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Urban Etiquette: Be a Better Pedestrian — Or Get Out of My Way

by Borderstan.com August 16, 2011 at 11:00 am 4,009 27 Comments

Borderstan, Urban Etiquette, Mike Kohn

Are you a sidewalk pig? When you are in a group do you take up the entire sidewalk, forcing approaching pedestrians to step into the street? (Luis Gomez Photos)

Welcome to the second edition of Urban Etiquette. Every two weeks Borderstan contributor Mike Kohn will be writing about some common-sense rules of etiquette with an urban twist. Why? We live in a densely populated area of a big city, which makes treating others with basic respect and thoughtfulness even more important. We welcome your ideas for future columns.

From Mike Kohn. Email him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter @mike_kohn.

Let me paint you a picture.

You’re walking down the street. You’re a Borderstan resident, so you’ve got a political function to attend, a media party you’re stopping by, a happy hour you’re meeting friends at, etc. You did your best to get out of work on time, but that last minute crisis took longer than expected, so you’re of course running a few minutes late. You approach the light at Dupont Circle and you see the white man just about to change to the red hand and you think to yourself, “I’m gonna make it!” And then it happens.

One rule of the sidewalk: If you’re with a group, instead of forming a giant wall, break into smaller pieces to walk together. Don’t be those people who take up the entire sidewalk. It’s annoying.

Four seemingly innocent people stand talking on the corner, taking up the entire sidewalk and blocking your path to the crosswalk behind them, forcing you to miss the light and wait for the next crossing, looking fairly unimpressed.

So what would I do? I’m not shy about running people over. I would be making that light.

6 Rules for Urban Pedestrians

Pedestrian etiquette isn’t too complicated folks, so come on. Here are some basics:

  • Don’t walk in the middle of the sidewalk. Just like driving (or the Metro escalator for that matter), slower on the right, faster on the left. As an aggressive pedestrian, I want to pass you and I will do it the easy way or the hard way. Your choice.
  • If you’re with a group, instead of forming a giant wall, break into smaller pieces to walk together. Don’t be those people who take up the entire sidewalk. It’s annoying.
  • Don’t be an idiot: messing with traffic, bike or car, is a bad idea. This one really should be a no-brainer, but I have to mention it. Not only is it a safety thing, but MPD is clamping down on jaywalking, so now it’s about your health and your wallet.
  • Watch where you’re going. If you have to text and walk at the same time, pay attention to everyone else so you’re not an obstacle that everyone else has to avoid. Or better yet, stop on the side for a second to send your text and make everyone happier.
  • Keep your pets in check. Dogs have a mind of their own — and so do all the other people out there. Tori Tyree has some other tips on this note.
  • Why so angry? At least feign friendliness. No, this isn’t the Midwest where everyone says hi to strangers on the street, but could we attempt to shake the East Coast stereotype of being downright unpleasant?

You’re not the only person trying to get somewhere. I know your iPod just came up with the best song in the world and that your friend on the phone just made a hilarious joke, but focus.

What else drives you crazy? I’m putting out the call for other urban etiquette ideas, so leave a note in the comments about anything else pedestrians do or any other topics that you want me to cover.

  • minnesota60

    One of my favorites is the pedestrian standing a street corner who waits for the light to turn RED then walks in front of a car. The car slams on its brakes and the pedestrian flips off the driver. Just because “pedestrians have the right-a-way” does not mean you should do this kind of stupid stuff. These people should be ticketed for jaywalking.

    • z

      right of way


      • minnesota60

        Hater. Get a life, dude.

  • cluless

    Thank you for this column. All the new people in the area are great and we welcome you. But, it’s obvious many of you have never lived downtown or in a city. My guess is that you have moved here from suburbs where you always drove everywhere. I don’t think some of you have ever considered the “rules” for sidewalks. Sidewalks may not have “laws” but they do have “rules.”

  • Just some chick

    Thanks for this although the whole subject is so cranky!

    My gripe is the general obliviousness: meandering around while talking on your phone, not looking where you’re going and blocking people trying to get somewhere, texting while meandering. Sometimes I just want to shove someone.


  • What about ballroom dancing? Ever appropriate?

  • Mike

    Thanks for the comments everyone! Let me know what else gets you going – I’ll be sure to get something out.

    @Minnesota – Yes, and those people will be shocked when they end up getting hit by a not-so-friendly car one of these times… Unimpressed.

    @Clueless – I’ll agree with that. My walks in the suburbs of Philly were on pedestrian paths in man-made parks. I learned pretty quickly that that’s quite different than walking the streets of D.C.

    @Just Some Chick – What a nightmare. Trying to get around those people is the worst because they always seem to move right when you want to get past them. I might use that as ammunition, so thanks for that.

    @SomeChum – Absolutely. Ballroom dancing down the street is always acceptable. You’ll find me samba-ing on the sidewalks frequently.

  • TW

    @minnesota60 The whole “pedestrians always have right-of-way” thing is also a myth – or at least a misunderstanding. That rule only applies at STOP signs, as part of the general “four-way stop” set of rules and right-of-ways. (And at marked pedestrian crossing areas that don’t have any other signs or lights.)

    Pedestrians do NOT have right-of-way at an intersection with a stoplight and a “Don’t Walk” sign. That’s just straight-up illegal jay-walking. (Of course, that doesn’t mean a car should HIT anyone, but it does mean you are well within your rights to honk and, er, express frustration at those people.)

    And look, it’s not like I never jay-walk. I do plenty. But only when it’s clear that I’m not going to force a driver to wait for me when they have every right to be moving. Courtesy works both ways.

  • Clay Tucker

    You hit the nail on the head. Groups of 3 or more (usually women) who expand like a natural gas to take up all possible available space. You can’t pass them if you’re behind them (and they invariably saunter at a snail’s pace, chatting nonsensically, blind to anyone else). And if you’re approaching them, they expect you to move out of their way. I’ve taken to simply stopping, in the middle of the sidewalk, forcing them to part for me like the sea parted for Moses. It comes down to simple obliviousness — coupled with Entitlement Disorder. LADIES, PLEASE, OTHER PEOPLE ARE IN THE WORLD!

    • Shawn

      Oh, come on. This is hardly a problem that can be boiled down to men versus women. I see plenty of dudes taking up the entire sidewalk, daring anyone to break their line.

      • Mike

        Ha – I loved the idea of watching these giant groups spreading like the Red Sea. I’ll picture that going forward…

        I do have to agree this isn’t a gender thing at all. People of all kinds are equally poor at handling themselves on the sidewalks. I’ll stand by that.

    • Candygram

      I associate it with Portland, Oregon and the suburbs, just because that’s where I’ve seen this phenomenon the most. And Portland doesn’t have wide sidewalks like larger cities, so it’s extra hard to navigate around the waddlers and meanderers.

  • Lebodome

    All I know is that Adams Morgan needs a skypath or something. Its a zoo btwn the drunk bachelorette parties, the jumbo slice eating, and the lost tourists. It’s even worse now with Operation Adams Morgan bringing in extra police and Guardian Angels who wont let anyone walk on the streets, which was always the best way to get around it all.
    I was once told by my best friend from the Mid-West I walk way too fast. Maybe that’s true, but man some people just need to learn to be in motion and not statues….

  • Kronos

    Good column. I for one get sick and tired of some merchants pushing the limits with their signs and other crap taking up the sidewalk. Case in point is that gym near 14th & S that puts out the faux body fat on a table?!?

    Also has anyone else tried to navigate the corner of 15th & P where the Bikeshare station is like 2 feet 6 inches from the construction fence for the renovation going on at the corner. This is a mess at rush hour.

    As far as cars vs. pedestrians? I don’t know who is worse. Try driving east on Q Street at Connecticut. Even if you have a green light – mob mentality rules – and crowds of people will walk right into the intersection.

  • Laura

    I am guilty of the phone reading/texting while walking. Thanks for the reminder, Mike!

  • me

    an article on UMBRELLA etiquette is much needed!!!! ie taller people must raise their umbrella to oncoming traffic; keeping umbrellas to an appropriate size. . we don’t need giant golf umbrellas in NYC!. I could go on and on. Thanks!!

    • Mike

      That is a GREAT idea. Umbrellas definitely need to be kept in check. Good suggestion!

  • Great post, Mike! I’m ALWAYS running late and am ALWAYS passing on the grass. Then I look back, make eye contact, and say hi. Kill their bad etiquette with kindness and a smile!

  • andy

    Thank you Mike. Well said, I would add one more thing, umbrella etiquette.

    • Candygram

      As an old-school Seattlite, i applaud you. When I first moved here in ’89, almost no one used an umbrella. With the population influx, downtown has a mass of HUUUUUGE umbrellas at the slightest mist. And, yeah, the umbrella carriers seem not to care at all that they’re taking up the space of about five people and aiming lancets at the eyes of those around them.

  • Alyssa

    Thanks for this. Now how can we get the sidewalk offenders to read this column?! Also, please address the sidewalk etiquette for walking while smoking? Is this uncharted territory? I am so over walking behind Smelly McSmoker for the whole block.

    • Mandy

      So, who has the most rights here?
      Sounds like you need to cross the street and walk on the sidewalk over there if McSmoker is bothering you.
      Or…ask McSmoker to cross the street and walk over there. I dare you.

      Seriously, DC snobbery never stops amazing me.

  • Tx

    How about those people who just wander the sidewalk? They start walking on the right, when you go left to pass, they start moving that way. If you are walking on a sidewalk with others, keep a straight line. If you need to stop, talk / text on the phone, or get your bearings, stand to the side. Do not stand in the middle of the sidewalk.

  • Avi

    This is one of my biggest pet peeves! People mostly wander around the sidewalk like they were cows in a barnyard. There is an orderly system to walking down the street, people, and you should remember that from kindergarten. Walk on the right, pass on the left. It’s that simple.

  • Mandy

    It’s bad enough having to deal with all of the above morons on the sidewalk but do we REALLY have to through bicycles in all the sidewalk mess too.

    Add that to sidewalk frustrations.

  • Mary Burgan

    This may be too late for the column and it may not apply to sidewalk pedestrians, but what about those who come through a door of a restaurant and then stop to look for friends, blocking the doorway for others. This is even more annoying/dangerous at the top of escalators, as at Dupont. Some people, mostly tourists (?), ascend the esclators on the left side, come to the top, then stop to look at a map, blocking those who are coming up behind them.

  • Candygram

    I love this. Thank you. I’m sure I’ll be back stalking you later and commenting ad nauseum. But seriously. Thank you again.


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