What is British sidewalk protocol?
February 18, 2005 11:00 AM   Subscribe

What is American sidewalk protocol? Is it the same in Britain? [+]
posted by Frank Grimes to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: In America, moving sidewalks and escalators are usually set up so that you stay to the right. The right side moves away from you and the left side toward you. Is this backwards in England?
posted by Frank Grimes at 11:02 AM on February 18, 2005

You stand on the right on the Underground escalators. They even have a page about it.
posted by smackfu at 11:07 AM on February 18, 2005

Non-moving sidewalk etiquette seemed reversed to me when I was in Australia. I was forever walking into people by walking on the right, hard to get used to walking on the left.
posted by jessamyn at 11:11 AM on February 18, 2005

There are no rules for walking on pavements (sorry, can't bring myself to use sidewalk when talking about the UK) and it's pretty much 'finding a space and going for it' in big crowds. As for the escalators, anyone using the tube stands to the right so everyone else can walk down them on the left. I tend to stick to this wherever I go and find myself getting very frustrated when no-one else does it outside of London!
posted by floanna at 11:12 AM on February 18, 2005

New Yorkers - probably everyone, but NYers in particular - get very angry if you stop suddenly on the sidewalk. We expect a certain consistent flow of traffic, and sudden stops result in a domino effect.

Ever since the RNC, people who stop suddenly on the sidewalk have been referred to in my house as delegates.
posted by hsoltz at 11:16 AM on February 18, 2005

In Toronto:

Escalators and moving sidewalks: walk left stand right.

Anywhere else: free for all, but you must apologize if you are involved in any physical contact, no matter how slight, no matter who is at fault.
posted by DrJohnEvans at 11:37 AM on February 18, 2005

Response by poster: In smackfu's link it looks like London escalators have the UP escalator on the right and the DOWN on the right, whereas it is usually reversed in the US. I remember the British fastidiously sticking to the "stand on the right" policy, but I couldn't remember the placement of escalators.

When I approach someone at a narrow spot on a sidewalk or on a trail, I usually move to my right. I was wondering if this was an American trait.
posted by Frank Grimes at 11:45 AM on February 18, 2005

Dunno, Frank, it seems to me that I enter most US escalators on the right.

Oh, and the tops and bottoms of escalators are NOT good places to stop and re-assemble your group or read a map.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:48 AM on February 18, 2005

Best answer: A fascinating (at least to me) page on Which side of the road do they drive on? has this to say:

What about pedestrians?
The rules about which side of the road people drive on are clear, but there are also "rules" that govern how pedestrians behave in relation to each other. These pedestrian rules are not usually codified in law (the recent proposal to legislate a "fast lane" for walkers on Oxford Street in London notwithstanding) but form a sort of "standard practice" which many people are not even consciously aware of until they travel to a country with a different standard practice and end up bumping into the locals.

In this section, when we describe pedestrians keeping right or left, we mean right or left in relation to other pedestrians on sidewalks, in hallways, and in pedestrian-only areas. We're not talking about pedestrians in relation to cars. That situation is universally covered by law or at least by parents' instructions to their children, as follows: for greatest safety, pedestrians walking on or next to a street that has no separated footpath are advised to walk so that they are facing oncoming motor vehicles, no matter which side the cars are on. This means that if cars keep right, then pedestrians should walk on the left side of the road facing oncoming traffic, and vice-versa.

Keep right: Keeping right is the normal practice in the USA and Canada. (There might be some regional variations: one reader says that people in Idaho keep to the left.) Mark King reports that people keep right when skating on Ottawa's 8-kilometer-long Rideau Canal skating rink. France also keeps to the right. Pedestrians in Taiwan keep right and to reinforce the rule, some crosswalks in Taipei were painted with arrows directing people to keep right when crossing roads. As the habit has become more ingrained, these arrows have been gradually removed. (Justin Jih)

No preference: The United Kingdom seems not to have a preference as to which side of the path to use when walking. Mark King comments that this puts the British at a disadvantage when they go to places where there is a standard practice, because "they are unaware that there is a convention and so do not instinctively follow it, so getting in the way of roughly half of the people coming the other way and muttering about how crowded it is." Jay Doty confirms that the Scots also walk "every which way."

This doesn't mean that the British bump into each other. They don't tend to use single-file traffic, but they still manage to negotiate their way effectively using body language, eye contact, and other cues to signal their intentions and notice others' intentions. Foreigners in the UK who are not tuned in to the signals try to play follow-the-leader and end up bumping into people when the leader's route turns out to be unpredictable. Conversely, British tourists in foreign lands who don't realize that they are supposed to fall in line, cut through traffic at odd places and get run down. Aaron Moreau-Cook, an American, says that he used to constantly run into people when visiting the UK, but then he moved there and adapted: "after four months of living here I now can navigate the pedestrian walkways without a problem." William Hibbert suggests that "if you're in a hurry, the best way to proceed is to ignore other peoples' signals, and give out a very strong signal of your own by staring hard in the direction you want to go, aiming for each successive gap in the oncoming crowd. They'll understand and move aside in response to the strong psychological pressure you're exerting."

In the London Underground, some of the foot tunnels have signs (not always obeyed) asking passengers to keep to the left, and in some cases there are even railings down the centres of the tunnels to separate people walking in opposite directions.

Sreekumar Ashok writes that in India, just like in the UK, there is no fixed side for pedestrians and they use all the same techniques to avoid a jam.

Keep left: People in Japan keep left when walking. Tourists in Japan should remember this, says Jay Doty: "When you walked on the right you were definitely a hinderance to traffic." Conversely, Japanese tourists cause traffic jams in other countries: Wayne Huffman reports from Hawai'i that he has "had countless Japanese people walk directly into me, even though I am 6'4" and 220 pounds. If someone is coming at you and you step to your right, they step to their left, and you stay on a collision course. This happens to me at least five times a day." There is a weak tendency to keep left in Australia and New Zealand, although many people report that the tendency is weak indeed. David Hoole says, "Australians... are even more unruly than the English," and he's not referring to Aussie-rules football. Bill Lockhart mentioned that he has observed Mexicans fighting the flow by trying to keep left in Texas when everyone else was keeping right, and wonders if keeping left might be the standard practice in central or southern Mexico. David Newgreen recalls sailing from England to Australia in 1966-67, when the safety briefing instructed passengers that in case of emergency, they were to keep to the right-hand side of staircases and passageways. The briefing stated, "we emphasise this for the benefit of Australian and New Zealand passengers who normally keep to the left." Edwin Man reports that in Hong Kong there is a slight tendency to walk on the left.
posted by occhiblu at 11:54 AM on February 18, 2005 [2 favorites]

Oddly, while you are indeed supposed to stand on the right and walk on the left of Tube escalators (and woe betide you if you stand on the left), pedestrian traffic through station tunnels themselves is supposed to walk on the left.

As for pavements, I had absolutely no idea that other countries had some sort of innate etiquette. Here in London it's just every man for himself. Your ability to move through, say, Oxford Circus in under an hour is largely down to your ability to nip through momentary gaps in the throng, and/or the range of your elbows.
posted by influx at 12:11 PM on February 18, 2005

I was amazed, and a little bit frightened of the sidewalk etiquette when I moved to London from Chicago, where we walk and drive on the right. Once I landed, I felt like I was in a giant pinball machine. It really is, as someone noted, every man for himself. And the pace is quite quick, so you can't be a shoegazer and get very far without plowing or being plowed over (and the apologies were never very forthcoming in those instances). Moving back to Chicago, I felt like the sidewalks were about 7 miles wide and the walking was really orderly. I have to say, I really miss the walk on the left, stand on the right escalator etiquette. Nothing more annoying when you're running late to work and there's a mob of people just standing stagnant across both sides of the escalator.
posted by zombiebunny at 12:45 PM on February 18, 2005

This doesn't mean that the British bump into each other. They don't tend to use single-file traffic, but they still manage to negotiate their way effectively using body language, eye contact, and other cues to signal their intentions and notice others' intentions.

Very true. When I'm walking in a large crowd I quite often feel like I'm driving. If I need to move direction I'll look over my shoulder in a 'mirror, signal, maneuver' kind of way which signals my intentions. Body language is a powerful thing.
posted by floanna at 1:56 PM on February 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

I have always found that sidewalk etiquette follows what side of the road ppl drive on. For instance in New Zealand and India it is the opposite of the US. When travelling I have always had to get used to walking on the opposite sides.

As for NYC, everyone walks, so there is strict protocol about speed, letting people pass, not walking too many abreast (depending on the size of the sidewalk), and standing aside so as to not block traffic.
posted by scazza at 1:56 PM on February 18, 2005

Zombiebunny: In cases of massed "delegates," I am a big fan of the New York Excuse Me: say "excuse me" in the same tone that you would use for "get out of my fucking way fuckface." I once made someone in Ohio look like she was going to cry using that. She also got out of my way right quick.

But like Scazza said, New York rules are strict and if you do not obey them, everyone will hate you forever, and if you don't look tough, they may very well run into you on purpose or say rude things, as anyone who does not observe the rules clearly deserves anything he gets.

And yeah, in the UK, the escalators are the reverse of North American ones, where the one you want will be to your left. I cannot say how many times I almost get on the wrong one whenever I visit. And the *I* get the death stares.
posted by dame at 5:43 PM on February 18, 2005

pedestrian traffic through station tunnels themselves is supposed to walk on the left

I don't think there's a convention actually. It all depends on the layout of the tunnels. They set it up so that the way out is shorter [than the way in] to get people off the platforms quickly. So which side you end up on when the tunnels merge is dependent on which side the shorter route is.
posted by cillit bang at 6:57 PM on February 18, 2005

I'm surprised to see this posed as if we have protocol in the US but not in the UK. My experience is rather the opposite; in london, people stand on one side of the escalator and walk on the other, and there are signs about which side to walk on, etc. In NYC, people stand in the middle of escalators, and lean against the rails, and generally just rudely plop down in the middle of things with no concern for others, the same way they sit with legs wide open on the subway and take up the equivalent of three seats. This is perhaps especially true in the outer boroughs.

Sidewalks also seem like a general mess to me, although one rule in manhattan is that only tourists walk at a leisurely pace.
posted by mdn at 7:51 AM on February 19, 2005

I dunno, mdn, at 23-Ely/Court Square (in the outer borough of Queens) people stand right/walk left on the moving sidewalks. And at Lorimer-Metropolitan (Brooklyn), people transferring observe pretty strictly the stair sides & walking right in the tunnel. And people mostly walk right on sidewalks; enough so that you run into way more people if you walk left.

There are rules. There are also some ignorant fucks (which is why you must employ the excuse me of doom).
posted by dame at 10:24 AM on February 19, 2005

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