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When travellers get off the train at Yamato City, a commuter suburb popular with families about 30km from Tokyo, their eyes might be drawn to a few white cloth signs fluttering in the station forecourt. These signs are the only visible indication of a policy that attracted global attention; a ban on pedestrians using their phones while walking.

The BBC reports it’s an initiative that, local officials declare, is both needed and – despite the lack of obvious enforcement – expected to succeed. Yet getting people off their phones so they can safely navigate the streets is something many cities wrestle with. Why does Yamato expect its policy to change residents’ behaviour, and why might it just actually work?

Japanese streets are full of arukisumaho, a widely used term describing slow-shuffling, bowed-headed pedestrians glued to their screens. It’s a portmanteau of the word aruki (to walk) and sumātofon (smartphone), but its connotations are more along the lines of ‘smartphone zombie’.

In January, Yamato City conducted a study in two locations and discovered that around 12% of the city’s 6,000 recorded pedestrians were using their phones while walking.

“[It] is simply dangerous,” says Mayor Satoru Ohki, the leading figure behind the policy. Ohki initially floated the idea with local lawmakers and, after running a public consultation, found that eight out of 10 people supported the idea, so in June a ban on using smartphones while walking was put into effect via municipal ordinance.

During the first few days of the ban, the city employed a handful of workers in high-visibility vests to hold signs in front of Yamato Station as a recorded message explaining the new ordinance was played from a CD.

Due to Covid-19, Ohki says he's hesitant to have additional law-enforcers patrolling the streets for the moment, so the few fabric signs at the station exit are now the only obvious indicator of change. “I believe we can trust the people of Yamato to do the right thing,” he explains.

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