The pedestrian-induced lateral oscillation of London's Millennium bridge on the day it opened in 2000 has become a much cited paradigm of an instability caused by phase synchronization of coupled oscillators. However, a closer examination of subsequent theoretical studies and experimental observations have brought this interpretation into question.
To elucidate the true cause of instability, we study a model in which each pedestrian is represented by a simplified biomechanically-inspired two-legged inverted pendulum. The key finding is that synchronization between individual pedestrians is not a necessary ingredient of instability onset. Instead, the side-to-side pedestrian motion should on average lag that of the bridge oscillation by a fraction of a cycle. Using a multi-scale asymptotic analysis, we derive a mathematically rigorous general criterion for bridge instability based on the notion of effective negative damping. This criterion suggests that the initiation of wobbling is not accompanied by crowd synchrony and crowd synchrony is a consequence but not the cause of bridge instability.