The Stack Archive

Stand aside for the smartphone generation

Sun 22 Feb 2015

Something seems to have changed on the streets of Britain – or at least London – in recent years, and as far as I can tell, it has evolved out of ‘distracted walking’ with smartphones – though what I have observed is a separate, or ancillary behaviour.

The phenomenon of phone-fixated pedestrians walking into traffic accidents, each other and lamp-posts, and being unable to notice clowns on unicycles any longer is well-documented. The environmental safety department at Stanford university notes [PDF] a 300% increase between 2004-2010 involving phone-distracted pedestrians in the United States. Pedestrian injuries in the US have risen by 35% since 2010. In a conciliatory piece of legislation, New York State has lowered speed limits in the city to accomchongqing-mobile-lanemodate the phone-fixated walking dead, whereas states such as Utah are issuing fines for mobile inattention. In 2012 Philadelphia staged a publicity stunt wherein it marked off mobile ‘e-lanes’ on sidewalks, to draw attention to the issue, only to find that Philadelphians thought it was a great idea. Chongqing city in China actually implemented the idea.

So that much we know. What I have noticed over the past few years is something different, but possibly related: the reluctance of pedestrians to engage in negotiation for right of way. Time was, in this most self-deprecating and pointlessly apologetic of Europe’s cities that collision detection was default behaviour for pavement-dwellers. Older readers may remember a sketch in the BBC’s The Fast Show where ‘Indecisive Dave’ spent so long in trying to negotiate passage through a doorway with another person that he eventually just waved to his friends, said ‘See you later’ and went home.

No more. A sea-shift seems to have occurred in English courtesy in the last 5-6 years. An increasing number of people will not ‘give way’ any longer, up to (and occasionally including) the point of actual collision. A cynic might ascribe this to the retrenchment of our sphere-of-care from the global to the local under ‘austerity’ – or, as David Cameron would prefer it not be named, our adoption of the ‘small society’.

I think it’s simpler. The person who once would have been observant about imminent collision with a pedestrian going in the opposite direction may not have a phone in his or her hand in that particular moment, but has become so accustomed to non-phone users dodging around them during their latest WhatsApp colloquies as to have simply forgotten, or gladly disregarded, the practice of negotiating for right of way, to the point where their traversal of London streets begins to resemble the (at the time, shocking) pedestrian disregard on display in The Verve’s video for their 1997 single ‘Bittersweet Symphony’:

If there is an app to combat this tendency (God knows, it would be easy enough to code), the demand, presumably, is not there.


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