Pedestrian Observations from Central London

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.

Of course, the 20 mph zones, the naked streets, and the streets that are officially neither 20 mph nor naked but so narrow they might as well be are not, by themselves, hateful toward pedestrians. They’re rather pleasant. Even when they have beg buttons, which is often, those buttons can be ignored, as they routinely are in Providence. Beyond them, there’s a class of streets of about the same width as Manhattan streets, for example Portobello, which are busy and pedestrian-scaled. The issue is that the wider ones, the main streets, have completely abandoned any attempt at catering to pedestrians; they’re run by road engineers rather than by urban designers.

The failure of London is not a matter of preferring cars to cities, as is the case in American cities. The London Underground is quite nice, though it’s more because it charges exorbitant fares (see page 45 here, and realize that the graph seems to use a depreciated pound:Euro exchange rate) than because it’s particularly well-run. The commuter rail system is treated like modern rapid transit and is treated with lavish investment. There is an extensive bike share system, but with substandard bike lanes that tend to disappear into bus stops. 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.

In contrast, New York and Paris do things differently. Streets are wider both on average and at the minimum. Parking is done on the street, providing a buffer from traffic that’s wide enough to make me feel protected but porous enough that I can cross when I want to. Sidewalks are wide, crosswalks are frequent and let pedestrians cross in just one cycle, and increasingly protected bike lanes are cannibalizing road space that used to belong to cars. Of course, London’s main streets are wide enough that they could look like the delightful mess that is First Avenue if TfL wanted to. At a few places, they do look like New York streets, such as the aforementioned Portobello Road, with parked cars on one side. But for the most part, London treats its main streets, where most activity is, as arterial roads for cars.

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.

That is not to say I avoided walking around London. On the contrary, I explored Central London during what little time I had to ditch my family. But the streets were not particularly inviting, and at some points it felt more like an adventure than like an ordinary walking trip. This never happened to me in New York or Paris or the (very few) other cities I’ve found to be walkable.

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34 Responses to Pedestrian Observations from Central London

  1. JJJ says:

    Want to see a city that actually, really, violently hates pedestrians?

    Try walking the Las Vegas strip. It’ll hit you quickly that all those “amenities” like the bridges to cross roads are really “GTFO of my way” construction.

    One positive I noticed in London: Drivers strongly respect the zebra crosswalks (stop, and remain stopped).

    On the other hand, it appears that driver have the full ROW at non-zebra crosswalks.

    • And as bad as Vegas was, it was much worse.

      Today, many of the mega-casinoes on the strip have pedestrian-facing amenities, and generally keep autos in garages–and there ARE places where pedestrians can cross grade-separated, even though yes–the purpose is to keep them from mixing with the car traffic.

      It wasn’t long ago, however, that the casinos were all surrounded by open parking lots, and that pedestrians on the sidewalks were basically surrounded by cars on all sides.

      • JJJ says:

        Have you seen the new CityCenter development? Read their press releases, and they mumble about how green they are. But then go visit, and the very narrow sidewalk gets interrupted by a massive 6 lane garage entrance. Want to see the main entrance of the structure with the great fountains and stuff? You better arrive in a cab, theres no sidewalk there!

        And dont even think about crossing the street to eat at the burger place that looks so close. Its a half mile to the nearest crosswalk. Faster to take a cab….yes, across the street.

    • Tom West says:

      “One positive I noticed in London: Drivers strongly respect the zebra crosswalks ”
      That’s because if they don’t, they will sooner or later hit a pedestrian and then get banned. Simple really.

      • Nathanael says:

        The rules on drivers’ licenses in the UK appear to be MUCH stricter in the US, as well. The sort of stuff which gets you a slap on the wrist here seems to get your license revoked permanently there.

  2. Eric says:

    My impression about London is that the Underground, while a nice system, does not have sufficient capacity for a city of that size. If the streets were pedestrianized, then both streets and rail would quickly reach gridlock.

  3. PeakVT says:

    This contrast between New York and London’s style of planning is jarring.

    Well, for the most part Central London grew organically. There have been interventions, but nothing like what Haussmann in Paris. So criticizing London for not having lots of wide, planned avenues is a bit ridiculous.

    • Nathan H. says:

      Good thing that is not the criticism?

    • Alon Levy says:

      London does have a lot of wide avenues. They’re not regularly spaced, but they exist. My problem is that those avenues may not be planned on the level of making a network that looks organized on a map as in New York and Paris, but on the micro level, they’re traffic-engineered to death.

      • Nathanael says:

        The wide arterials act as barriers, much like freight railroad tracks acted as barriers in many American cities. Instead of “wrong side of the tracks”, you have “wrong side of the street”.

        They frankly carve London up into neighborhoods. If you need to cross an arterial… well, you might as well just take the Tube to another neighborhood.

        Most infamously, there’s a nasty, trafficky street (with several names, but originally the “New Road”) directly over the original section of the Metropolitan Line. You’d better know which exit you want when you get out of the Tube (though at least it does have exits on both sides generally).

        Anyway, recent (post-2000) changes have been attempting to make the main roads less pedestrian-hostile. With varying success — apparently the road engineers can’t get over the habit of pedestrian corrals.

        • Nathanael says:

          I guess what I’m saying is that any given neighborhood of London is very human-scaled. But it is seriously balkanized by the main roads.

          I’ve actually read about people going for a shopping trip “on the north side of Oxford Street”, though I think that’s an extreme example.

  4. zvileve says:

    I visit the London area fairly regularly for work (teaching transport planning software to consultants!), and I must say that I have always found walking around London to be quite pleasant. Certainly compared to New York, and even in comparison to Paris. Then again, my rule #1 is to avoid the main streets – I always opt for smaller roads which are going in the general direction I want, and then wind my way through the maze. This would not be feasible in a car, but it is very pleasant on foot. Not sure if I would dare riding a Barclay’s Bike there just yet….

    If anyone is interested, here are some pix from my meanderings around London on various different trips: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zvileve/sets/72157594560662084/show/

  5. MobilMan says:

    They are trying to change a little bit. Oxford Circus has been redesigned to get rid of the clutter.

  6. For what it’s worth, Bill Hillier claims that London’s street network is “the opposite of labyrinthian” for reasons he describes on pp. 116-118:

    http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/3881/1/SITM.pdf

    As far as the mechanical vs. organic street debate, London and New York represent the opposite ends of a broad spectrum of ways to order a city. Paris in its post-Haussman form really is a hybrid. Closer to a labyrinth, I’d say, is Madrid, which lacks either a formal plan or the emergent order of organic growth. Another example would be the jumble of small grids (Greenwich Village for instance) of which each part is “planned” yet the whole is not truly coherent.

    • Alon Levy says:

      I’d venture a guess that people call London a labyrinth not because there exists no line that gets you from where you are to where you want to go, but because finding this line is impossible.

      Now, let’s look at the City network that Hillier depicts. It’s perfect if you want to get to and from Bank: there are streets taking you in every direction. This for all I know may have been the actual travel pattern in 1700. Three centuries of growth later, there are other nodes, which aren’t as well-served. My trip near the City was from Liverpool Street Station (at the northeast corner, beyond the area depicted in the map) to an address on Commercial Street. The station is not at a node of the street network, so getting from it to other destinations requires knowing the route in advance; if you don’t, for example because you expected to disembark at another Tube stop but couldn’t because of weekend works, then it’s very easy to get lost. (And to add to it all, to get across the Middlesex/Whitechapel intersection I needed to both run across the street and use a pedestrian underpass.)

      In other words, what London has is a street network that looks beautiful if you’re an architect and horrid if you’re a pedestrian. The citations I remember for London being called a labyrinth are from people in the latter group (the example that comes to mind is Orwell, in 1984), and presumably the same is true of the people Hillier is thinking of. To be honest, when an architect calls London’s network logical, my immediate thought is of a certain class of techies who berate users for doing text editing in office suites instead of learning all the obscure three-key sequences in Emacs, or of Latin teachers who point to the language’s combinatorial tables of inflections and pronounce them logical and beautiful.

      • Miles Bader says:

        Maybe it’s not to your taste, but it’s certainly not “horrid if you’re a pedestrian.”

        There are different classes of pedestrians; for instance, (1) the tourist — clueless about where anything is, but not in much of a hurry, (2) the local — in a hurry much of the time, but knows where everything is, (3) the visiting businessman — in a hurry and clueless.

        For (1), these labyrinthian streets are generally a good thing, because they’re more interesting than a grid. Your remark about NYC being a more happening place may very well be true—and based on my visits to london, I’d probably agree—but I think that’s in spite of NYC’s street layout, not because of it. Tourists will get lost, but getting lost occasionally is often desirable when one is a tourist.

        For (2), they know all the most efficient routes by heart, so they can efficiently travel on foot, and yet they still benefit from the more interesting street layout — short and varying sight-lines are more engaging, no matter how many times you’ve sen them.

        For (3), yeah, well, for them it sucks. But they never walk anyway. [and I certainly don't want my cities designed for the benefit of traveling businessmen!]

        BTW, I don’t know how widely you walked, but I personally think the most central tourist areas in London are among the least appealing (though the museums etc are very good). A little bit further from the center, and it’s really amazingly nice. Some of the “inner city residential” areas are jaw-droppingly beautiful (and very walkable).

        I agree, though, that idiotic “ped control” measures are just that, idiotic. Fences between the sidewalk and the street are evil.

        • Alon Levy says:

          To clarify, I don’t think London hates pedestrians because it has no grid. These are independent things. Florence has no grids, and absolutely loves pedestrians, even on main streets used by locals (i.e. not the tourist ghetto around the Ponte Vecchio).

          In London I was primarily in group 1, but I still wanted to be able to get to places without meandering through boring streets. I would mind London’s arterials a lot less if there were more activity on the side streets, as on Portobello. And on the trip I mentioned to Charlie, I had a specific destination in mind. In general, I don’t like getting lost, especially when I then need to navigate to the Underground to get back.

          As for group 2, I was such a person growing up in Tel Aviv and Singapore, where I knew the most efficient routes for the regular trips I took, and had no idea how to get around outside my immediate neighborhood. As a result, I tended to stay in my immediate neighborhood.

          In contrast with both of the above experiences, in New York the regularity of the grid is such that, both as a tourist and later as a local, I’d walk much longer distances than in other cities, simply because I knew I’d always be able to find the way back. Even my family walks longer distances in Manhattan than in other cities where they’d take taxis. The important thing is that once I know a side street goes all the way through, it’s as useful to me as a major street; if you check the street grid in the Old North, you’ll see that it’s more or less gridded, but the side streets tend to terminate in T-intersections or curve away from where you want to go, and as a result pretty much all commercial development in the neighborhood is on the arterials, with one huge exception on Basel Street.

          Finally: I tried to get away from the center. I picked a park that was recommended to me on Facebook and took the Underground in its direction. But the train went through Euston and I got off to take photos of trains, and then I saw that there was a good exhibit at the British Library and tried to go there instead.

      • An on-point anecdote from today: one of my coworkers in New York relocated from London three years ago, and mentioned to me during a conversation how he much prefers walking around London over New York since, he claimed, it’s possible there to cover long distances without being interrupted by stoplights. Of course, being a native of the city he knew the routes very well and would fall into category “2” under Miles’ post. At any rate, there’s plenty of room for difference of opinion here.

        • Alon Levy says:

          By that, I presume he means walking in the interior of the blocks formed by the major streets, or along pedestrianized ways, so that if there are intersections with car traffic they’re unsignalized. Am I correct?

  7. jim says:

    If you think that walking in London is bad, try driving in it. My old boss used to tell the story of how he went to London on a business trip. He landed at Heathrow, got his rental car, drove into London as far as Hyde Park Corner at which point he got out of the car and called the rental company to come and get it because he wasn’t getting back in it.

    There aren’t the freeways in London that there are in New York. There’s no equivalent of the Henry Hudson or the FDR Drive, let alone of the Cross Bronx, the Major Deegan, the BQE, the LIE, the Belt, the Clearview etc. At best, the M1 and M4 sort of poke partway into London. So the arterials have to carry the load. The result is very bad. The North Circular is an exercise in frustration.

    There are two possible reactions (assuming that freeways aren’t acceptable): either cut down drastically on the number of cars in London or engineer the hell out of the arterials to optimize traffic flow. Nobody knows how to do the first (the Congestion Charge hasn’t had much more than a marginal effect and just in Central London), so all the effort has gone into the second.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Trust me, I know how bad driving is. We took taxis a lot. My family has two people who rarely take public transportation and prefer taxis (my mother and my sister), and one person who never takes public transportation (my father). As a result, we did a few trips by taxi that we clearly should’ve done by the Underground. The worst was getting back from Waterloo to the hotel – the usual bridge was closed, and thus what would’ve been a 2-station, 4-minute trip on the Jubille Line turned into a 15- or 20-minute cab ride.

  8. http://westminstertransportationservices.co.uk/projects/project_details.php?id=199&type=5

    Here you go, they are just starting to rebuild Piccadilly Street. Once finished, It will be a two way strret again, most crossings will be straight across with no railings. Also signage will be rationalised with street lights and traffic lights consolidated into one pole. They sorted out Oxford circus last year, Hight street Kensington was done a few years ago, Exhibition road is being sorted out now.

    But all this costs money so it will take it’s time to change.

    By the way whats your gripe about the commuter system having ticket barriers?

    • Alon Levy says:

      Thanks for this, and I’m glad London is changing for the better.

      My gripe about fare barriers is that they’re high-maintenance and don’t offer too many benefits over a German-style POP system, except in two cases, neither of which applies to Britain. One exception is if passenger traffic is so high that POP is infeasible, for example in Tokyo (and in few other cities). The other exception is if the fare control is integrated with a legacy urban transit system with fare barriers; while the London commuter rail network is fare-integrated with the Underground, it still requires people to cross fare barriers between Underground and National Rail stations, which offers no advantage over placing Oyster validators instead and equipping ticket inspectors with handheld Oyster readers.

      • Andrew says:

        That’s not true – there are many integrated stations with Underground trains on one track and National Rail trains on an adjacent track, or even on the same track, with no fare barriers in between.

        Not every station is gated (although almost all in the London area are by now), and there are POP-style inspections to supplement the gates.

        • Alon Levy says:

          Fair enough… I just didn’t see those. And I know not all of National Rail is gated, but most of the stations I visited had at least some of their tracks gated. Euston was ungated, King’s Cross was partially gated, Liverpool Street was fully gated, and I don’t remember whether St. Pancras’s domestic platforms were gated.

          • Andrew says:

            Most Central London stations are gated, and the main London terminals are generally gated separately from the nearby Underground stations. But go to any of the smaller stations (even the ones in Central London, like Farringdon or Moorgate) and you won’t see separate gates.

          • Alon Levy says:

            How come Euston is ungated?

  9. Except that the rather obvious. fact barriers stop people for riding for free.

    In the old days (pre WWII) all stations had multiple staff in booking offices and platforms, but as wages rose and the system was nationlised and poorly subsidised, this all a changed. Booking offices closed and smaller stations became unstaffed. You were expected to buy a ticket from a guard or buy one at the terminal station. This trend continued until privatisation, when the franchise holders were a bit more concerned about revenue. Ticket inspections increased on trains from once in a blue moon to at least one in two journeys. The only time that became impractical was during the rush hour when the system is at crush load. You can see the obvious problem with that.

    Fares are high in the UK, so the incentive to dodge fares is high, consequently the incentive to minimise fare dodging for the transport companies is also high.

    Occasionally they would draft 40 or 50 inspectors at once to close off the platforms at peak times and inspect tickets but apart from the big delays it would cause every one, it was impractical to do it very often.

    So over the years ticket barriers have begun to creep in to the busier stations. Now that nearly all the main destinations in the city or important suburbs are gated the incentive to ride for free is much lower as you can’t go anywhere useful.

    Also the Oyster system only covers the suburbs within London itself, people commute from over a 100 miles away they aren’t part of the system they still have magnetic paper cards. The Underground is nearly all Oyster now, but is not going to get rid of ticker barriers. Even when ITSO compliant cards are rolled out across the country they will still need them to prevent fare dodgers, ticker barriers are a cost effective way to do that on a high volume system.

    I

    • Alon Levy says:

      What you’re missing is that passenger volumes are no lower in Berlin or Munich. Of course total ridership is lower in those cities but that’s only because they’re smaller than London; ridership on individual lines is not lower – on the contrary, the Berlin S-Bahn lines probably have higher ridership than the National Rail lines feeding into London. The way those cities incentivize not cheating is by offering very large unlimited monthly discounts, and then cranking up the single-ride fare. If you believe the STIF link I gave in my post (and I don’t – it’s probably based on a low pound:Euro exchange rate), Berlin’s single-ride fare is higher than London’s. If a large majority of riders have season passes, then the incentive to cheat is reduced. I don’t know what the fare evasion rate in Berlin is, but in Zurich, which uses the same principles, it’s 2%. The importance is to not just squeeze the last drop of revenue from every customer but also hold collection costs down.

      • I never mentioned volume of passengers. Gating is no big deal, we are used to it on the Underground, we can cope with it on rail. Plus it reduces the number of undesirables who ride the rails. It is not as if it discourages use of the system nor is it unpleasant to use, it does not make your journey worse.

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