Pedestrian Drift

STEWART BEACH is the executive editor of THIS WEEK and the author of many books and articles.

It was a near-traumatic experience in the gentle Dutch city of Delft some years ago that started me on a program of pedestrian-watching. I was walking beside one of the charming canals, enjoying the beauty of ripe old bricks, when there was a quick whir of tires from behind. A young cyclist whizzed past me with the clearance of a hummingbird’s wing. Never mind what I muttered when I caught my breath. But the threat of trauma was dispelled in a surge of admiration for the youth speeding up the brickpaved walk ahead of me. His bike traveled straight as a homing rocket, not deviating as much as the span of a single brick to right or left.

This set me to marveling at the confidence the boy had placed in me — an assurance that I, too, would keep on a straight and predictable course, so that no warning bell need be sounded. Any such assumption would be madness in America, where citizens on city sidewalks, even with a definite mission to steady them, proceed in a confusing series of meanders. It was only by the greatest piece of luck that a kindly Providence kept me on a fixed course for a few critical moments that pleasant morning.

The experience aroused my curiosity, and I inquired of Dutch friends whether small Netherlanders were taught, along with the lesson of how to keep their fingers in a leaky dike, to walk and ride in a rigid straight line. Natuurlijk. The instruction not only instilled the principle of self-preservation; it was also common courtesy, so that faster walkers or cyclists could pass with confidence. And, too, in a society where the bicycle was not a pleasure vehicle of the young but a working means of getting from here to there, clouds of cyclists often trailed down a road together. Unless each rode straight, accidents would result, niet waar?

In America the bicycle is only an incidental hazard, but motorists stiffen to the alert and slow down whenever they see a youngster on a wheel. They accept the probability— as I do—that he may do anything. I have long ceased to wonder at this, and accept it as a fact. What puzzles me is why quite sober citizens on foot, alone or in company, fail to walk a reasonably straight line. My research in pedestrian-watching has taken place largely in New York, where I live, but the same evasive tactics can be observed in any American city.

I take you now to a typical stretch of Manhattan sidewalk, where Citizen A is hurrying to keep an appointment. Ahead of him is Citizen B, a slower walker, whom Citizen A is about to pass on the left. At this point, however, Citizen B, for no discernible reason, takes a left diagonal which puts Citizen A on a collision course. By the time A shifts to starboard, B has anticipated the maneuver. Taking a right oblique and heading toward a litter basket on the curb, B completes a blocking movement which makes it impossible for A to pass on that side. This game continues until A is late for his appointment.

The play is immensely livened when Citizens C, D, and E are sauntering abreast with frustrated Citizen A overtaking from the rear. Not only can the trio elaborate the basic blocking technique of angling to left and right, but by alternately decreasing and increasing the distances between them, they can first open and then deny the possibilities for passing. Of course, A could cross the street, but this is considered a not quite sporting solution, with the added likelihood that he will encounter similar conditions there.

In addition to this normal hazard of pedestrians wandering from side to side, like ships with a careless hand on the tiller, there are individual types worth study. There is the female who, by a compulsive, swift movement from the curb to observe an outrageous but appealing hat in a shop window, is able to disrupt the entire stream of pedestrian traffic. There is the individual who, with startled recollection of a forgotten errand, stops and wheels to the rear, scattering the following wave of pedestrians. There is the male who makes an abrupt cross where a newsstand obstructs half the sidewalk to lean over and catch the news on the front page of a noon edition, which is too early for him to buy. There is the type who dives fearlessly through a crowd with arm upraised to hail a taxi driver who already has a fare.

The observant pedestrian-watcher will fill his notebook with many other types, including the somewhat common male whose attention is riveted in a sidelong glance at a pretty face above a lissome figure. Or the more rare observer whose gaze is fixed on the summit of a new building across the street as he continues at a rapid pace, without regard to the vagaries of foot traffic. These are all of the same species, and each is responsible for many pleasant streetside collisions with pedestrians moving in both directions.

While it is too early to release conclusions from my studies, it seems a fair guess that most people walk city streets with their minds somewhere else. Far from accepting the straightline principle, they only half notice where they are going and choose to accept the hazard of collision as a calculated risk. One factor to be explored in this connection is that Americans have an automobileoriented psychology of movement. Unless they are in a car, they have no personal responsibility for what happens. In spite of appalling accident figures, I think we are the best drivers in the world. Most people understand that the automobile — yours and mine is a dangerous weapon and respect it. They drive swiftly but they drive carefully, with courtesy and full attention to the rules of the road. I’m beginning to believe that the answer to pedestrian behavior may be found here: once off the highway people relax and release a desire for reckless propulsion on city sidewalks.

There must be some explanation of all the frustrations I suffer as Citizen A. What makes up for them is my taking a position at the curb of some busy Manhattan avenue to observe the maneuvers of Citizens B to Z in their artless progress. There is good sport and frequent surprise in the carefree stops and starts, the near collisions, and the rewarding thump as an intent Sidelong Glancer makes solid contact with a Compulsive Window Swift, particularly if both are laden with packages. Of course, I get buffeted into the street now and then by an Elbowed Rocketing Barger. But it’s really safer there. It is, unless that Dutch jongen who started me pedestrian-watching comes over here with his bicycle.