Why Is It So Common to See Just One Shoe, Not Two, On the Side of the Road?

Shoes don't always mate for life.
What happened?
What happened? / gaiamoments/E+ via Getty Images

Birdwatchers keep note of the birds they spot and train enthusiasts keep track of the various types of trains they see. But nobody ever seems to write down when they see an old shoe lying on the side of the road.

We’ve all seen it, though—perhaps hundreds of times: one shoe, on its own, somewhere a lone shoe has no business being.

It seems to make no sense. Of all the mistakes to make while accidentally preoccupied with other things, accidentally kicking one shoe off while strolling down the street and failing to notice it seems absurd. There are over 200,000 nerve endings in the average adult foot, so you would 100 percent realize if you’d absent-mindedly flung off a loafer.

Sadly, as with so many things, the truth about this errant footwear is pretty mundane: sometimes people just lose a shoe.

As a Reddit thread from several years ago details, there are more ways of losing a shoe than you might think—especially once a vehicle is involved. Based on the hundreds of responses from Redditors who have lost a shoe, one of the most commons reasons seems to be that people frequently use the roof of the car as a temporary resting place ... then get forgetful.

Say, for example, you’re changing out of a pair of muddy sneakers after a run, and rest your shoes briefly on the roof of the car before making some space where they won't get the car dirty. It’s apparently very easy to forget all about them and accidentally drive none the wiser. Yes, you’ve technically lost a pair of shoes, but it’s unlikely that someone is going to find them both in the same place; the more likely scenario is that each one of the two shoes will end up in different spots, allowing at least two people to experience the so-called “one-shoe phenomenon.”

Shoes can be ejected from moving vehicles, of course. According to Lifehacker: “People also tend to throw their shoes for some reason, especially kids.” Several parents shared similar stories about kids regularly throwing things out an open car window, shoes included. In some cases, Redditors shared tales of one car passenger throwing a shoe at another passenger out of frustration, and it accidentally finding its way out the window.

Anyone who has ever taken a National Lampoons Vacation-style trip where a family and all their belongings are crammed into the back of a car for nine or 10 hours at once will be familiar with the phenomenon of opening a door at a gas station and having a pile of your belongings tumble out—shoes possibly included. Similarly, a loose piece of footwear being carted around in a garbage truck could find its way overboard.

But motorized vehicles aren’t always part of the equation when it comes to a dropped shoe. A sleeping child being pushed in a stroller can easily, albeit accidentally, jettison a shoe without realizing it, as can the recipient of a piggyback or the inhabitant of a bike seat. Someone walking down the street with a pair of shoes in their not-fully-closed backpack or bag could also lose one without noticing.

However, there is another pretty logical reason why you only ever see individual shoes in the road, and not pairs. Depending on how many people see them, a pair of shoes might very likely be picked up by a passerby—to wear, sell, or even donate. A single shoe, however, is useless to most people. So there it stays, for people to pass and say to themselves, “Isn’t it funny how you only see single shoes by the road?”