2-33. The Dance of Pedestrians

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One travels for many reasons, but experiencing other cultures is usually found among them. And while driving in other countries is always a bit difficult, it’s well known that former colonies of the British Empire present a greater challenge as they drive on the left.

I’ve made the decision not to drive in countries where successful navigation requires me to act out a mirror image of my instincts. both for my safety and the safety of the general public. But I noticed that I have other instincts that are problematic in these countries.

First off, crossing the street is a hazard. You must look RIGHT for oncoming traffic, not left. In Sydney and London at least, there are signs in the crosswalks warning visitors of this. I found that most tourists just ended up looking both ways several times, and nervously stepping out into the street. But it turns out that there is cultural difficulty even if you stay on the sidewalk.

On our recent field trip to Sydney, Australia, I found that pedestrians were constantly “getting in my way.” At least that’s how it seemed to me. Sometimes it felt as though they deliberately moved in front of me. I stopped in a doorway and just watched for a bit… and found that there was a rather chaotic dance going on. Nearly everyone walked down the middle of the sidewalk, but when two parties met each other, the sides they chose varied. Sometimes they would spilt to the right, others they would split to the left. I could make no sense of this until I realized that people drove on the left here. Is it possible that they also walked on the left?

I asked our excellent guide Alex and he said that yes, you’re supposed to walk on the left. This is in contrast to London, where, though they drive on the left, they walk on the right. But in Sydney, international city that it was, there were so many people from countries that walk on the right that pedestrian activities turned into a bit of a dance. I observed this pattern several times: a walker goes to the right, then to the left, then to the right… as though they’re weaving the pattern of DNA on the sidewalk.

The city of Melbourne is trying to take action to encourage people to walk on the left, as the city council called right side walking “a daily threat” to the city’s livability.

After learning that left was the rule, I tried very hard to keep to the left… but it was futile. Not only was it difficult to remember after a lifetime of walking on the right, locals pegged me as an American quite often, and adjusted their stride as they expected me to move to the right. I was forced to dance whether I wanted to or not. In the end, I think that the custom of walking on a particular side of the street has less meaning here, as the rule can’t be reinforced due to the international makeup of pedestrians.

I did finally find a bit of a solution: walk slower. I tend to walk very fast, and this leaves no time for people who are approaching me to adjust. Walking slower gave other folks a chance to react. But that’s the best bit of advice I have. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In Sydney, the Romans are dancing, and you might as well resign yourself to joining in.

Waltzing in Sydney

Waltzing in Sydney

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