Follow us on Twitter

The modernist approach to pedestrians

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.

21 comments to The modernist approach to pedestrians

  • dan carter

    I hate all those metal barriers.

    Engineers thinking “how can we ensure pedestrians don’t get in the way of cars” inevitably leads to people thinking “how can I ensure those metal barriers don’t get in the way of me and where I want to go”.

    Pedestrians routinely walk around them, particularly the classic ones that force you to do a zig zag as you cross over the centre median.

    Fortunately they are slowly being removed as intersections are revamped, due to the number of cyclists that have died getting squashed between a truck and a pedestrian barrier.

    Cyclists, don’t undertake a left turning truck through an intersection!

  • Ari

    Chaos = frustrated/confused drivers + dead/injured pedestrians. This is obvious. Just look at the 3rd world. They use shared space quite a lot and their safety record is atrocious and they are used to it. Road safety strategy in NZ is all about reducing accidents to nil. In my mind, this strategy is entirely contrary to the concept of shared space because people(drivers and pedestrians) are impatient idiots with no situational awareness(yes, gross generalisation but it’s truth enough). I suspect driving culture in NZ has something to do with this attitude. It’s like the planners that came up with this were raised in some other country or live in some imaginary world where people obey road rules and are courteous all of the time. Only time will tell if shared space will work anywhere outside narrow, quiet roads and if it is actually safer for pedestrians. It may be more convenient and “interesting and attractive” for pedestrians, but I doubt safer unless you remove vehicles altogether.

  • Matt

    Two things strike me about Mr Levy’s post – the first is that if he’d come out of the underground at the correct exit, he’d have been on the correct side of the street and the second is that as a (former) Londoner, we used to treat fenced off corners (and different traffic light phasings for that matter) as things to look at but generally ignore. London treats its pedestrians like people with brains. That is to say, if you want to cross the road, you look both ways, then you cross. You can do it anywhere (unlike the US where you’re likely to get done for jaywalking) so the crossings are really only there for the tourists. Londoners know which exit to take from the station and if they bugger it up, they just hop the fence and cross anyway. It’s not unusual to see men in suits hopping over those fences in London. They’re only there to stop sleepy commuters wandering into traffic in the mornings as they get off the tube with a coffee in one hand and the paper in the other. It is easier to cross in New York, that’s true but you do probably have to wait longer for the right phasings and as was mentioned in the article, a grid system makes pedestrian movements much easier. London doesn’t work like that and can’t work like that. Special rules apply.

    • I didn’t come off the Underground at an incorrect exit or anything. At the site of the photo depicted in this post, I was walking, and wanted to cross the street to check out the eating places on the other side.

      And when I first got off the Underground, as described in the initial quoted paragraph, I knew exactly what side of the street I was walking on (the signs were posted “north side” and “south side”); I used the wrong side because I thought in error that the park-side walk would be nicer and that crossing the street was as easy as in New York.

      I was in London only for a few days, but I never saw anyone jump the fences. Often the traffic was too heavy to do that. I only occasionally saw people making a run for it, and that was mainly on narrower crossings.

      And Paris has no grid, either (its street network is planned along other lines), and still it manages to not have fences on the major streets.

  • Ingolfson

    Matt, I disagree – you sound like you are making the best of a bad thing. The “pedestrians with brains” comments doesn’t convince me, and neither does the “getting out of the station on the wrong side” comment. What if you are coming out of a building on one side, and want to enter one on the opposite? Are you supposed to make your way through the station tunnel (if it is even open for non-fare-paying passengers!) just to cross a 15m street? What a massive detour. A better city slows speeds, provides informal crossing options via medians (look at Queen Street between K Road and Mayoral Drive – very well done!) and in fact assumes that pedestrians have brains: brains not to get brained while crossing traffic. Pedestrian fences assume we are dumb sheep to be penned for our safety – and also assume that reducing that 1% remaining risk is sufficient reason to restrict your freedom in 99% of all other cases.

    “beg buttons”

    What a great word for pedestrian signals! My personal usage so far was “making an application to cross the street”. Maybe I will have to change my phrase!

    Oh, by the way, the Auckland Plan proposes to remove all signalised slip lanes throughout Auckland progressively. While I understand the safety risks, I’d much prefer if they instead made them into raised zebra crossings.

  • Ingolfson

    Ari – suggest you don’t jump from one extreme side of the equation to the other. Of course shared spaces don’t magically change the way we are driving, and of course they aren’t 100% safe. However, the Auckland shared spaces all have virtual footpaths (areas along the building edges that cars cannot reach, due to street furniture), and have features that slow drivers (not perfectly, but refer to my 1% comment above). And finally, I don’t believe that mythical attitude that Kiwis are a different species that will always treat driving differently than, say, Europeans.

    And by the way, the 3rd world doesn’t use planned shared space, they often simply use “chaos”, as you term it. Their driving behaviours (not only their road environment) is often atrocious (because of lack of driver training and enforcement), and their cars are badly maintained, from brakes to steering. To conflate shared space in UK or NZ with that is disingenous, in my opinion.

    • Ari

      Mythical? So are you trying to tell me people from different cultures all react to the same circumstances in the same way? Based on my personal experience, this is utterly wrong. People from different cultures and upbringings react to situations in different ways. If you grow up in a city where you mostly use PT and cycle, then naturally you will have a different outlook and mode of behaviour compared with a city where everyone drives cars and presumes they have right of way. Shared space is new and different for drivers so they are cautious, but once drivers get used to it, they will increase their speeds accordingly. Half that street furniture has already been hit or replaced already, but I suppose better the furniture than people.

      I was only half joking about 3rd world countries, but I think you over estimate the ability of the average driver. The primary cause of accidents being the people, not road or mechanical failure.

  • Christopher T

    The photograph used to illustrate the post shows Bayswater Road just in front of its intersection with Kensington Park Road in Notting Hill Gate and it’s notorious for its marginalising of pedestrians. The worst possible time to use it is on Fridays and during the weekend when it’s crammed with tourists (like, I suspect, Mr Levy) emerging from the tube station (which lies under Bayswater Road) wending their way down Kensington Park Road toward the markets at Portobello Road. Oddly enough, Bayswater Road parallels Kensington High Street (on the other side of Kensington Gardens) where the same council (Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea) have, relatively recently, removed a similar median fence, lowered traffic speeds and effectively gone as far as they can to making it a shared space; it works too. Mind you, I’ve not encountered a city so systemic and so thorough in its marginalising of pedestrians than Auckland, so I’d contend that we are hardly in a position to criticise a Tory led council in London which is, at least, doing something to reverse an approach which represents all too clearly the sense of self-entitlement held by the majority of motorists when they navigate ‘their’ streets! I’m not sure modernism has much to do with it though.

  • Shared spaces in AK do change driver behaviour a great deal- go and look… they’re a triumph in shaping how space is used…. and a model for much improved driving intelligence. grade separation provides the reverse of safety, it encourages entitlement not caution.

  • Ingolfson

    Patrick – technically speaking, I have to disagree with you. Harsh separation is an extremely efficient SAFETY tool. Motorways for example are some of the safest roads ever, and most cyclists would LOVE to leave the cycle lane next to a 70 km/h road if they instead could use a separated off-road path. And there are many cases of very useful pedestrian bridges that are much nicer to use than any at grade crossing ever can be.

    It is just that in using the easy way to achieve safety & in doing so in a car-centric fashion, planning and engineering often treats pedestrian’s AMENITY so badly that walking as such becomes discouraged.

    • Matt

      Divided motorways are extremely safe, yes. Until the mid-80s, Auckland’s motorways weren’t divided and serious collisions were a regular occurrence. The rescue tender at Manukau fire station used to be, by far, the busiest fire appliance in the country, because it was responsible for the motorway between, roughly, Mt Wellington and Drury. That honour now belongs to the pump at Auckland City that responds to all of the building alarms in the Auckland CBD (amongst other calls).

      Then hard median barriers were installed, the road toll dropped dramatically, and Auckland’s motorways became the safest roads in the country by kilometres travelled.

  • Sorry I was referring to city streets….

    • Ingolfson

      And so was I – if you put median or kerb pedestrian barriers along ALL our streets in the city, and only let pedestrians cross at signals or underpasses/overbridges, our pedestrian road toll would drop quite dramatically in the city!

      Of course so would our numbers of pedestrians. We’d have about 20 left. But hey, safety first ;-)

  • Nick R

    Having just left London a few hours ago, I must admit I made exactly this observation about London in relation to cities on the continent and in North Africa. The tube is extensive and intensive, but the second you leave it is noticably more constrained for the pedestrian. I saw it a bit in Paris too, but only on the main boulevards and roundabouts.

  • Feijoa

    London ain’t paradise — the underpasses and fences they have on the busier roads are a blight from a pedestrian and cyclist’s perspective. But to be fair, like the tower block estates, most of the worst examples were not put in recently. London has learnt and they’re making the city better, most visibly at Oxford and Piccadilly circuses where they have removed all the fences.

    The outdated approach can be summed up as car priority first and safety tacked on second. All the accidents in London show these fences can be killers. If they really cared about zero road toll they would be reducing vehicle speeds.

    • Yes Feijoa is right: I hated those fences when I lived in London and am furious to see them sprouting up here. Fanshaw St is full of them…. downstream, of course from NZTA’s efforts. Imagine what this street would be like if Wellington force their daft extra road crossing on us? They are, as F says, a sign of traffic privilege, and humans in cages ‘for our own good’. Dystopia.

  • Sean

    I don’t know what surprises me most, that a reasonable and fairly pragmatic website such as this thinks London, the horror-story of Europe, is something to strive for in regards to infrastructure or that walking in London is bad.

    London is a nightmare and probably the least forward-looking city in Europe. The UK is a few decades behind when it comes to public transport and infrastructure. We survive thanks to a great first 50 years during last century.
    I am embarrassed when I compare my own beloved London with continental cities.

    However as a Londoner, fences , barriers against people crossing streets at dangerous places, exist in a few places. the images seen here is extreme and not what a normal Londoner face.
    We face a few fences close to crossings and around bus stops usually.
    I remember when media stirred up a perfect storm about this, a few children ran in front of buses and got hit by other vehicles, usually other buses. They called out our politicians asked what they could do to stop children being run over by ten ton buses etc.
    Didnt take long before fences were erected.

    What London does have is pedestrian crossings, something that Auckland must be the worst major city in the world for. I try to walk from Mt Eden to the city a few times per week and i have to cross countless streets. Non have pedestrian crossing.
    if we want to enhance citylife we need to start by providing avenues for people to walk a few blocks witout having to stop everytime a street crosses our paths. A massive zebra painting effort is what this city needs. Everywhere a street crosses a footpath there should be some zebras. Cars and bikes must know that pedestrians and get used to actually look for them.
    It’s a matter of attitude and a change in Auckland is way, way overdue.

    And I still laugh about when Auckland a few years ago appointed a new urban planner whos task it was to increase he use of bikes in the city. thery headhunted him from london. the only city in the world where people are more scared of using bikes than Auckland. I thought it was Aprils fools day but it wasnt…
    Then on the other hand the same Auckland bought buses, most of them small such, from the worlds most environmmentally unfriendly manufacturer Alexander Dennis. AD also happens to make the least durable buses around. Auckland choose AD based upon I dont know what connections, a love for things from britain or plain stupidity. Anyway, I am sure someone got a nice commision…

    • dan c

      London is the only city in the world where people are more scared of cycling than akl? The numbers cycling in London has been growing double digits for years.

      I would be far more scared cycling in Nairobi, Warsaw or Moscow, to name but a few.

      • Sean

        Well city in Europe and no we dont count Russia…

        London might have seen an increase but 0+1 still is a lot less than 15+15.

        And the difference between the UK and london compared to the continent is on that level.

        Bringing anyone from the UK to deal with public transport or pedestrians is like asking a brit to build cars. Its been proven we dont have the knowledge or expertise to handle it…

  • dan c

    I won’t deny the likes of Copenhagen and Amsterdam are streets ahead(he he), but calling it the worst in Europe let alone the world is a gross exaggeration. Next you’ll be telling us that poland isn’t in continental Europe, and that land rover, jaguar, Rolls-Royce, lotus, aston martin, mclaren, and red bull racing don’t know how to build good cars.

  • Rational Plan

    That view is not typical for London. We don’t have many wide avenues, most streets in the centre do not have railings. Roads are mostly narrow and easy to cross no need to wait for a pedestrian crossing just where ever you want. I suppose one consequence of no jay walking laws is that where they want to control people on busy roads, they just fence them off, except at approved crossings.

    In the last decade or so things have changed. Schemes these days are looking at decluttering, removing excessive signage and railings. It’s a slow process though and they have not changed, when it comes to big arterial roads outside town centres. There junction remodels in the suburbs still seem to consist of a mass of staggered pedestrian crossings and railings.

Leave a Reply