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.