A pedestrian observation

October 7, 2007

Londoners are a weird mob (some might say it goes without saying, but we’ll leave them to their opinions), but I mean specifically on the footpath. I’m not the only one to notice it, it seems to be a standard tactic here: as you walk towards a fellow (or lady) pedestrian, even on an otherwise uninhabited pavement, they will swing towards you, into a possible collision path. As a newcomer to London you might (not unreasonably) think them drunk, and step lightly aside as necessary to avoid collision. Fair enough, problem solved, you might think.

At this juncture, some of you have no doubt already leapt mentally ahead (the story can’t be that simple, can it?) to the next possibility, and I fear you’re on the right track. At that time of day, whatever time that might be, that class of person (that’s a big deal here) can’t be drunk. Yet. So they’re doing it deliberately.

I’ve tested this. Show weakness, and they’ll walk straight ahead on their new course as if that was their birthright. They were born in Leicester or Worcester or Cirencester or Auckland or some such, after all (London’s not that great a probability, in my experience). But! If you refuse to give ground at the onset of swerve, their path will subtly alter, as though it was all simply a mistake, and there may be a gentle brushing of sleeves. That’s your bold customers. If you have a more tentative swerver you’ll miss them altogether. If, on the other hand, you take the initiative before them, and give a subtle (but readable) sidestep in their direction, they will, depending on the timidity or otherwise of their demeanour, either suddenly give way, all but leaping into the gutter to give you the room you obviously feel you need to function adequately on the footway, or hold their course, leaving what was usually actually more than enough room in the first place for all concerned.

In the immortal words of Arthur Atkinson, “‘ow queer!”

Luckily the vehicular traffic operates less idiosyncratically.



  1. I do a constant dance on the sidewalk with people here, but that is because I tend to the opposite (Canadian) side to pass, and they tend in the other direction, so we have a lot of narrow misses and embarrassed smiles. A different kettle of fish entirely.

  2. After 40-odd years in the country – I’m impressed by the steadfastness of your early ambulatory imprinting! =^)

  3. And then there’s all the Sorry Sorry Sorry stuff…

  4. I’m constantly surprised by it, and it is so deeply unconscious that I can’t tell you which side I tend to. I just know it is the wrong one. I actually don’t go in much for the sorry sorry stuff. I heard a lovely story once about a pedestrian uncertain about crossing in front of a car that was also going (and stopping). The driver finally got out and waltzed the person across the street.

  5. It’s your gravitational pull.

    We don’t have footpaths here, drivers are pretty polite tho, prolly cos of all the guns and lawyers.

  6. Imagine having the sauce to be born in Worcestershire!

    (And speaking of sauce, I’m betting that’s still the best explanation…)

  7. I kept bumping in to fellow pedestrians when I first came to Australia. Your observation can be explained simply. Australian pedestrians very sensibly, walk on the left hand side of a footpath (same side as we drive cars). Irish pedestrians walk on the RHS of a footpath. So inter-hemispherical bumping is inevitable.

  8. Anaglyph: You may be right. Maybe I should pop over to Bologna to check their sidewalk etiquette. Should add some meat to the theory.

    foof: I don’t know if that does explain it – you see, I cop the swerve from both directions!
    Are the Irish and the English footpath compatible? Could it be a Catholic/Protestant thing? Or is it some sort of cultural Coriolis effect?

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