London, we've been watching you. Loitering on corners, observing and counting, and now we know just what proportion of Londoners indulge in that most salient of 21st century habits: using a phone while walking down the street. At any given time, more than a fifth of London's pedestrians are doing something with their mobile.
We observed 5,250 pedestrians at various locations around central London. 1,163 were using their phones in some way while walking along. This equates to 22% of the sample.
We made a note of the type of phone usage, too. The largest proportion of our sample, 451 people, were looking down at their phones while walking — perhaps reading a text or navigating by map. This means about 8.6% of London pedestrians amble along without really looking where they're going. You've probably bumped into a few of them. Perhaps we should invest in 'text lanes' to separate off this vulnerable cohort.
A further 264 were making a call, and 448 were wearing headphones (obviously, we can't know if these were plugged into phones or mp3 players, but either way it's a form of personal technology used on the street).
We counted passers-by at 24 locations around central London. Each observation session lasted precisely 15 minutes. Observations were taken at different times of day and different types of location (e.g. pedestrianised area, busy road, side street…). All observations were, however, during daylight hours and dry weather.
As each location was only sampled once (for 15 minutes), it isn't possible to make statistically strong assertions about which parts of town show more prolific phone usage than others. We might have caught a given location at a particularly unrepresentative time — for example, a nearby closed tube station would lead, presumably, to an increase in phone activity.
But just for the fun of it, here are the top three locations for phone usage during our sampling:
1) Beneath the Millennium Bridge on the north bank. 36.5% (high proportion of joggers using headphones)
2) Finsbury Square. 35.3%
3) Carter Lane near Blackfriars. 31.8%
In other words, roughly one in three passers-by were hooked to their phones at these locations. All three were measured during evening rush hour, which might be a contributory factor.
Meanwhile, the quietest spots were Paternoster Square (6.6%), outside City Hall (8.1%) and Lincoln's Inn Fields (11.3%) — surprisingly, all three are pedestrianised areas, where one might expect greater, not lesser, phone interaction.
We Want More Data!
With observational studies like this, there are many variables. Time of day, proximity to a train or tube station, and the nature of the built environment might all influence the urge to get the phone out. So the more data we can gather, the more refined the map becomes. We might even be able to draw a map of hotspots, where you're more likely to have to swerve around phone zombies. If you'd like to help out (and it is surprisingly addictive), here's what to do.
1) Pick a spot in Zone 1 where you feel comfortable loitering around — cafes with windows facing onto the street are good bets, or perhaps a bench.
2) Observe everyone who passes by for exactly 15 mins. Keep a tally of (a) people looking at their phones, (b) people making calls — either hands-free or traditional, (c) people with headphones in, apparently not making a call, (d) anyone not obviously using their phone. We actually did the tallying, somewhat ironically, on our own smartphone, which looked far less suspicious than standing there with a notebook. Exclude people on bikes/skateboards and any children clearly under phone-using age.
3) Note also the time of day and date, so we can compare these variables.
4) Send any data to firstname.lastname@example.org