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Cellphone Talkers Get Their Own Sidewalk Lane in D.C.

Rob Pegoraro

Cellphone Talkers Get Their Own Sidewalk Lane in D.C.(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

A sidewalk in downtown Washington, D.C., looked a little different Thursday, courtesy of a set of freshly stenciled commands separating the path into lanes: “NO CELLPHONES” on the left, “CELLPHONES: WALK IN THIS LANE AT YOUR OWN RISK” on the right.

A solid line split those lanes. The phone lane, additionally, featured north- and south-facing arrows to make it clear who should be walking where, while staring, oblivious and glassy-eyed, at the screens of their mobile devices. 

D.C.’s government had nothing to do with Thursday’s changes to the 1000 block of 18th Street Northwest. Instead, credit goes to National Geographic, which staged this stunt for an upcoming TV series on behavioral science called Mind Over Masses. With the phone lanes marked off, a TV crew camped out on that block for the day to see how people would react. (Yes, Nat Geo had the city’s permission.)

I joined the crew for an hour or so in midafternoon to make my own observations.

Pedestrians and a cyclist using the lanes

(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

• Only a minority of pedestrians altered their course once they spotted the stencils.

• The most consistent effect of painted instructions telling people where to walk with their cellphones: People with phones stop, take them out, and take a picture. I saw that happen at least four times. Nobody took a selfie, though.

(About the same thing happened in 2010 when Improv Everywhere chalked up separate sidewalk lanes for New Yorkers and tourists — the latter also being more likely to walk more slowly on the sidewalk.)

•  The phone lanes did attract other sorts of traffic: people on bicycles, one gentleman in a motorized wheelchair, and another towing a wheeled carry-on bag.

• All three people seen smoking cigarettes (plus the one “vaping” on an e-cig) took to the phone lanes. 

• Both individuals observed wearing Bluetooth hands-free kits also moved to the phone lanes. Further research is needed to determine if Google Glass wearers would be more likely to congregate there.

• Strange markings on the street can also get strangers to talk to one another. As a mailman pushed a hand cart up the street, a woman pointed and said, “This lane!” Both laughed.

• Many people actually using their phones did not notice the markings at all. Of course they wouldn’t: They were staring, oblivious and glassy-eyed, at the screens of their mobile devices.

Now, it’s possible that I missed some deeper social truth: I was using my phone to take notes, and you know how distracting that can be.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.