Cellphone free lanes on sidewalks would speed up foot traffic

Walk down any major street, office corridor or walkway these days and no doubt you’ll encounter “one of them”. You know, the folks who are more focused on their smart phone than their personal surroundings.

It is well documented that distracted driving…and now walking can cause serious accidents. Just Google “distracted pedestrian hit at intersection” if you want to see what I mean.

To date the main focus of the discussion has been on how distracted pedestrians may be putting their own personal safety at risk. But I believe the time has come when we should expand the debate to include how these folks also impact regular citizens just trying to get from Point A to Point B in a timely manner.

Smart phone users slowly walk in a line and block pedestrians behind them

Recently I was walking down a narrow office corridor and was trying to get to my next meeting on time. I became frustrated when I noticed two young slow walkers obstructing the path. When I finally passed them, it became clear they were oblivious to everyone behind them as they were texting away.

I’ve had similar experiences when I’ve attempted to walk at a normal pace on narrow sidewalks throughout Vancouver and countless other major cities. Inevitably someone slows you down due to the fact they’re walking way slower than the surrounding foot traffic.

If you attempted something similar to this today on BC’s highways, you’d be a prime candidate for a ticket. Drive slow in the fast lane and you could receive a hefty fine from the RCMP.  Yet this drive to facilitate better traffic flow on our roads does not appear to be spilling over to the adjacent sidewalks.

What I’ve been experiencing is not merely a figment of my imagination. According to research conducted by Dr. Matthew Timmis from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, cell phone users walk quite differently when they are focused on their phones.

In an article published in the Daily Mail, Timmis found that “…mobile phones make us walk more slowly, with exaggerated steps, to avoid the obstacles made harder to see by staring at the screen.”

The article goes on to state “researchers found people writing a text message walk more than half as fast as those without a phone, finding it harder to stay in a straight line and lifting their foot 18 per cent higher above a pavement edge. Their stride is more than a third shorter, as they rely on their less detailed peripheral vision to avoid tripping and falling over while distracted by their phone.”

“…mobile phones make us walk more slowly, with exaggerated steps, to avoid the obstacles made harder to see by staring at the screen.” Dr. Matthew Timmis

What has provided me with a certain level of frustration over the last few years is not merely a hunch…it’s actually backed up by bona fide research. However, the real question is what should we be doing about it – if anything at all.

In China they have started creating special footpaths for smartphone users in order to ensure a better flow of traffic. Think of it as their equivalent of a separated bike lane…but for pedestrians who simply need to be on their phones – but want to avoid disrupting those around them.

While the Chinese initiative may appeal to some of you, I’m not sure how practical this would be in the North American context. After all, just look at how many pedestrians currently walk on bike paths and vice versa. Attempting to segregate cell phone users from non-users may sound like a great plan, but it is no panacea.

Perhaps what we need is for people to simply pick up the pace, or better yet…try walking a minimum 20 minutes per day without being glued to a phone. Is that too much to ask?

With time to glance around you might just find out how beautiful your physical surroundings are…especially in Metro Vancouver. But in our wired world, this may be too much to ask…so best we go out and buy a few gallons of paint.