Science Questions

Why do people walk on the left or right?

Tue, 7th Jan 2014

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Les asked:

As a local guy, I'm disabled and use a mobility scooter to get around a lot and crossing Christs Piece and New Square especially, in Cambridge, the vast majority of people seem to walk on the right hand side of the paved area. I was in town a few days ago and it was much quieter and everybody walked on their left. I've noticed these people walking on the right for ages that it just struck me as being more obvious that it was different at that slightly different time of day.


Why do we tend to prefer to walk on the right or walk on the left?


Chris - I think there are two aspects to this. I don't know what you guys think, but I Pedestrians cross a road in Mong Kokmean for my fourpence, I would say first and foremost that in the same way that fish make a big shoal and they all swim in one sort of direction once someone’s shown everyone where to go. I think that an element of this is that once one group of people are doing one thing, people tend to follow. So, if everyone happens to be on the left then more people are going to go on the left than on the right because we do tend to – because we’re social animals – copy each other. But also, there is an intrinsic brain bias towards certain parts of the world we live in, in terms of how we attend to it and how we tend to favour it. Dominic who’s very interested in computing and website design will know this very well that anyone who designs websites is told, “Put the most important content...”  Where Dominic?

Dominic Ford - On the left hand side because people read from left to right. The first thing they see is on the left.

Chris - Absolutely, so your most important content at the top and on the left because that's where people visually attend to more. And also, for some reason, we think that that part of the brain that's observing that vision on the left is also more receptive to information being presented in that way.

Dominic - I think there's also a social aspect to walking on the right side of the road because hikers are actually often told to walk on that side because then you've got the traffic like on the left coming towards you. So, you can see the car that's about to come very close to you. Whereas if you walk on the left, you can't see the car coming up behind you.

Chris - Good point. Les, are you running people down? Is that what it is?

Lez - No. I deliberately go on the left just for the hell of it.

Chris - I like that. You know, if you're a racehorse then horses actually perform much better on races run in one direction than the other. They tend to have an intrinsic bias for one side over the other. The majority of horses I think are right-legged and so, they prefer to run with that leg as their leading leg. If you run them in the opposite direction, they're at something of a disadvantage. I don't know why they should have that particular bias because we think humans have a side bias because as Dominic pointed out, there's language in the brain. We think that language being on one side of our brain makes that side of the brain dominant and that might be the reason.


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I would imagine it depends on the place.

In the USA we drive on the right hand side of the road.
It is common for people sharing a sidewalk to also walk on the right, with people coming from the opposite direction coming to their left. 

When walking on the side of the road (no sidewalks), I've been told it is safer to walk facing traffic, or on the left side of the road (in the USA). CliffordK, Wed, 8th Jan 2014

I was told at school in the UK, it was because most people being right handed, they would wear there sword on there left. So to easily defend yourself you would pass a stranger on your right.
True or not, I have no idea.
Grimbo1, Wed, 8th Jan 2014

My observation in Australia is that we drive on the left, and (if there is a potential collision between pedestrians), we both unconsciously step to the left, passing smoothly with right shoulders adjacent.
However, when traveling in the USA where driving is on the right, I noticed that pedestrians unconsciously step to the right, passing smoothly with left shoulders adjacent.
However, my Australian instinct was a problem when traveling in the USA, where I stepped to the left, and citizens stepped to the right, resulting in an even more threatening collision which requires conscious intervention from both parties (it feels as if the other person is being intentionally obnoxious, as they block your every move...).

On my first visit, it took a few days before I realised the source of this occasional frustration - now I can do a mental switch when it happens, and it becomes more natural over the next few minutes.

Walking is very flexible - if there is a row of shops, a stream of people will walk adjacent to the window, looking in. In dense pedestrian traffic, people break up into "streams", following a leader who is the only one who must apply the local unconscious rule.

Is it possible that there was a group of people leaving an international conference, who followed a foreign rule?

This certainly applied to the nobility, and determined the side of the road on which they rode their horses.
It appears that this reversed in France around the time of the French Revolution, when nobility suddenly became a death sentence; Napoleon spread this modified practice through most of continental Europe (and their overseas colonies).

My observation suggests that pedestrians unconsciously apply the local driving rule. evan_au, Wed, 8th Jan 2014

When I was growing up, it was what we were told to do. You walk on the same side of the pavement/sidewalk/footpath as cars. The rationale is the person walking against the traffic on the road is on the outside and better able to respond to any danger from the road, and conversely the people who can't see the traffic are shielded by being on the inside. In the US people generally walk on the right side. In countries where people drive on the left, you walk on the left. Ash, Fri, 4th Jul 2014

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