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I remember some years ago in the UK, I believe it was during the 1970s, the British Government decided to do a study to find out why pedestrians did not bump into each other, or cause a huge gridlock in the middle of the street when crossing the road at a light.

In big cities like London during rush hour, large numbers of people would wait to cross on opposing sides of the street. When the light turned green, they would all cross at the same time, in what must have appeared to traffic engineers, complete chaos.

Someone in their wisdom decided to do a study, because that’s what engineers do when they don’t have answers. After spending several tens of thousands British Pounds, of the tax payer’s money, they came up with this astounding discovery: “People just go around each other.”

Walking, the original means to get from A to B; just putting one foot in front of the other. Look down on any busy street in any large city and it appears to be chaos, with people going every which way. However, beneath the chaos there is order; each individual has a destination and is just taking the route necessary to get there.

Watch the video (Above.) of Market Street in San Francisco in 1905. Into the mix of people walking, has been added horse drawn vehicles, automobiles, and bicycles. The same chaos prevails, but people simply go around each other.

The reason it works is because there are less people and everyone is going very slow. I wonder how long it took in 1905 to get from one end of Market Street to the other, and I wonder how that time compares to today?

It is the huge variation in speed between people walking, bicycles and autos that cause most of the problems in our large cities. If pedestrians kept to the sidewalks, and crossed the streets at a light; if cars slowed down to closer the speed of a bicycle, I believe everyone would get to their destination just as fast.

Try making that argument to the guy who has spent thousands on the latest auto that does zero to 60 in seconds; it will never happen, but allow me my flight of the imagination.

The strange thing I find is that there is more sanity in the chaotic street scene above than I see in a typical rush hour street scene of today



Reader Comments (8)

Hi Dave,

Have you seen the http://www.roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com site?
Lots of interesting historical stuff and a Kickstarter campaign for a book on the subject too.



April 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim Mullett


People are always in a rush these days - for no good reason. It's not like they're getting any more enjoyment out of their lives. I think this self-centered attitude of 'I need to get where I'm going quickly' is part of the problem with the traffic issues today. The larger population of today doesn't help, of course.

It is also ego that causes people to want to text and drive, drink and drive, speed, etc. The attitude is that 'I can do it safely, so why should some law stop me from doing what I want?'.

I don't know where they're rushing to, but they don't seem to be having a great time getting there.

I have made the conscious decision to try and enjoy something from every aspect of my life: my home life, my work life, my past-times, and even my commute. So I live close enough to work so I can ride all the year, and run or walk home when I want to.

Anyone who's run 7 miles through the New Hampshire woods on a winter night, with snow on the ground has a better commute than someone in a powerful car sitting in traffic somewhere. :)

April 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohann

You are so right. I drive everywhere at the speed limit, sometimes slower if the roads are slippery or wet. I also stop when a traffic light turns yellow, if it is safe to do so. I used to drive 5mph over like everyone else, and race through yellow lights. I know my current driving habit drives others on the road crazy, but one day I realized it was stupid to push the limits of the law simply to follow the herd. I still get to where I need to be at the time I need to be there. I save on gas, wear and tear on my brakes and the rest of my vehicle, and I never have to worry about getting a ticket.

April 12, 2013 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

Perhaps it's not that people are "always in rush these days" and that this didn't happen in the old days. How about if people are in as much rush as the society/technology allows? In 1905 there was no fast way to travel. The speediest way of transportation was slow. However, people were in as much mental rush as they are now, but physically all they could accomplish was to run, ride a bike, ride a horse, or take a slow streetcar. How many could afford a car, and even those were slow. So perhaps the mentality hasn't changed - only the means of manifesting it. It's the same with communication. Now people want their computers to be fast; they want to be able to send a quick text message; they want to be reacheable everywhere. I'm sure in the old days people wanted to type on the mechanical typewriters as fast as they could, as well. They also wanted their messages to be delivered as fast as possible. Just the technical means were not there to really support that as much as these days.

April 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMicheal Blue

When I first went to Vietnam, I was shocked at the chaos in the streets: bikes, scooters, cars, pedestrians all thrown together with essentially no signals, no stop signs, barely any guidance at all. Yet it worked remarkably well.

In US suburbs, traffic lights can be excruciating: first a left turn phase, then a straight phase, then maybe a left turn phase for the opposite direction, all for just one of the intersecting roads. The roads are designed for pedestrian-killing speeds, then the drivers spend a disproportionate time waiting at lights. Average door-to-door speed is quite slow.

When signals are malfunctioning, you'd expect chaos, but instead things actually work a lot better. Cars reach the intersection, wait for a few cars to pass (this takes a few seconds), then they proceed with caution. This is far quicker than the several-minute delay associated with the multi-phase lights.

So you're right on target: things get over-engineered, with little respect given to human judgement. In the end, speed and safety both suffer.

April 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdjconnel

:) great article, song & video!

April 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermircea andrei ghinea

Hi Dave,

There's a great article about how organisms know how to organise themselves into patterns and avoid collision in a recent Wired magazine.

Apparently it's quite instinctive for animals to self-regulate the space between them and the direction they should take.

If you look at a peloton in a cycle race, it's actually quite rare for big pile ups to occur and damage to happen as a result - only when speeds go up do the big crashes happen.

Rapid acceleration and deceleration of cars in big cities makes little difference to their actual journey times. In my hometown you can cross the city in exactly the same time by bike and by car. If only the car lobby, and our politicians realised this!

April 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

Amazing vid. My god it looks like everyone is moving in slow motion compared to today's high speeds.

I agree Dave that the wide variety of different vehicles and the wildly different speeds at which they move make "moving around each other" increasingly harder in todays world. Chaos lol - the vid looks serene and peaceful compared to today.

April 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNeil
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