Advice on walking etiquette: What’s the proper way to walk on busy streets? Someone in Chicago asks

People need to be more aware of their surroundings and how their carelessness affects others. At least for the sake of public safety.

Angela Cheng/Sun-Times

Dear Ismael,

Why don’t Chicagoans know what side of the sidewalk to walk on? The “rule” everywhere is walk on the right side, just like we drive on the right side. Folks in Chicago don’t seem to know, or they ignore this rule. Is there an explanation or history behind this?

— Strolling in Lakeview

Dear Strolling,

I have been waiting for someone to vent to me about this. As a gay person who is always in a hurry, nothing irks me more than people with no spatial awareness in public.

I can complain all day about people not knowing how to walk in a busy city.

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I hate it when a group is riding an escalator, and they all stop to converse at the end, not caring that others might be trying to get off.

And it annoys me when someone scans to enter a train platform, then stands right in front of the entrance while there’s a line of people trying to come in, too.

But I also admit that I am a huge hypocrite when I judge others about this.

In the weeks leading to me writing this column, I’ve caught myself walking on the left side of the sidewalk while people are rightfully coming from the other direction. I’ve even been guilty of pausing at the end of an escalator to collect my thoughts and remember where I am and where I’m going.

Sorry about that. Sometimes, it just happens.

But your frustration is valid. And it’s bigger than a simple case of sidewalk rage. People — including me — need to be more aware of their surroundings and how their carelessness affects others. At least for the sake of public safety.

Just like we get mad when a car in front of us turns at the last minute without signalling or when someone drives past a stop sign, we get upset because someone can get hurt by those careless actions. The rules — written and unwritten — are there for a reason.

When I was looking at the history behind walking etiquette, I found that the origins of these rules were built on a foundation of having good manners and keeping people safe.

Seriously. In the Middle Ages, women would walk on the right side because knights would wear their swords on their left. I thought the reason was so they wouldn’t be fatally poked, but I guess it also freed the knight’s right arm to defend the lady and himself from attack.

When you add vehicles to the mix, a gentleman would offer to walk closer to the curb so the lady wouldn’t be splashed by mud from a passing car (or carriage). I also think it’s really kind when someone offers to serve as a protective barrier between you and a fast and heavy machine.

So the right side has been the safe side for hundreds of years. Even though gender roles have evolved, and we don’t have to worry about swords, these rules remain relevant today for those trying to be kind, thoughtful and uninjured.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rules. Like when excited tourists are taking in the views of our beautiful city and posing for pictures in front of the Chicago Theatre while you make your way to the Red Line. (Be nice.) Or when people pause at the end of an escalator for less than, say, three seconds.

One second more, though, and they deserve an eye roll.

Write to Someone in Chicago at someoneinchicago@suntimes.com.

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