Walking difficulties

Walking through Holloway, north London today, I was struck at how the road and pavement engineers deliberately make life difficult for pedestrians. To walk half a mile and cross a couple of major roads, I was shunted by so called pedestrian barriers in a way that ensured I had to cover an extra two hundred yards. In fact, as it was early morning, I dodged around them on the road as there were no cars, but I am fit and able to do that.Think how much longer people with poor mobilty have to go just to accommodate cars that they are unable to use.

This shows a priority of user which is no longer acceptable. Why should pedestrians, who are using the most environmentally friendly method of travel and who are contributing most to the community – we do not, fortunately, have drive-in shops in Holloway – go the long way round to allow cars to whizz through our patch faster?

This small example demonstrates just how far thinking about urban spaces has to change. So much of our urban design is still the legacy of 60s thinking which was solely concerned with how fast cars could get through, rather than any notion of liveability or swustainability. I recognise that it is changing, with Transport for London beginning to get rid of the 60s one way systems – though does Boris support that? – and Birmingham city centre having been transformed, but there is so much to do and so little money to support it. In fact, changing transport priorities should be high on the agenda for the government because it is the key to any regeneration strategy. Look, for example, at how Shoreditch has improved since the one way system was dispensed with there a few years ago.

  • Malcolm Bulpitt

    Perhaps you can blame me for some of the guardrailing in Holloway, or at least for the thinking that put it there. Back in the early 70s at the late, lamented GLC those of us engineers who were involved in trying to make London’s roads safer realised that we were getting as many, and often more, pedestrians injured within some 20m of controlled crossing facilities as on them. We did some studies and realised that when drivers were concentrating on the crossing and its control elements anyone moving off the adjacent kerb who was in the drivers area of peripherial vision was going to be seen micro seconds later, slowing the drivers reaction time, and hence was in greater danger of coming into collision with the vehicle. We then promulgated the idea that if we used limited amounts of guardrailing over the potential “danger” area to channel pedestrians to the crossing point we could reduce the number of collisions between people and vehicles. It worked.

    What then happened was that having achieved this success other engineers in local Councils (who probably did not have the safety engineering skills), and somtimes politicians who wanted “quick fix” solutions, did not take time to think through the logic of the process and started to encourage the spread of guardrailing to many other locations on the mistaken premise that more is better. Hence the reason why you have the mass of guardrailing that now exists.

    Working with TfL and some of the London Boroughs we Safety Engineers (some of us are still hard at it 35 years on) are now taking a close look at the current forest of railings and are using an assessment criteria that attempts to give us a logical risk assessment procedure of deciding what is needed and what is not. It will be a long process as, unlike planners, politicians (and also journalists!) when I or my colleagues sign-off a Road Safety Audit that does not have guardrailing in areas of potential danger and if subsequently a person is injured we are the ones who may have to answer to the Courts.

  • On our walk to school with the children when we lived in Cambridge we had much the same thing. On a road we had to cross, the pedestrian crossings were a mile apart. They made pedestrians suffer an average 37.5 second delay to cross the road while the average delay for drivers on the adjacent cross roads was just 7.5 s (I measured this) and the pavement we had to walk that extra half a mile along to get to where the crossing was is a narrow strip of rough tarmac with no separation at all between it and the road.

    I now live in the Netherlands. You don’t find infrastructure so amazingly pedestrian and cyclist unfriendly here.

    It was not always the case, though. In the 1960s there were some horrible road layouts in this country too. However, there have seen huge changes in the streetscape since then. There is a book of before and after photos of the city where I now live, Assen, which shows the extent of the changes locally. From a time when the roads in the centre of the city where dominated by cars to the current day when they’re dominated by pedestrians and cyclists.

    I don’t understand why the UK seemingly can’t do this. If it can be achieved in a Dutch city which is 750 years old and has narrow streets from that long ago as well as things built at all times in the 750 years which have elapsed since then, it can be done in a British city.

  • Steve Bacon

    I’m currently in India on an I.T. training course at Dehra Dun, near the Himalayan foothills. Dehra Dun has recently been declared the state capital of Uttrakhand, and traffic has mushroomed in the city. I’m struck by the contrast with European road safety and ‘pedestrian friendliness’. Over here, cars, motorbikes, buses and lorries have no consideration for pedestrians – or for each other, which may explain the 20+ deaths PER MONTH in this area. You literally take your life in your hands to cross the road – the main barriers are low walls dividing the carriageways, and it’s difficult to balance on them while waiting for a gap in the traffic to complete a crossing.

    The UK has has some appalling examples of pedestrian-unfriendly street furniture, underpasses and overpasses, and it’s good to see that the mistakes are gradually being rectified. We’ve a long way to go, but even so, we enjoy far better road safety than most other countries in terms of accident statistics.

    if you come to India, take extra care on the roads – and beware that air quality on the roads is absolutely chokingly disgusting and will get far worse in the next few years.

  • Christian Wolmar

    That’s very interesting Malcolm. I do think this issue of getting sued is a bit of a cop out though. Kensington and Chelsea have managed to remove all barriers and have demonstrated that this has not increased risk.
    It’s not just pedestrians that are inconvenienced, but road users are put at risk sometimes by these barriers. There is a very good example just near where I live, the junction of Camden Road (one way north) and Parkhurst Road (one way south). If you are driving out of Camden Road and back into Parkhurst Road, which I have to do occasionally (I still use cars sometimes though I don’t own one any more), your view of the oncoming traffic down Parkhurst Road is virtually non existent thanks to pedestrian barriers placed on a traffic island which no pedestrian ever uses! I have tried to get TfL to get these removed, but though they promised they were looking at it, a year later still nothing has been done. It would take a risk assessment of five minutes to realise that there is far greater risk to drivers than protection to pedestrians, yet I suspect that it will take tens of thousands of pounds on a consultants’ report before these barriers can be removed.

  • Re; Walking Difficulties.
    This afternoon I will be attending a regular weekly meeting in Harlow, Essex (The famous New Town / architectural experiment that many people seem to feel qualified to criticize). I have a twenty minute walk from Harlow New Town station to ‘The Stowe’ – a pedestrianised shopping area, that I believe was one of the first developments of the original new town.

    Aside from having to cross a major dual carriageway at a roundabout close to the station where there are no barriers, no pelicans or zebras, indeed nothing to “police” the movemement of pedestrians versus vehicles (strangely despite having to take your opportunity when you can, I believe it to be safer because you HAVE to be more aware)
    I am able to complete my journey through parkland and pedestrian routes without ever having to blunder into an MMMO (Motorized Metal Moving Object). All of this I imagine designed and executed by Sir Frederick Gifford and his team from the outset. The journey is a pleasure and I arrive a great deal less stressed!

    “Ah” People will say, “but that’s always possible with new build on a greenfield site – it can’t be done in an old town or city.” And here we get to the depressing situation which caused a protracted argument last week with my sister who had just driven down the A1 to visit me. – I am a non-driver by the way (Feet, bicycle,bus,train and taxi if pressed). She says she would use public transport if the infrastructure was there, but as it is not she is ‘forced’ to use her car. My argument was that if she didn’t made a real concerted effort to utilise the public transport system then the lack of demand would obviously preclude the expansion of non-private transport in her area. NO Passengers – NO buses etc.

    I shall not bore you with the stalemate outcome of this particular conversation, but I do ask if you could clarify one point for me and that is this continuous ‘chicken and egg’ situation that has arrisen whereby my sister cannot/will not use public transport because in a lot of cases it is not there and by therefore continuing to use her MMMO she helps to prevent the building of a public transport system. Who or which really came first? – Surely we had feet before we invented the Wheel! But it is surely this dichotomy that is the nub of it all and a wonderful ‘panacea’ excuse whenever the grissly subject of Walking versus driving comes up.

    We need to price un-neccessary MMMO’s off the road. One crazy idea I had was to adopt a system rather similar to the rating system for houses whereby a ‘One Person Vehicle’ (OPV) is taxed at a vastly reduced rate to a PC (People Carrier) – a six or seven seater normally occupied by one harried Mum on her way back from dropping the kids off at school. There is an easy opportunity for some very level-headed banding widths and distinction between commercial and non-commercial use. Not only that but it can be excercised at a local level free from national interference and the ‘vehicle ratable values’ increased or decreased according to ability of the local infrastucture to cope with it. A far sounder way of collecting funds to mend all those potholes I fall into on the bike. YES, and I’m afraid even the cyclist would have to cough up something but probably at the lowest end of the scale.

    That’s all for now.

  • Malcolm Bulpitt


    I am sorry, but the prospect of legal action in today’s society is very real and the prospect of being sued is not, as you put it, a “cop out”. I and most of my colleagues have to carry multi-million pounds worth of professional indemininty cover just to work for most Local Authorities as they know that the risk of a claim is high – and getting higher in the “blame” society we have. My colleagues and I do our job as best we can and make our decisions as relevant to the local situations as possible but if our name is on a Road Safety Audit of a scheme, it is not as a representative of an organisation, but as us.

    Obviously I cannot comment on the specific issue you raise, however I do know that the professional jury is still out on the Kensington High Street scheme and that it may not be quite the sucess that the media and others may claim it to be. The professionals at RBKC, wary of being in the dock, stood back and forced the politicians to take the final decisions. I hope that they have good insurance cover and access to good lawyers! Their decisions (as ours do) will follow them to the grave – I wonder if they realise that.

    This week i will be reviewing two sites in a London Borough where local opinion considers that guardrailing should be removed. I work for small specialist Traffic and Safety consultancy and I can asure you that our fee will be in hundreds, not thousands, of pounds. If Highway Authorities had their proper compliment of specialist staff they would not need us – but that is another issue, and I do not do politics!

  • Dan

    Just got back from St Ives in Cornwall (used FGW’s Night Riviera Sleeper both ways – superb service – reasonable value price in my view) – anyway – this quaint tourist town illustrates quite how much it has been ‘wrecked’ in lots of very little ways by the car (not helped by the vast number of frankly very posh middle class types trying to squeeze their ridiculous chelsea tractors around it!).

    In so many places the tiny narrow roads have been widened to the maximum so when there is a pavement it is about 8 inches wide at the most. I was with my brother and his 2 children – a 5 year old who can walk and a 2 year old in a buggy – it is a nightmare for any parent as in so many places the narrow streets have had pavement and buggy space sacrificed for car access.

    Yet the council here – back in the 70s I think – ‘pioneered’ Park and Ride at Lelant Saltings – this works well – until you note that the (same) council charges less for an all day parking ticket in one of the towns car parks than it does for 2 people to travel in on the train from Lelant. Crazy – they could only do themseves a favour by making parking charges 2 or even 4 times the cost of the train fare – no doubt local businesses would complain – but the town is a honey pot with no shortage of visitors – in fact, very sadly to the detriment of much of the rest of west Cornwall, which could serioulsy do with some of the money being spent by the affluent classes in St Ives (Penzance could do with a few crumbs from the table for a start).

    This issue about the metal barriers is only part of the story of the ‘longer walks’ for pedestrians that are all too common. The traffic engineers do not have an easy job – but ensuring free flow of motor vehicles does still seem to be the primary objective – but few people ask the key question WHY?

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  • Again. things have been done differently here for quite some time. We live in a 1970s estate in the Netherlands, and there are two traffic light controlled exits from this place to the ring road around the city. For pedestrians and cyclists there are a choice of 6 or 7 ways out in multiple directions (depending how you count) and only at one of them do you have to share those traffic lights with cars. It’s one of the many reasons why it’s generally quicker to cycle than to drive.

    Cyclists and pedestrians have some importance here, have had that importance for many years, and it’s only getting better with time.

  • Jim

    From the Mayor’s “Way to Go” document, published last week (but now mysteriously missing from TfL’s website):

    “the pavements have become
    an obstacle course of pointless
    street furniture and sheep-dip-style
    railings, fencing and herding them
    and reducing their enjoyment of
    public space.”


    “we at TfL are going to do everything
    in our power to make walking through
    this city as attractive and enjoyable
    as possible.
    That means zapping, one by one, the
    baffling posts that have sprouted in
    the pavements for reasons that no
    one can quite remember. It means
    removing the railings, many of them
    installed to prevent illegal parking,
    in the days before traffic wardens
    became so punishingly effective.
    It means slowly shifting the utility
    boxes and other bits of kit that have
    been planted just where pedestrians
    want to go, and that are particularly
    irritating for the disabled. And it
    means encouraging some of the
    wonderful urban realm projects that
    are now being pioneered in boroughs
    across London.”

    Let’s see.

  • Christian Wolmar

    ‘Way to go was’ on there yesterday and I did notice that comment. Then I went to Westfield where to get between the purpose built station, Wood Lane, and the shopping centre, you have to go through one of those pelican crossings with a central pen that does not allow you to walk straight across the road. Meanwhile the cars pass through uninterrrupted into an endless traffic jam. So no progress there….

  • Tom

    Re: Westfield – on our visit there on the way back from Oxford Street, we emerged from the Central Line tube, walked up into the centre, bought me a pair of boots, then myself and son continued out the other end, back down Wood Lane, across Uxbridge Road, across Goldhawk Road and finally onto a 237 westwards. The two pedestrian crossings we had to cross in this time looked decidedly motorist unfriendly – rather narrow and with quite well timed green phases. The negative part was the two southbound buses that, in the time it took a five year old to exhaust the potentialities of a new shopping centre, had moved about 200 yards down Wood Lane. Is there a possible route for buses round the back of the centre? I’ve often idly wondered if bus-only (+ cycle and pedestrian) roads might be useful.

    What sort of road do you have to cross coming down from Wood Lane station? The future bus station entrance? I need to go and have a better look round on my own, I think.

    Interestingly, what might happen at Westfield is that people who want to drive will get turned off by the reports of chaos, while people who go by public transport (particularly the Central or Overground) will never notice it. In that sense, we should be telling everybody it’s TRAFFIC HELL OUT THERE, and perhaps those who feel unable to get out of the motor will all go to Brent Cross instead.

    Boris, so far, has shown no interest in urban realm improvements that impact motorists. Removing pavement equipment doesn’t impact motorists, so he’s in favour, but that’s only half the problem. His introductory comments to the TfL Board meeting last week showed that he’s a total petrolhead, referring to the car as being the single biggest contributor to women’s emancipation in the 20th century. This doesn’t bode well, not least because it’s total rubbish.

  • Christian Wolmar

    He put the same comment about the car being an emancipatory force in his ‘way to go’ pamphlet, too. Bizarre.

  • Roger Williams

    One article mentions a “people carrier” (a van?) returning empty from the school run. Don’t you have school buses over there? Also, why do you call it “Transport for London” and not “London Transport”? Anyway, one of the biggest nuisances to pedestrians around here is the endless digging. “Sidewalk” (you call it a pavement or footpath) “Closed pedestrians cross over”. In the next block, it’s been dug up by some infernal construction project, or a building site that overflows the sidewalk, er, footpath. Motorists are also inconvenienced by orange cones, drums, ROAD WORK AHEAD signs then a big flashing arrow and the lane’s closed with trucks parked the wrong way blocking it resulting in a traffic jam as 2 lanes funnel into one with a good chance of an accident. There is no end of this; on one trip (by buses with a transfer) around town I counted 3 places where a lane was blocked by some bloody project, I bet 80% of this is unnecessary.

    On a recent visit to Ireland, I found it more pedestrian-unfriendly than the US is, if that’s possible. Very narrow roads, no sidewalk (er, footpath), almost nowhere to dodge when a car comes. Norway was almost as bad.
    –Roger Williams, Boulder Colorado USA (a college town NW of Denver)

  • Actually there are school buses in the UK, though not that many of them. We don’t have any in the Netherlands, but over here it’s not at all unsafe for children to cycle long distances to get to school – so that’s what they do:


  • Kevin Steele

    Roger – as a non-Londoner I thought calling it “Transport for London” (and you’ve got to remember to put the ‘for’ in italics for it to be properly correct..) was one of the most stupid rebranding exercises in British public transport history (rivalled only by the now binned train operating company name “one”). I think it came about when the responsibilities of the old London Regional Transport (which traded as London Transport) was repackaged and handed over to the Mayor of London’s office when it was created in 2001. London readers please correct me if I’m wrong on this…..

    Back to the point yes – I noticed that in the Republic of Ireland as well – but overall I was fascinated by the overall American influence on its road system – like the “yellow diamond” road signs, the yellow lane markings on the road surfaces and as you say – lack of sidewalks. In Britain we’ve been dogged by the installation of fibers for cable television and broadband over the last 10 years which means that there’s hardly a pavement in the land which hasn’t been ripped up for their installation at some point. Then what happens is the gas company or the water board comes along and wants to replace a section of pipe which means the whole lot needs to be hauled up again!

    PS – a “people carrier” is the equivalent of a “minivan” in the US. We don’t have the centralised yellow school bus service like in America – local authorites tend to charter a bus for school kids who live over a certain distance from their school – that’s how it works in Scotland at least.

  • Bluecaster

    Just a thought. In Northallerton there are several places where one housing estate joins another – in fact outside my door is what would logically be a three-way junction. However the local authorities put small parks there instead, with foot and bike paths across them. Result, no through traffic on estates and the kids have places to play locally. Moreover many people on the estates walk or cycle to work or school because it’s quicker than driving out of the estate, waiting at the main road, then driving back through the next estate to the school or office. Simple and cheap.