The Irritations of Modern Life: 34. Pedestrians

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The Independent Culture
MANY YEARS ago, long before Crimewatch UK warned viewers to be afeared of strangers seeking lifts, a sign stood beside the southbound M5 lane at Taunton which delighted generations of hitchhikers aiming for the legendary flesh-pots of the South-west (and Newquay).

A simple white-on-red rectangle reading "Pedestrians - Look Right!" had been amended over the years with the phrases "Feel Right" and "Outasight!".

Dead right, because pedestrians need a bit of livening up. Who are these people, presumably capable of using cutlery without wounding themselves, that find the task of, well, walking, beyond them? Anyone who has ever had to hurry through a busy British high street - possibly to collect a vital legal document, or perhaps a human organ for transplant purposes - will be reminded of that cheap Brownian Motion experiment taught in school science lessons, where the random movement of particles is observed.

I have to declare an interest here. As an urban cyclist, sporting a T- shirt that proudly declares "I AIM FOR PEDS", I'm acutely aware of potential hazards - like the git who walked straight into the road, and me, in Balham last year. (He got a mouthful, I got concussed.) Ten thousand London cabbies could and will tell you that non-commercial traffic is banned from Oxford Street mainly because only highly trained drivers what-have-done-The-Knowledge possess the sharp responses necessary to avoid ploughing into Mr and Mrs Merle Moron of Minnesota. Every year, tourists suffer comedy foot-breakage or worse at the wheels of a Routemaster bus, as they forget our quaint habit of driving on the roadway, and inexplicably fail to sense a huge red thing bearing down on them.

Presumably US visitors are confused by the very concept of public transport, which not even Princess Di ever stooped to. But great thinkers such as Norman Foster, architect laureate, have been forced to confront the ped problem. The capital's Jubilee Line extension incorporates platform screens to prevent stupefied walkers wandering on to the tracks with their shopping. That well-known curmudgeon, Chelsea FC's owner Ken Bates, was on to something when he proposed electrified fences to restrain football fans back in the Eighties.

This is an international problem. Genius prankster Joey Skaggs created an organisation of "vigilante sidewalk etiquette enforcers" called WALK RIGHT! in New York in 1984. Their 66-point programme included regulations such as "Obese people must walk in single file"; "All joggers must wear underwear", and "No stopping while walking except when in the shopping lane". Predictably the media, including CNN, fell for it, yet the natives canvassed happily signed a petition in support.

Even the very word has negative connotations. Think of pedestrian books, or movies, records, websites even. A "pedestrian protest" hardly evokes images of happy ramblers seeking roaming rights. No, it brings to mind clueless, shuffling humanity, all creeping along half-heartedly in the same general direction. A muddy Glastonbury Festival, in fact.

Oddly, international guidebooks generally suggest that striding purposefully will enable the streetwise visitor to pass for a local anywhere. Until clothing featuring indicators is perfected, perhaps our only hope is to be surrounded by sightseers trying to fit in.

Of course, if you need to ask for directions you'll be stuck, but that's another irritation entirely.