Monday, June 11, 2018

London and the Traffic Engineers

The traffic engineers have made London into one of Europe's most pedestrian-hostile cities.

On major streets, such as Marylebone Road, near where we stayed, they removed all on-street parking to increase capacity. Of course, the traffic increased to fill the new capacity, so the streets remained congested but became much less comfortable for pedestrians because there is heavy traffic right next to the sidewalk.

Marylebone Road
Even on streets with less traffic, such as Albany Street, where we stayed, they removed parking near every traffic light to allow for right-turn lanes. (Because they drive on the left in England, right-turn lanes are their equivalent of our left-turn lanes.)
Albany Street
The picture does not convey how aggressive the traffic is. If there is no traffic coming in the other direction, cars do not even slow down when they make a right turn. In addition, drivers to not yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, so it is up to the pedestrian to check before they cross and make sure no one is coming who might make a right turn. 
They also made life harder for pedestrians to protect them from the danger that they themselves created. There are islands for pedestrians in the middle of the street, but they require pedestrians to go out of their way: they cross one half of the street, and they have to go sideways before crossing the second half of the street, with fences to make sure that they do not just walk straight ahead when they cross.
Crossing on Albany Street
On all of these streets, the stop lights are timed to speed up traffic, which means that you usually have to cross one half of the street on one stop-light phase and then have to wait - often for a long time - before the stop-light for the other half of the street lets you cross. On streets with less traffic, of course, many people cross illegally rather than waiting for the second pedestrian green light - so these crossings are not as safe as they are meant to be.

Imagine if the traffic engineers had not taken over, and instead London had just left Albany Street as a conventional two-lane street with parking on both sides.  Cars would have to slow down when someone stops to park or waits to make a right turn.  The slower traffic would make the street safer. And so pedestrians would be able to cross the entire street on the green light, with cars yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks, rather than waiting for two pedestrian greens.

London now has congestion pricing, so today's traffic engineers are turning away from the old idea of accommodating and speeding up cars as much as possible while ignoring pedestrians. But it is still extremely congested: it is hard to imagine how bad it must have been before congestion pricing.

There are a few exceptions, such as the Soho neighborhood, which is still a good place to walk because the traffic engineers did not overhaul the streets. But overall, London is the worst city for walking of all the European cities where I have ever been.


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