London and its pedestrians

London, why?, why you punish your pedestrians?!

Since I moved to London last September (2015) until the day I left, this past July, one urban feature hasn’t ceased to surprise and appal me, some of its pedestrian crossings.

Around a 20% of trips in London are on foot[1] and the latest trends seem to observe a decrease in car or private mode of commuting into central London on weekdays (in 2010, 79% of commuters into Central London were rail users). Yet, it seems that many of the pedestrian crossings in the city are designed to make it easier for vehicles and complicate pedestrian’s life; even though British pedestrian crossing types have the coolest names ever: hello Toucan, Pelican and Puffin crossings!!

I still remember when I was living in High Barnett, north London. Everyday I had to cross the high street to get to the tube station. Everyday it was a nightmare. The pedestrian crossing was signalled with Belisha beacons[2] and had a pedestrian refuge island but not streetlights. That meant that cars were never stopping for me and the other pedestrians that needed to cross in that point. Granted, there were zebra crossings with traffic lights further down and up the street but that meant adding 5 minutes to my journey. And 5 minutes, at morning, when you’re about to be late for work and under the rain, feel like half an hour of pure torture.

And it isn’t only me who has issues with London’s pedestrian crossings. Just take a look at any Pelican crossing in the city or the suburbs. Pelican crossings are on-demand crossings with crossing lights, where pedestrians have to push a button when they want to cross a street. It seems these type of crossings would be heaven for pedestrians; an in-demand crossing? The pedestrian has the power to stop traffic flow when needed? Being able to stop cars to your desires? It sounds good in theory but reality has proven me that pedestrians in London can’t or won’t wait for those seconds/minutes that it takes to stop traffic flow and turn the pedestrian lights to green. Pedestrians in general only wait on the curb when the traffic flow is so dangerous that there isn’t a way around it. Otherwise, they might push the button but hardly wait for their light to turn green.

These British crossings, that seem to embrace pedestrian empowerment and free-movement, have added stress to pedestrian’s journeys. London is a hectic city and its pedestrians move around it almost as it they were racing against each other (tourists apart, who you can spot easily just for their pace). They rarely have the time to wait for the pedestrian traffic lights to turn green.

It seems strange, in a time where urbanists are well aware that the focus should be on the pedestrian in order to achieve more sustainable and liveable cities, that the priority are motorised vehicles.

It’s understandable that in London, where air pollution systematically surpasses legal levels, planners aim to decrease the number of times cars and motorised vehicles have to stop and start again since it’s well-known that that increases the amount of gases/pollutants emitted. The goal is to have a steady traffic flow. Still, not even with this steady flow and the Low Emission Zone, Central London is compliant with the EU standards. And the problem isn’t the legal levels and standards, the problem are the health issues that this pollution causes to London’s population, inhabitants and workers alike.

These past years London has done a huge effort to increase the amount of cyclists commuting in the city, improving cycling lanes and creating the new “cycle superhighways”. Some intersections in less busy streets were refurbished putting cyclists and pedestrian into vantage positions. Below a picture of a crossing near Tabard Gardens, where a unique platform was created so pedestrians, cyclists and cars were (almost) sharing the space.

So maybe it’s time that London shifts for real its urban design, followings these last efforts, and creates more of these type of spaces, friendlier to pedestrians, friendlier to the people who live and work in the city. Spaces like the new city quarter in King’s Cross (I’ll talk about it next week). Improving pedestrian’s lives could boost the number of trips made on foot and make people “happier”. It’s a win-win. Because the current urban form in London (and its pedestrian crossings) it’s not helping with Londoner’s quality of live and health, despite the parks and pubs in the city.

[1] 20,4% of journeys were made by walking in 2009 according to Travel in London 3 report from TFL.

[2] A Belisha beacon is an amber-coloured globe mounted on top of a pole to signal and add visibility to pedestrian crossings. Here the Wikipedia webpage