OPINION - The London Question: Can pedestrians be put first for once?

Shoppers on Oxford Street (In Pictures via Getty Images)
Shoppers on Oxford Street (In Pictures via Getty Images)

Virginia Woolf had it right: “The greatest pleasure of town life in winter is rambling the streets of London”. Except for winter, read any season you like. I am a street walker. My most pleasurable route to work is to get a bus to Aldwych then to make my way through the City by any route that looks like fun. And on the way back, I am a flaneuse, that is to say, I ramble roughly in a given direction taking in points of interest along the way. Last week, I came unexpectedly across Stationers’ Hall and its locked garden, which I peered at wistfully, like Alice in Wonderland. London’s full of remnants of the past which you only see on foot.

But what the contemporary street walker must negotiate, which Woolf didn’t have to, are the modern impediments. She had to handle motorists who never had to pass a test, and hansom cabs. Our problems all have this in common: the pedestrian comes last in the road-user pecking order.

London has umpteen building projects under way and that means just one thing: walkers get pushed off the pavement. The other day, going towards the Barbican, I found that the pavement was blocked and you had to make your way across traffic to the other side. Naturally, I stuck to the side of the road I wanted on the outside of the barriers, which was thrilling.

But in terms of inconvenience, you want to have seen the road outside Olympia a while back, where pavements were for a time blocked off on both sides of the road, and you had to negotiate the traffic through a complicated zig-zag manoeuvre.

Look, where building is going to take more than a few days, it should be incumbent on the developers to secure a route for pedestrians through the building works, perhaps via a tunnel, so an important thoroughfare isn’t blocked. And then there’s the bit of road furniture that really maddens me — the railings bordering pavements at junctions which are meant to send you to some distance from the point at which you actually want to cross the road. It’s infantilizing, like the railings that keep babies out of harm’s way. Granted, some pedestrians do behave like infants, and frankly, if you use a mobile phone crossing the road, you can’t complain as you’re flattened, but it’s insufferable. My approach is to go round the outside of the barriers to save time, which will get me killed one day.

Unbecoming atmosphere: Hyde Park underpass (Getty Images)
Unbecoming atmosphere: Hyde Park underpass (Getty Images)

What gets the hate from most pedestrians though are the underpasses, which feel unsafe even if they’re not. I negotiate the ones at Hyde Park Corner and Park Lane, and never without thinking why it is that the cars aren’t stopping for me at a proper pedestrian junction, rather than me descending and ascending to make way for them. In fact, the Park Lane motorway should have been put underground at the outset; that way, the little streets of Mayfair leading to Park Lane could take you right across to Hyde Park, as they were meant to.

There are simply too few pedestrian crossings. Sian Berry, for the Greens, observes that “the Mayor has told me that there are over 200 junctions with no pedestrian crossings at all and hundreds more with them only on part of a junction”. It’s a remediable problem.

But credit where it’s due. Transport for London has been trying to make life easier for pedestrians with several action plans and as my architect friend observes “there are some really good examples in recent years of public realm interventions that increasingly prioritise pedestrians”. On the credit side, there’s the walker-friendly south side of the river. And a big thank you for the local maps on every other street.

I’m no fan of pedestrian-only streets — we should be able to share space with other road users

If the most annoying thing about crossing the road is addressing the two-stage crossing (where the second traffic light goes to red just as you get to it) it’s now being sorted. See the crossing at Oxford Circus where you don’t need to use two sets of lights to get to the diagonally opposite side.

At King’s Cross, the pedestrian movement to Granary Square is via a simple zebra crossing, though as a friend observes, “it’s one of the few places I feel sorry for vehicles having to wait until there’s a dip in the almost continual flow of pedestrians”. I am pro-walker, but the people who use zebra crossings without ever having an eye to the queue of traffic waiting to move are just mean. Look at the one at the bottom of Sloane Street.

Some solutions, however, are less happy. I’m no fan of pedestrian-only streets, on the basis we should be able to share space with other road users, given common sense on both sides.

As for the streets that are designed for pedestrians and cars to share, they really don’t work. Outside Sloane Square station it can be difficult to tell where the pavement stops and the road begins. I once hauled a man from the path of an oncoming car there. The shared space on Exhibition Road is equally confusing. Let’s remind ourselves: if it’s a standoff between a pedestrian and a car, the outcome can go only one way.

TfL treats cyclists and pedestrians as a near-identical interest group. News for them; we’re not. Cycle routes can narrow pavements, and when the cycle lane actually cuts into the pavement, leaving bus stops as little islands to which pedestrians cross at their peril, then trouble can and does happen. What’s more, cyclists are, if anything, more scary than motorists, given their sense of entitlement, though I do know as an ex-cyclistwe’re a menace for them too.

But that’s the thing. We’re all of us pedestrians at one time or another, even if we mostly get around London by other means. It should be possible to share space nicely. But of all the means of locomotion, Shanks’ pony — your own two feet — is the most obvious and handy way to get round the city. Put pedestrians first.