Do People Geneerally Walk on the Same Side They Drive On?
March 9, 2017 9:15 AM   Subscribe

I live in the US, where the practice is to drive on the right hand side of the road. There is also a tendency, I believe, for a person to walk on the right hand side of the hallway when there are people moving in both directions. Is this convention reversed in countries where drivers drive on the left?
posted by Ipsifendus to Society & Culture (37 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Yep. Source: the many people I do the "uh, sorry, I'm just... trying... to, sorry ha ha may I have this dance ha ha, sorry..." with on the sidewalk every time I try to walk from point A to point B in London.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:33 AM on March 9 [2 favorites]

Living in STOCKHOLM, where they changed from driving on the left in 1967 and now drive on the right. There is a wide underground passage from the mainline train station to the metro (T-bana) its bright and clean with a few shops along the way and usually full of commuters specially during rush hour. The general tendency is that they hurry along on the left. A bit odd perhaps, but being English I find it comfortingly natural.
posted by jan murray at 9:33 AM on March 9

I'm an American ex-pat in the UK. And yes, had to learn to walk on the left here and stand on the right while on escalators.
posted by shibori at 9:34 AM on March 9

had to learn to walk on the left here and stand on the right while on escalators.

That's the rule for escalators and moving sidewalks in the US, though :)
posted by LKWorking at 9:40 AM on March 9 [20 favorites]

American in the UK here, who has lived in London but now lives in a smaller town.

I think the answer is: Yes...except for Central London.

Central London is too full of European and American tourists who try to walk on the right so that the result is a chaotic sometimes self-organizing pattern depending on what the mix is of British and outsiders. Outside London I've found it to be generally true (for example on a walking path nearby) that people stay on the left.
posted by vacapinta at 9:46 AM on March 9 [4 favorites]

The thing that mystified me about London (as an American tourist) was that people generally tended to stay left, but not as a hard and fast rule, and the tube stations frequently had a flow where the flow of people off the tube and out of the station was on the right instead of the left – but as a tourist I never knew which stations, so I frequently would be keeping left, get halfway down a stairway and meet a crowd of people headed up. And at least half the time the sidewalk traffic seemed to dodge right, not left. So I was never 100% clear on whether “keep left” was really a thing, since I never saw it in practice reliably. I’d probably need more data points from outside the tourist areas.
posted by aimedwander at 9:49 AM on March 9 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure which I actually do—I suspect it has more to do with what is convenient at the time based on where I came from and where I am going—but I seem to remember being taught at a young age to walk against the flow of traffic so you can see what is coming.
posted by synecdoche at 9:51 AM on March 9

(Oops: I just realized that you didn't mean on which side of the road. Sorry.)
posted by synecdoche at 9:52 AM on March 9

Corollary - I really really dislike it when escalators are inconsistent with the directionality of vehicular traffic. I have no idea whose job it is to set such things up, but when the "usable" side of a side-by-side escalator pair (that is the direction not depositing passengers at whatever level they have reached) is on the left in the US, it bothers me immensely.

As a New Yorker im often confronted by situations that seem to defy the rules - in the escalator example its easy as the are in a 2x1 array, but what about on a busy 15-foot-wide sidewalk? it makes little sense to split it down the middle, as some people represent local traffic and others are just trying to get to their destination blocks away.

I would agree that there seems to be a general sensibility to follow driving side rules, however I can personally attest that a great many people ignore or are unaware of such norms, and in many conditions they are virtually impossible to apply anyhow.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 10:00 AM on March 9

There is a second factor to consider: In Sweden, when walking on the side of the road, we were taught to walk against traffic (on the left side). Cyclists are supposed to be on the side of traffic (the right side). This is supposedly safer, so that you better see cars. I'd imagine that a lot of people feel like walking on the left side makes more sense because of this.
posted by troytroy at 10:03 AM on March 9 [2 favorites]

had to learn to walk on the left here and stand on the right while on escalators.

That's the rule for escalators and moving sidewalks in the US, though :)

On escalators everyone is going the same way so the left side is like the left lane/fast lane when you're driving on the highway whereas on sidewalks you walk on the right when there are people going in the other direction so the escalator thing doesn't disprove the road theory.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:06 AM on March 9 [14 favorites]

Anyone from Japan here? I seem to recall being bewildered in Tokyo that while they drove on the left, they walked to the right. It was quite confusing coming out of subway stations.

I may be mis-remembering though, so it'd be great to have someone chime in and correct/corroborate...
posted by knownassociate at 10:06 AM on March 9

As an Aussie that has moved to the USA I can say yes, at least from anecdotal evidence. I spend more time in a supermarket walking into people coming the other way than I like to admit. I also try to overtake people walking slowly etc on the "wrong" side for the USA.

But then I also tend to default to driving on the left if there is no center line, I am terrifying in car parks for innocent Americans. Apparently 20 years of driving habits are really hard to erase. Give me some lane guide lines or traffic though and I'm fine, again as long as there is no emergencies where again I tend to pull to the left and into traffic when I panic. Seriously I'm a hazard I have no idea how I got my US drivers license & lived to talk about it. .
posted by wwax at 10:06 AM on March 9 [4 favorites]

I always thought you rode your bike with traffic, as you are a moving vehicle of sorts, and you walked against traffic, so you could see oncoming cars (and get out of the way if they're driving like maniacs). I'm from the US.
posted by blackzinfandel at 10:08 AM on March 9

I am in the US, and based on working in a large building with a high percentage of Indian immigrants, I would say yes. There is frequent hallway confusion.
posted by AFABulous at 10:23 AM on March 9 [1 favorite]

I was instructed by police during a personal safety workshop to walk facing oncoming traffic, so some might follow that guideline regardless of local customs.
posted by effluvia at 10:25 AM on March 9

Tokyo is generally drive left, walk left, but it's a huge, crowded, international city. Many people from other places will walk on the right, and the locals will often just go with the flow.

Kyoto, on the other hand, is drive left and walk right. That can be confusing.
posted by entropical punch at 10:38 AM on March 9 [1 favorite]

YEP. Source: accidentally saw several Irish museums backwards because I went to the right instead of the left when I walked in.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 10:59 AM on March 9 [2 favorites]

I was instructed by police during a personal safety workshop to walk facing oncoming traffic, so some might follow that guideline regardless of local customs.

Yep, I don't know where I got it, but if I'm thinking about it I always walk facing the on-coming traffic. I think living in places where there were few pedestrians might have had an effect, there's never anyone to get in the way of.
posted by neonrev at 11:21 AM on March 9

Aussie here. Yes, when walking along the side of a road with no footpath the safest thing to do is to walk against traffic, but that's not what you are asking.

On a busy city footpath, when some sort of order magically forms, two streams of people tend to keep left. The up escalators on train stations are on the left. If you are slow, keep left unless overtaking.

Travelling to the US and it's pretty easy to flip and keep right. London, however is stressful. Being a drive on left country, you would think that the escalators would be stand on left, but they AREN'T and it's apparently a thing they have done on purpose (sorry, on phone, no links but I swear this has been on mefi before).

It became one of those things we muttered about being a 'local knowledge' thing not clearly explained to outsiders on public signs, because "everyone knows to do this."
posted by freethefeet at 12:10 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]

Oh man. One of my local grocery stores (in the US) recently renovated and labeled its dual sliding doors on the wrong sides - which is to say, the entrance on the left and the exit on the right. However, the doors do still automatically open and close from both sides.

Even though people always walk on the right by habit in NYC, I had no idea how hardwired this habit was until that happened. During busy times, the entrance to the store is always an absolute clusterfuck. About half the people follow the signs and half of them don't, and when two or more people are going through the doors in opposite directions, it's just absolute chaos, with people trying to approach both doors on both sides and running into each other. I would never have imagined how much this would mess with people.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:14 PM on March 9

Sorry, should have expressed myself more carefully. On pavements, I walk on the left now. In the US, I walked on the right.
posted by shibori at 12:16 PM on March 9

Japan is all over the place, as alluded to before. I don't think its related to driving side at all.

Also for escalators --- in the Tokyo (east) area, people usually stand on the left and walk on the right on escalators. In Kyoto/Osaka area, the norm is to stand on the right and walk on the left (although in Kyoto people generally just do what they feel like...)

On sidewalks its similar to this.
posted by thefoxgod at 12:21 PM on March 9

First day in Sydney:

"Why are all these people bumping into me on the sidewalk? What assholes!"

10 minutes later, after noticing the definite pattern that they walk on the opposite side:

"Oh! I'm the asshole!" and then I moved over.

It's weird, because I didn't notice it at all in either London or Paris -- and I'm a professional pedestrian -- I was always walking right side, and never got bumped into, or bumped into anyone.
posted by gsh at 2:09 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

Australia: Drive on the left, stand on the left on escalators, generally walk on the left on pavements.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 2:10 PM on March 9

Echoing: IME in the UK (I'm also originally USese and live in a smallish city), walk on the left, but in very crowded places (e.g. central London), semi-organised chaos reigns. The left-walking convention applies indoors, too.
posted by busted_crayons at 3:29 PM on March 9

Thailand : drive on the left, walk on the right.
posted by Shebear at 3:33 PM on March 9

Swimming too - in Australia we swim clockwise when sharing a lane (i.e. stay left), in the US it's anitclockwise.
posted by trialex at 3:49 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]

Yes, but central Sydney is like London - too many tourists for the keep left to be consistent, and so it ends up totally chaotic. Keep right tends to prevail near the central station and other tourist hotspots.

In Western Sydney there are certain suburbs that have a high recent immigrant population from right-driving countries, and when I am riding my bicycle on shared bike/pedestrian paths there, I find the odds are pretty high that people will move the opposite way to get out of my way from what I would otherwise expect. I do better at not running them over if I expect someone coming towards me in the centre of the path to step to the right than to the left. Interestingly, in those suburbs, it's not just recent immigrants (I think) who will do this either. Often it's groups who are talking with Australian English accents. So I think it's just that the right-driving immigrants are a high enough percentage of the population that it has shifted everyone's behaviour.
posted by lollusc at 5:00 PM on March 9

I seem to recall being bewildered in Tokyo that while they drove on the left, they walked to the right.

This is my general experience while being a tourist in Japan multiple times, but I don't feel qualified to say it's the rule there (nor can I explain why it's so).
posted by Rash at 7:07 PM on March 9

Any observations about places where a large percentage of people don't drive?

(Which may or may not relate to Japan, I don't know.)
posted by trig at 7:26 PM on March 9

vacapinta's completely right that all bets are off in central London, but "walk on the left" definitely applies to the other two British cities where I've lived for an extended period of time.

It also applies to whether you favour the pavement on the left or right side of the road on high streets and other main roads where both sides have ample pavements. I'm sure that's partly from being accustomed to driving in and out of town, and also because the bus drops you off and picks you up on the left, so it's more natural to be on that side.
posted by holgate at 8:59 PM on March 9

In Melbourne we generally walk on the left, but I haven't found escalators to be as efficient as back home in Canada, where people almost always stand on the right and walk (like a passing lane) on the left. Tourist areas are a clusterfuck of pedestrians avoiding each other
posted by third word on a random page at 11:24 PM on March 9

American coots don't seem to distinguish left and right, but they are very good at maintaining uniform distance from each other in flocks. When one coot violates another coot's personal space, the injured party will attack that fucker, often setting off a chain reaction of coot displacements
posted by aws17576 at 11:58 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]

Anyone from Japan here? I seem to recall being bewildered in Tokyo that while they drove on the left, they walked to the right. It was quite confusing coming out of subway stations.

No, people in Japan nearly always walk on the left when they're walking on the sidewalk, passing each other in a hallway, and so on, unless there's specific signage to the contrary. Sometimes in subway or train stations or on stairways you will see signs and arrows specifically directing people to walk along a certain path, and sometimes this results in people passing on the right rather than the left, but absent any signs, the general rule is to walk on the same side as traffic.

Escalator etiquette, on the other hand, varies from place to place regarding which side of the escalator to stand on when you're stationary.
posted by Umami Dearest at 8:04 PM on March 10

Swimming too - in Australia we swim clockwise when sharing a lane (i.e. stay left), in the US it's anitclockwise.

This is a clear example of the Coriolis Effect.
posted by Umami Dearest at 8:07 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]

Yes. Interestingly, Korea has right-side driving but for decades was left-side walking. Sometime in the last 10 years or so, the government switched the walking side (there are arrows on subway stairways and crosswalks). Why? Partly for consistency, but mainly because the left-side walking was a vestige of the Japanese colonial period.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 3:32 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

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