 6:01 pm | Link

Not many people walk in the US, but the convention from my experience is to walk on the right. And in Manhattan, where most people don't drive, you'd better damn well walk on the right. And not stop.

If you're walking on an actual road, of course, the convention is reversed for safety's sake: you walk on the side of oncoming traffic, rather than risk getting whacked by a car coming up behind you.

In Middlesbrough, where there's one long road spidering into town, most people walk into town on the left-hand pavement, and walk away from town on the (opposite) left-hand pavement. The same generally applies for the High and Cornmarket/St Giles in Oxford. (Though not for the High past Carfax towards the Westgate Centre, strangely enough.) You instinctively walk down the High on the All Souls-Queens-Magdalen side, and back up on the Schools-Univ side...

Posted by nick on 28 September 2004, 7:58 am | Link

I've lived in the UK all my life and I've noticed people tend to walk on the right here too. It's particularly noticeable in some of the longer walkways in the London Underground.

On pavements I think most people are too stupid to walk in a straight line without being distracted by all the shiny things in the shop windows, never mind think about what side they're on.

Posted by Aegir on 28 September 2004, 9:51 am | Link

I've lived in the UK for a year now and, bloody hell, people, get a convention. In all the countries of Western Europe and North America, people walk on the right. My changing this to walking on the left for the UK left Brits utterly confused and I've run into numerous people over the last few months. I'm slowly becoming more flexible, but I still think there should be a law!

Posted by Max Niederhofer on 28 September 2004, 9:06 pm | Link

Whereas on the Paris Metro they stand on the left and walk on the right, the opposite of the practice on the London underground.


Posted by Glyn on 28 September 2004, 9:56 pm | Link

Speaking as a lifelong resident of Dublin, Ireland -- where for some reason people don't know how to walk, or drive, or deport themselves in public -- I have no preference, left or right; I walk where there's available space. Even if that means lots of weaving, zig-zagging or crab walking.

If any Londoners reading this think that Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon is bad, try walking up Grafton Street on the same day and time. Central London will feel like a graceful ballet in comparison, I promise you.

Posted by MacDara on 28 September 2004, 10:01 pm | Link

Yet the inhabitants of Grafton Street would appear anal compared to those of downtown Luxor whose chaotic equilibrium is there for all to see on any evening you care the mention.

Posted by Richard Hyett on 28 September 2004, 11:56 pm | Link

Having just got back from Croatia where they drive on the right, I became conscious that people did walk of the right as a matter of course.

London doesn't count - it's too chaotic and people walk wherever they want - usually without looking. And no, it's not nice to be back.

Posted by paul murphy on 30 September 2004, 1:28 pm | Link

I'm pretty sure there used to be 'keep to the right' signs at some rail and tube stations in the UK, so that's what I always assume I should do. But coming out of Tottenham Court Road tube station yesterday I saw 'Keep to the left' signs !

Posted by janet gyford on 5 October 2004, 8:59 am | Link

Whenever I visit Midtown Manhattan I'm disoriented by the many people who don't walk on the righthand side of the sidewalk (I'm particularly thinking about Fifth Avenue, Times Square, and perhaps the area around Grand Central Station). But I think that's because the sidewalks there are very wide and often crowded. Perhaps the convention just breaks down anywhere under those circumstances. I can't remember, but I think people tend to pass on the right on less crowded, narrower sidewalks elsewhere in Manhattan.

Posted by David Quidnunc on 23 October 2004, 4:39 am | Link

Walking on the left was a simple but effective system of walking. It represents order and structure in society and regulates flow of traffic in England. It is indead a British system. When the English settled in America they decided to be the complete opposite, i.e. walk on the right, open doors the other way, turnlight switches up to turn on etc.

The Victorian's mastered it. The founders of an ordered society of moral minded people. However, due to the fact that education standards have dropped and influences from other countries, e.g. America, China, people tend to get confused and end up walking where there is a gap, rather than in a systematic fashion.

It shows that everything once great in the British Empire is gone, including systematic walking. Society has lost family values, morals, values, Christianity, order and structure. The Great British Empire is dead along with the idea of walking on the left. A very sad thing indeed.

Posted by Andrew on 5 February 2005, 12:28 am | Link

I can categorically state that people walk on the right in the U.K. I've spent time now in Edinburgh and London and, whenever there's a steady flow of foot traffic people tend to the right. The rules on the London underground escalators support this. The "slow lane" is on the right.

Oddly, the opposite is true in New Zealand and Australia. People walk on the left. A New Zealander in London will find herself bumping into people, and a Scot in Wellington will equally find himself tripping over angry pedestrians.

This is particularly odd because people drive on the left in New Zealand and Australia just as they do in the U.K. It seems that the U.K. is the exception. Everyone else seems to follow their road rules when on the pavement. (Worth finding out about Japan tho.)

Posted by Ben Arnold on 21 December 2006, 11:10 am | Link

Hello everyone. In regards to all your comments i can use some help. I am a college student in the United States and my professor wants us to do a report on why people in America tend to stay towards the right side of the stairs climbing up, and then going down. Also he wants us to think about why people tend to walk on the right side of sidewalks. Can you please give some of your insights on these thoughts. I appreciate it.

Posted by Mark on 13 October 2007, 4:44 pm | Link

London and Edinburgh are very bad examples to use, as they are always full of tourists, mostly from countries where they drive on the right.

Posted by mo on 8 February 2008, 10:57 am | Link

It depends which bit of the city, and at what time. I've yet to see any evidence to support Ben's claim, above, that "I can categorically state that people walk on the right in the U.K." I live above a long tunnel in London, Beech Street, where almost everyone is entering at one end and walking in a straight line to the other. A healthy percentage of them are City workers, particularly during rush hour. I can't see any convention about which side to walk.

Conversely, there's a pedestrian subway by Blackfriars and one section of it has the tunnel divided into two halves along its length by a barrier. Everyone there walks on the left-hand side with almost no exceptions.

Posted by on 8 February 2008, 3:05 pm | Link

try this link

Posted by tp on 4 September 2009, 3:46 pm | Link

Well, as a native U.S. citizen living on the east coast, I grew up conditioned to bear right. Later moving to San Francisco to which I have lived 20 years I have not observed such behavior until recently. 2 years ago, the Chinese began implementing this practice which spread throughout the city (largely liberal). There is a huge left-socialist movement underway now so I am to presume this is part of it unfortunately.

Posted by roscoe415 on 11 November 2009, 1:29 pm | Link

The UK Highway Code paragraph 1 (for Pedestrians) states:-
"Pavements (including any path along the side of a road) should be used if provided. Where possible, avoid being next to the kerb with your back to the traffic. If you have to step into the road, look both ways first. Always show due care and consideration for others.

If you go on the inside with your back to the traffic, you are following the same rule that traffic follows on the road, so in the UK - "WALK LEFT" and in countries that drive on the right,- "walk right".

It's so simple and safe! To do anything different is dangerous!

Posted by Colin Slater on 22 April 2011, 3:40 pm | Link

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