The Pace of London

You can always spot the tourist, in fact it seems that during rush hour Londoners are obsessed with identifying the culprits. Whether he’s standing on the wrong side of the escalator or walking too slowly along the pavement clutching his map.

You might have thought that there is no scientific metric for measuring a city’s personality, including our antipathy to visitors, but you can see and feel it.

[Y]ou have probably visited other cities and noticed that its population is – well different. Now two American psychologists have one tidy mathematical formula that they believe holds the key to what drives a city, by taking differences between cities measuring among other factors the average walking speed in 31 countries around the world have in so doing developed a quite amazing hypothesis.

Beyond doubt, the most salient characteristic of life in this latter portion of the 19th century is its SPEED,—what we may call its hurry, the rate at which we move, the high-pressure at which we work;—and the question to be considered is, first, whether this rapid rate is in itself a good; and, next, whether it is worth the price we pay for it—a price reckoned up, and not very easy thoroughly to ascertain.

—W. R. Greg (1877) on “Life at High Pressure”

Taking the largest conurbations in each country, which in most cases were their capitals, they recorded walking speed. Over a distance of 60 feet at least two locations in the central areas in each city, measurements were taken during main business hours on clear summer days of pedestrians walking alone along flat, unobstructed broad pavements.

Another parameter was the speed of speech by asking for stamps at randomly selected post offices in each city, requesting one stamp of a commonly used small denomination to compare the times taken at each location.

The accuracy of 15 clocks, in randomly selected downtown banks, were also checked in each country and compared against the correct time of that reported by the local telephone company.

Using a complicated formula which also took on many other factors regarding health, smoking, and social lifestyle, their unsurprising conclusion was that Japan and Western European countries had the fastest overall pace of life scores, with Switzerland leading the overall pace index and England trailing sixth, but rather remarkably America came in at 16 just above Canada.

In short hotter cities were slower than their cooler counterparts, places with more vital economies were faster and cultures with strong socialist leanings tended to be slower, although strangely size did not matter in many instances.

All this might appear to be two scientists with too much time on their hands trying to prove the obvious. But recently I was listening to RadioLab one of my favourite podcasts which had as their guest the author of the report Professor Robert Levine explaining his paper. He maintained that every city has a beat – its DNA if you like – and that the random timings for the 60 foot walking experiment were consistent with the speed at which each individual city works. Given that walking beat one can extrapolate how the city is evolving, so maybe our antipathy towards the odd tourist obstructing us is indicative of the beating heart of London.

Picture: Liverpool Street Station crowd blur (victoriapeckham/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

2 thoughts on “The Pace of London”

  1. I like to think that I’m not easily pegged as a tourist when in London. I know which side of the escalator to stand on and I do most of my map reading in the hotel room. It is increasingly difficult to know where to walk, however. I assume this is because there are so many tourists from “keep right” countries on London’s streets, that there are more pedestrians who do that than Londoners leaning the other way, making for a lot of ‘Alphonse and Gaston’ moments. I usually just give up and look for a hole in the wall of walkers to shoot for.

    Occasionally, I feel validated when someone asks me for directions. If only residency were so easily established!


    1. Thanks again for the comment. Although we Brits drive on the left perversely, as you say, we have a convention to stand on the right on escalators. Apparently this was started in 1944 (just why they thought it necessary when there was a war on I don’t know). As I understand it these early escalators ended with a grill that was at a 30 degree angle to the stairs so that passengers on the right would reach the termination of the moving staircase after those on the left.


What do you have to say for yourself?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.