The excellent Pedestrian Observations blog has a fascinating post up about the experience of being a pedestrian in Central London. We often think of London as a pretty good example of what to aim for in transport terms: an extremely comprehensive network of trains, buses, an increasing network of cycle lanes and of course the famous congestion charging scheme. However, as Alon Levy’s post highlights, that doesn’t necessarily mean Central London is a particularly friendly environment for pedestrians:
As I got off the Underground, I was greeted by a fenced roadway without easy crossings. I found the way around a roundabout and started to walk toward the hotel where I was to meet my family, on the wrong side of the street. Although traffic was relatively light and the street was not very wide by New York standards, a fenced median required me to cross at one crosswalk, a Z-crossing with beg buttons and different pedestrian signal phasing for the two halves of the road. About five minutes after I first emerged above ground in London on foot, I realized: this city hates pedestrians.
The interesting thing about London is that you certainly don’t think it’s a deliberate effort to make life crap for pedestrians – at least not in the way that Auckland seems to go out of its way to treat pedestrians like scum, even in very busy parts of the city. Yet somehow there’s an over-riding, almost subconscious, sidelining of pedestrians in Central London. Alon’s post explores the thinking behind this situation:
None of this comes from a deliberate attempt to destroy alternative transportation; it’s just an unintended consequence of modernist planning.
In the view of the modernist planner, pedestrians and cars should always be strictly separated with fences if necessary, all crosswalks must be signalized, and it should be impossible to have any spontaneous crossings, or spontaneous anything for that matter. Ideally, crossings should be in pedestrian underpasses or overpasses, to eliminate all conflict. There can be delineated zones for pedestrians – side streets or some busy pedestrian malls, such as Covent Garden – but those should be placed away from the main streets.
A classic outcome is shown in the picture below (photo credit to Alon): I imagine if you talked to most traffic planners, they would think that most of these pedestrian measures are good things, to ensure safety, to provide pedestrians with car-free areas, in short – to separate what they see as largely incompatible uses of street-space: people and cars. However, inevitably this turns into a “how can we ensure pedestrians don’t get in the way of cars” approach. Alon contrasts how London approaches this matter with what’s done in Paris and New York:
This contrast between New York and London’s style of planning is jarring. New York’s grids are meticulously planned, without much variation except in the parts of Brooklyn and Queens where two separate grids meet. London is nothing like that – its street network is famously labyrinthine, and walking there with one’s roaming function turned off in order to save money requires hopping from one public map to another. But on the level of the individual street, this situation is reversed: London’s streets are meticulously traffic-engineered, while New York’s avenues are chaotic. It’s true even on the level of stereotypical cabbie behavior: for one, London’s cab drivers tend to obey traffic laws.
More fundamentally, it shows just why car-centric planning is so incompatible with urbanism: it tries to impose order on something that resists it. According to Christopher Alexander and the rest of the traditional urbanists, I’m supposed to shun the mechanistic design of New York (or Paris, which is as planned) and gravitate toward the traditionalism of London. In reality, my reaction is the exact opposite – on the micro level, New York is much more emergent and chaotic, and, at the level that is relevant to a local who doesn’t feel the need to constantly look up, vastly more human-scaled. London may appear to succeed on grand urban design principles on a map and in diagrams, but on little things that matter, it fails. It may have little pockets of success, and enough activity on the streets that I’m willing to spend 3 minutes crossing them when necessary, but it has nothing on its peer Western megacities.
Perhaps what I most like about aspects of the City Centre Master Plan is the way in which it takes the direct opposite approach to the handling of pedestrians to the traditional ‘modernist’ ideology that still rules in London. You can see this in what’s proposed for many streets, from Fanshawe to Queen to High. It is the chaotic nature of cities that makes them so interesting and attractive, and we shouldn’t try to regulate this chaotic nature away (as is the way of the modernist approach to traffic planning) but rather embrace and celebrate it. Let’s mix uses, let’s mix pedestrians and vehicles (in a way that’s safe), let’s narrow streets down so there’s more “friction” between different users of the space, let’s let our cities be cities.