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.
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.