You’re walking on a sidewalk with one of your grandmothers. You’re old enough to be out of a stroller but young enough to be a pedestrian hazard. You start out at your grandmother’s side but invariably you drift. Then it happens—the startling yank to some piece of clothing attached to you. Your grandmother’s arm maneuvers as if by reflex, as pneumatic as a robotic claw turning a diesel engine. “Stay on the right and everyone gets to where they’re going.”
These kinds of memories tend to claim outsize real estate in the minds of those of us who walk around a large city every day. That’s because we cannot fathom how this custom—you drive on the right and you walk on the right—could be cast aside in lieu of nothing.
Media gripe stories about lapses in “sidewalk etiquette” seem to run on timed rotation. We know the annoying behaviors—not looking where you’re going, lost to the distracting sounds of earbuds, stopping in the middle of pedestrian traffic to take a selfie, weaving from side to side, walking with a posse that takes up the whole sidewalk, swinging your arm or handbag in areas dense with pedestrians. But “stay to the right” is always first on the list because it’s the most important for the movement of crowds.
I had a shock last year while watching A Trip Down Market Street before the Fire, a short film of San Francisco’s primary thoroughfare shot days before the April 18, 1906, earthquake. What shocked me about this camera-on-streetcar perspective was the mayhem of the streets. Roadsters and horse-carts traveled in any direction; pedestrians did the same recklessly. The road apparently was the sidewalk. Clearly, America’s streets were chaotic before Henry Ford started cranking out cars—but with cars came carnage. In cities with populations over 25,000, automobile accidents accounted for two-thirds of the entire death toll in 1925—and a third of those traffic deaths were children, half of them killed on their own blocks.
The introduction of cars and trucks brought rules to both roadways and sidewalks for the safety of everyone but mostly pedestrians. Cars were a monumental economic disruption, but coexistence was solidified by rapidly multiplying laws for motorists (designated lanes, stoplights at intersections) as well as pedestrians (no jaywalking). With these laws came the pedestrian custom of mimicking the rules of the road by staying to the right. Under this Pax Pedestriana, we’ve had decades of successful walking in crowds.
I first noticed the breakdown of stay-right walking in the early to mid-2000s, when I had to cross the Harvard freshman quad on my way to the subway. (Ironically, this was the era when Mark Zuckerberg padded around campus in his flipflops.) It was always more than half of the students preoccupied with calls to mom and dad, but even those not on the phone walked on any part of the sidewalk they pleased. I rationalized that they never learned how to walk on a sidewalk because they grew up in the suburbs and only walked inside malls and sports arenas. They didn’t have a yanking grandmother acting in concert with a public sidewalk.
Since those days, however, the stay-right breakdown has infiltrated all demographics and sectors of our culture. This cultural shift predates the iPhone and Facebook—both of which have greatly accelerated the problem—and may even predate the adoption of cell phones. Probably the only place in New York City where at least 90% of pedestrians still stay to the right is the tunnel passageway between Seventh and Eighth avenues at Times Square—near where a terrorist’s pipe bomb detonated too early (thankfully causing only minor injuries) in December 2017. Everyone hates that claustrophobic passage and wants to get out fast. Elsewhere, however, it’s a free-for-all. I’m not talking about tourists and visitors; I’m talking about fellow residents going to and from work or school. And it’s only going to get worse with the proliferation of “ridables.”
Whiplash-paced tech innovations are causing widespread norm recalibration, but the disinterested neglect of the functional (and self-beneficial) civic habit of staying to the right while walking is not attributable to any emergent lack of necessity. What this departure from common sense indicates is that the prioritizing of “self-actualization” in all choices gums up the works for everyone. Looked at this way, the demise of stay-right is a symptom of three larger changes in our culture.
1. The acceptance of self-absorption as consensual asset.
This is the obvious culprit, the usual suspect; it’s what we tell ourselves; this is what makes us angry. It’s encouraging to realize that some young people see this in their pedestrian peers. But self-absorption only explains so much, since it, too, is a symptom.
It can be rolled up within the second change below—a development whereby individualism and it’s defining bedrock of abstract freedom is surrendered to various tech behemoths in return for the opt-in freedom of self-curation. Retaining your privacy leaves you penniless in the world we present to you; “opt-in freedom,” on the other hand, allows you to behave any way you’d like. Freed from antiquated social stigma against promoting yourself above all others, you can endlessly monetize the Instagram poses of both yourself and your four-year-old daughter. With self-absorption rewarded both financially and socially, why would you turn off this pipeline while transiently in the role of pedestrian?
2. Submission to corporate capitalism’s culture of constant change.
Of course it’s all about capitalism. Humans are naturally risk-averse, so replacing the ethos of loss-of-the-familiar-is-bad with loss-of-the-familiar-is-good has been quite the feat. The primary commodity of opt-in freedom is constant change (the cost, of course, is privacy). Google is free but works 24/7 to convince you that constant, arbitrary updates are how you get your money’s worth. (How can you complain when something is free?) Google, Apple, Facebook, and the rest have trained users to not just accept constant disruption but to desire it as an indicator of quality and even taste. Landfill fashion, haul videos, pop-up everything—though millennials claim to be the generation of recycling and not possessing things, they are actually the generation of getting things fast and getting rid of them faster. Those two steps have elided into a single action, hence Marie Kondo’s de-cluttering purification rituals.
This cultural shift was already a decade in the making back in 1999, when Michael Lewis published The New New Thing, primarily about Netscape creator James Clark. This was Silicon Valley’s value proposition writ large: Netscape was supplanted, Clark forgotten. Those whose entire existence has spanned the new new thing have been raised to place their fidelity in the-thing-replacing rather than the-thing-replaced. They view the act of questioning change as a barely concealed inability to understand or keep pace with it. That’s probably why people who grew up with staying right on sidewalks go slack in their defense of the custom: they don’t want to seem old.
3. The steady injection of casino capitalism into social interaction.
A culture indifferent to relentless and arbitrary change only greases the chute for those seeking new social venues in which to compete and prevail. The high-risk/high-reward behavior indulged in by pre-recession hedge-funders epitomizes both the worst of income equality and the self-narrative fantasy of Donald Trump.
You don’t just win and others lose; you have to go all Quentin Tarantino. This is the MO of Paul Singer, who built the hedge fund Elliott Management and has been called “doomsday investor” in a New Yorker profile. Paul Singer makes a killing by gaining a foothold in successful companies and then basically destroying them.
Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic sees hypercompetitive behavior among millennials as inevitable: “As a national belief in the collective has given way to an emphasis on the individual, Millennials have had to become less inhibited about the pursuit of self-gain, and more shrewd about how they define themselves.” She cites a 2017 study by the British researchers Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill, who conclude that “neoliberalism has succeeded in shifting cultural values . . . to now emphasize competitiveness, individualism, and irrational ideals of the perfectible self.”
How does this show up on the sidewalk? I’ll just quote one of my characters—a retired Ivy League university president—from something I wrote in 2008:
What troubles me most is the symbolic nature of this situation. If two people are walking in opposite directions but are on the same side of the sidewalk, that creates a situation in which one or the other must yield the right of way. That is, each human encounter must always have a winner and a loser—the one who yields and the other who claims the lane. If people followed pedestrian rules, each encounter with a stranger would not be one of winning or losing but a mutually satisfying communitarian agreement that requires no thought or decision-making of either party. We have become so self-absorbed and such insular walking units that we are creating situations in which we must needlessly compete with one another in activities that ought to be wholly benign. We are making adversaries of our community fellows.
Inevitably, these cultural changes that big-tech capitalism only accelerates serve to erase public life. As Win McCormack points out in The New Republic, “Americans interpret ‘democracy’ in increasingly narrow terms, as almost a synonym for capitalism, and as indicating a regime that functions primarily as a guarantor of rights.”
It verges on comical our culture’s embrace of tech “innovations” that are essentially Paul Singer under a sheepskin throw. “Uber’s most significant contribution to mobility in cities,” writes Nikil Saval in the New Yorker, “may be our increasing lack of it. A growing chorus of engineers and traffic consultants have demonstrated that Uber, along with its smaller rival Lyft and other transportation network companies . . . are sapping [mass] transit ridership and clogging streets.”
Sometimes I think that this breakdown in how we physically move when we are in proximity to many others could be the first domino falling in our transition from Homo sapiens to Techno sapiens. Maybe I’m erring in still seeing the world in terms of old-style pedestrians who look both ways at street corners (Homo sapiens), whereas new-style pedestrians are never physically rushing to get anywhere (that is, with their own bodies). They look down at their phones rather than out to the street to see the arrival of their Ubers.
I fear that Rousseau’s social contract—the basis of progressive ideas since the Enlightenment—has been nullified by the endless “I accept terms of agreement” checkboxes we click through all the days of our lives. It seems quaint thinking back to 2000 and the cultural lodestar of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. Putnam predicted the disintegration of physical communal life based on trust—the idealized “commons” that prompted Dickens’s Mr. Micawber to declare “Mutual confidence will sustain us to the end!” What Putnam didn’t predict, however, was the virtual communal life based on popularity that has risen in its stead.
He was spot on, however, about the “alone” part. §