Why do we walk on the right or the left?

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Offline thedoc

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Why do we walk on the right or the left?
« on: 16/01/2014 14:29:06 »
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?
Asked by Les

                                        Visit the webpage for the podcast in which this question is answered.

[chapter podcast=1000585 track=14.01.07/Naked_Scientists_Show_14.01.07_1001822.mp3]  ...or Listen to the Answer[/chapter] or [download as MP3]

« Last Edit: 16/01/2014 14:29:06 by _system »


Offline CliffordK

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Re: Why do we walk on the right or the left?
« Reply #1 on: 08/01/2014 10:26:54 »
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).


Offline Grimbo1

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Re: Why do we walk on the right or the left?
« Reply #2 on: 08/01/2014 10:58:34 »
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.


Online evan_au

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Re: Why do we walk on the right or the left?
« Reply #3 on: 08/01/2014 20:55:41 »
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?

wear their sword on their left
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.
« Last Edit: 09/01/2014 16:51:44 by evan_au »



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« Reply #4 on: 04/07/2014 02:42:34 »
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.