CONTACTTRAFFICABOUT TOM VANDERBILTOTHER WRITING CONTACT ABOUT THE BOOK

Pedestrian Crossing Behavior: Lemmings or the Lone Wolf?

I was walking down New York City’s Fifth Avenue yesterday (the windows at Bergdorf Goodman are a particular pleasure this year), which as usual around this time of year was incredibly crowded — I begin to feel less like a person than a permanent obstruction to someone’s snapshot. The corners were particularly bulging with people — for some reason the police were actually blocking pedestrian crossings with yellow tape at around 51st Street — and it’s always interesting to note the little patterns: The Europeans and out-of-towners tend to wait for signals, while the intrepid New Yorkers often sail through. And sometimes, one pedestrian’s bold move can fool others into thinking the signal has changed, when in reality there is a yellow taxi bearing down on the crosswalk. At times things can get so crowded that the mass essentially sort of spills into the street, perhaps triggered by some early crosser but now possessed of an energy all its own.

In any case, I was thinking of this when I came across a study by Tova Rosenbloom, “Crossing at a red light: Behaviour of individuals and groups,” in the journal Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour (and, by the way, the idea that this journal goes all the way to ‘F’ gives you an idea of how complex and wide-ranging the field is). In any case, Rosenbloom, looking at pedestrian behavior in Tel Aviv, came to a rather different finding than what I suspected might be the case based on my Fifth Avenue perambulations, and she offers a few reasons as to why this might be.

She writes:

The first hypothesis of the study was that more people would break the law (i.e. cross on a red light) while standing alone than people waiting with others on the curb. The findings of this study support this hypothesis. The more pedestrians present at the curb, the lower was the rate of people crossing on red. Two explanations may account for this pattern: one is theoretical while the other is pragmatic.

The theory of Social Control (Hirschi, 1969) describes the mechanism behind obedient behaviour as the motivation to be rewarded just for being conformist. Normal individuals have inner controllers that prevent them from breaking the law and therefore encourage them to behave in a normative fashion. The sanctions of society are greater deterrents for normative people than are formal sanctions (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 1994).

Indeed, people who reach a crosswalk alone when the light is red are less concerned with social criticism and so break the law more easily, while those surrounded by other pedestrians waiting for the green light feel more committed to social order and to social norms and therefore tend to stick to social norms, although not all of them, of course. It should be clarified that it is the immediate social constraints that make people feel more committed to social order. In other words, a transient social state operates to engage pedestrian behaviour. This is also consistent with the social learning explanatory framework (Bandura, 1969).

This being true, this tendency might potentially have some beneficial implications. Hirschi (2004) assumes that strengthening the ties to conventional social institutions might increase the commitment of individuals to normative behaviour. Authorities might want to apply this principle by implementing public educational programs for increasing self-control and hence normative and safer behaviour.

This tendency does have exceptions however. Comprehensive research (Ben-Moshe, unpublished Master’s thesis, 2003) that examined the road crossing decisions of young children and adolescents (6, 9 and 13 year old boys and girls) revealed an opposite trend. Each participant standing with his/her peer group on a crosswalk was much more lax regarding risk-taking in crossing the street than the same participant standing alone. Thus, the mechanism of social facilitation ([Corston and Colman, 1996] and [Sanna and Shotland, 1990]) works differently when teenagers are involved. Support for this notion is found in other studies ([Christensen and Morrongiello, 1997] and [Miller and Byrnes, 1997]) which point to the adolescent tendency to take more risks in the presence of their peer group. Carsaro and Eder (1990) tried to explain that values such as social acceptance, social solidarity and popularity are much more considered among adolescents than among mature people.

An important perspective of road behaviour, such as pedestrians’ road crossing, is the cultural context of the society (e.g. Levine, Norenzayan, & Philbrick, 2001). The behavioural norms of society might be reflected, for example, in the tendency to walk alone or in groups (Rosenbloom et al., 2004).

The current study was conducted in an urban setting at a pedestrian crosswalk in the largest Israeli metropolis – Tel Aviv, which is not typified by any unique features that can be found in other regions in Israel where minorities lives (such as the ultra-orthodox citizens, for example, who walk together in large families and groups as documented by Rosenbloom et al., 2004). So, it can be predicted that individualism-collectivism, for example, could play an important role in explaining people’s behaviour. Sagy, Orr, and Bar-On (1999) found that religious students scored higher in a questionnaire than the secular students on items emphasizing collectivist orientation.

In addition, the decision to cross streets when the light is red is probably influenced by the traffic law associated with crossing on red. In Ireland, for example, crossing in red light for pedestrians is not a traffic violation but rather a warning for pedestrians to be careful while crossing the street. In Israel it is forbidden by law, and those who violate this law take the risk of being fined by the police (http://www.police.gov.il). In a way, the current study’s findings are in line with these norms since people usually do not intend to violate the laws but do control each other’s behaviour.

What then, could be the pragmatic explanation for crossing intersections on red when alone? From past experience, people know that the larger the group of people waiting on the curb, the shorter the waiting time is likely to be. In a quick ‘cost-benefit’ calculation they decide it is worth investing a few more seconds to be on the safe side. Here, our recommendation is to install more traffic lights that also indicate the time remaining for the light to change. Further research on this topic is recommended.

From a pragmatic point of view, large groups of pedestrians should have a stronger feeling of safety than individuals have, due to the “safety in numbers” effect (Harrell, 1991) that they feel when many other pedestrians are also crossing. One might assume that oncoming traffic is better able to see pedestrians and come to a stop when there are many of them grouped on the crosswalk or many of them beginning to cross on red. Consequently, there may be greater confidence that drivers would stop under these (crowd) conditions, eliminating the need for caution by the pedestrians.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, December 10th, 2009 at 9:38 am and is filed under Cities, Pedestrians, Traffic Culture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Responses to “Pedestrian Crossing Behavior: Lemmings or the Lone Wolf?”

  1. Peter Smith Says:

    definitely shades of Critical Mass, there.

    i used to walk out across red lights more often than i do, now. i did it once and almost helped to get one guy killed. he blindly followed me out into the intersection. he got mad at me because a biggish truck almost ended his life — the driver stopped just in time. that would have been some fun fisticuffs — “You almost got me killed!” “Oh yeah? Did I propel your legs forward, #**@*#?!” — but his words were something easier than that, maybe not directly directed at me, and i think i was feeling serene and surprised and a bit guilty about the whole thing — and he *did* almost just die in a very gruesome way. i get that same angry reaction when a driver terrorizes me — most recently with a car horn. I didn’t touch him, but I suspect he won’t be so liberal with the horn against bikers in the future. Red lights are good for some things — occasionally stopping outlaw drivers from getting away from a stark raving mad cyclist chasing them because he wants to ‘have a word’. :-D

    so, i did feel some responsibility for that jaywalking incident, if not the majority of it. and i started thinking that kids shouldn’t be expected to be responsible like adults, so now i’m always more careful when i cross reds, and just do it less often, not wanting to risk anyone else’s life. not sure if i’m the only one who’s been scarred for life because of this near-death (for someone else) experience.

    i’ve even dashed a couple/few/many? red lights if/when i’ve been in a hurry, and if someone stupid/not-paying-attention was behind me, i’d throw out and back the left hand, palm opened, with the ‘stay/stop’ signal (since i’m looking left, usually). i don’t do it at all when kids are around — and that goes for both sides of the crosswalk/intersection. i’m a more careful and caring law-breaking pedestrian, now.

  2. Cycler Says:

    I’ve been conducing my own very unscientific survey of this with bicyclists (no control sample). I ALWAYS stop at lights. If there is any other car at the light I will wait with them until we get a green. (if there’s no one to be seen in any direction, I have been known to proceed). I’d like to think that other cyclists are more likely to stop and wait if there is a cyclist waiting, but honestly I don’t think there’s a big effect. I’d say at least once one each ride, someone will pass me in order to run the light.

  3. fred_dot_u Says:

    Cycler, since I’ve become a vehicular cyclist, and long before that, I’ve always stopped at red lights. I won’t “run it” unless it’s cycled through and not turned green for me.

    I have NEVER had another rider come up from behind and stop with me. ALL of them run the light and there’s usually other traffic in the intersection.

    A sad commentary to the behavior of people on bikes.

  4. mary k Says:

    I’d say at least once one each ride, someone will pass me in order to run the light. I have NEVER had another rider come up from behind and stop with me. ALL of them run the light and there’s usually other traffic in the intersection.

    http://www.IdiotsTrafficSchool.com
    http://www.FreeTryTrafficSchool.com
    http://www.DummiesTrafficSchool.com

  5. Luis Rizzi Says:

    I do not agree with the last sentence “Consequently, there may be greater confidence that drivers would stop under these (crowd) conditions, eliminating the need for caution by the pedestrians.” The very same moment pedestrians do not need to exercise cautions, the number of pedestrian hits will go up in an alarming way. Caution and a bit of fear are very good to protect the life of pedestrians, probably much more effective than any road safety measure.

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