Science confirms it: Pedestrians on their phones walk slower
A new study examines how the pace of urban life has changed in the smartphone era.
In a classic urban study from 1976, behavioral researchers Marc and Helen Bornstein traveled to 15 cities and towns around the world, waited for a dry and sunny day, fixed their gazes and measuring tools toward a main street — and watched people walk. The Bornsteins wanted to see whether population size influenced the pace of pedestrians. Their report, published in the journal Nature, found that “city life … is carried on at an increased tempo.”
On average, city residents walked faster than town folk — a finding that held true both across and within countries. While the size-speed link wasn’t perfectly rigid, it was broadly consistent. Pedestrians zipped through Wenceslas Square in Prague (population: 1.1 million) at 1.75 meters per second, and whipped along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn (2.6 million) at 1.5 m/s. In contrast, people strolled through tiny Corte, France (5,500) at 1 m/s and through tinier Itea, Greece (2,500) at just 0.75 m/s.
Since then, a number of studies have validated the swift pace of city life, but there’s reason to think that urbanists don’t walk quite as quickly as they used to, even in heavily populated places — and that reason is smartphones. In 1976, the Bornsteins observed pedestrians walking “alone and unencumbered.” Today, we’re all encumbered by a digital companion, often burying our faces in our phones instead of putting our fastest foot forward.
So what does this cultural shift mean for the pace of pedestrians? A group of transportation researchers at the University of Sydney — including David Levinson of the Transportist blog — decided to find out.
In a paper published last month in the Journal of Land Use, Mobility and Environment, the researchers confirm our deepest sidewalk suspicions, reporting that people on their phones “walk significantly slower than people uninfluenced by phone.” In fact, pedestrians on their phones “not only slow themselves down but also slow the people behind them.” The researchers conclude in scientifically simple terms:
The rise of the smartphone correlates with a reduction in walking speed.
The slow lane
For the study, the research team filmed people walking across a few different sites around Sydney: a wide pedestrian bridge on campus, a more standard city sidewalk, and a pedestrian mall called Martin Place. They used this footage to determine walking speed and also sorted pedestrians into certain categories, including whether or not they were holding a phone, whether or not they were behind someone holding a phone, and whether or not they were part of a group.
On the wide pedestrian bridge, people on their phones walked slower than the average pedestrian (1.16 meters per second, versus 1.21 m/s), but the difference wasn’t statistically significant. The bridge was isolated from vehicle traffic, and the researchers suspect that pedestrians in such a setting might feel the freedom to walk and text at a faster clip without fear of verging into the street.
On the more typical city sidewalk, the phone’s true impact emerged. At this site, pedestrians holding their phones walked at 1.2 m/s — significantly slower than people who weren’t on their phones (1.34 m/s) as well as the overall average speed (1.31 m/s). Phone users also slowed down the people behind them: phone followers (defined as someone within 5 seconds of a phone walker) walked at 1.25 m/s, also significantly slower than those walking alone and unencumbered.
In fact, the effects of solitary phone walking seemed to be most similar to the effects of walking in a group, whose members walked at 1.22 m/s. The very slowest walkers? That would be people who not only walked in groups but stayed on their phones while doing it: a glacial 1.05 m/s.
At the third site — the Martin Place pedestrian mall — the researchers compared the average walking speed during their observation with historical footage of this area from three periods: the 1910s, 1920s, and 1990s. The modern average lagged significantly behind all three historical speeds, and while identifying the cause of the difference is tough across time periods, the researchers believe “distractions such as smartphones” represent at least one plausible explanation.
The “smartphone” lane?
Every now and then, someone will paint New York City sidewalks with a “tourist” lane, meant for all the slow-poke out-of-towners. The new research suggests that our phones bring out the tourist in all of us.
The study is a welcome refresh of an old classic, but its findings should be considered preliminary, especially given that the researchers only watched people walk for a few meters, which might not be enough to gauge a typical speed. (In contrast, the 1976 study tracked people for 15 meters.) There’s also rarely a single reason someone walks a certain speed: weather, health, trip purpose, and of course sidewalk width all play a role.
Another note of caution pertains to applications of the work. It might be tempting to use the findings to call for stricter enforcement of “distracted walking.” But while it’s true that pedestrians should be aware of their surroundings, they’re also the most vulnerable street users — whether or not they’re holding a phone — and thus deserving of the most protections. Distracted walking is not a real danger to others; distracted driving is.
The far more interesting question raised by the research is whether or not the connection between city size and pedestrian speed will persist in the smartphone age. The most persuasive explanation for that relationship — if not a terribly surprising one — is simply that time is money. A 1999 study of cities in 31 countries found economic measures such as GDP to be the strongest predictors of walking speed. When there’s a lot on the line, people get there in a hurry.
But smartphones enable you to get there without being there; the slowest text beats the fastest walker every time. There’s even evidence that what pedestrians are losing in foot speed, they’re recovering in thumb speed: a 2017 study — framed as a digital update to the Bornstein exploration on the pace of urban life — found a connection between “greater population density” and “faster tweeting” across nine U.S. cities. May our sidewalks forgive us.