Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version



Hill, Michael R. 1982. “Social/Behavioral Science Contributions to Our Understanding of the Pedestrian Experience: A Brief Review.” Pp. 9-21 in Feet Accompli: Linking People with Places. (Proceedings of the Third Annual Pedestrian Conference.) Boulder, CO: Transportation Division, City of Boulder.


Copyright 1982 Michael R. Hill


Social/behavioral research of the last decade has set the stage for major advances in our understanding of pedestrians and their world. Many of these ideas could radically change our approach to planning for pedestrians. However, full-scale realization of these perspectives during the next ten to twenty years will depend, in very large part, on our receptivity as practitioners to new goals, motivations, and research methodologies which are presently gaining momentum within the social/behavioral disciplines. The discussion here reviews the. emerging outlines of this happy renaissance in pedestrian research and. underscores the philosophical, ideological, and methodological issues which are so central to its acceptance and continued development.

Social/behavioral science insights of the last decade differ dramatically from those found in three earlier approaches to the pedestrian environment. These earlier perspectives, the engineering, the architectural, and the safety education views, are still important today not because they are conceptually superior, but because they have become firmly embedded in the conservative ideology of contemporary city planning, urban design, and metropolitan administration. Engineers now routinely aggregate, abstract and mathematize the individual ramblings of thousands of pedestrians in order to solve that thorny problem: How wide should a sidewalk be? Architects, whoso often assume exclusive access to some secret fount of omnipotent environmental understanding (and habitually eschew any need to read the lowly works of their social science bretheren), continue to author superficial, platitudinous, glossy, oversized, expensive, profusely illustrated coffee table books about gentrified pedestrian districts. Educators and safety experts, rightly alarmed at inexcusable pedestrian casualty rates, churn out public service announcements, print pedestrian safety awareness week posters, and install questionable behavior-modification programs in the elementary schools. The educators' safety campaigns, the architects' beautiful graphics, and the engineers' elegant equations are not totally bereft of value, but placed in the hands of contemporary city planners they become unwitting pawns in the conservative ideology of American urban planning.