Ruth Brandon: Pedestrians now facing the wheels of misfortune

In her book
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs describes a traffic experiment conducted in Greenwich Village, New York. During the late 1950s, the roads of Lower Manhattan were becoming increasingly congested, particularly those bordering Washington Square Park. So the city authorities proposed driving a road through the park itself.

In her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs describes a traffic experiment conducted in Greenwich Village, New York. During the late 1950s, the roads of Lower Manhattan were becoming increasingly congested, particularly those bordering Washington Square Park. So the city authorities proposed driving a road through the park itself.

This horrified residents, for whom the park was a focus of life. They said the city should close off the congested roads instead. New York's traffic planners threw up their hands: were the residents mad?

They were not. The roads were closed off, the residents were delighted, and traffic congestion did not worsen. Washington Square Park survived intact.

But what had happened to all the people who used to drive nose-to-tail along the now-closed roads? Nobody knew. Perhaps they had left their cars at home. Perhaps they had adopted new routes in and out of the city.

Everyone knows traffic expands to fill the space available. Jane Jacobs and her fellow-activists seemed to have proved that the converse is also true. If you remove the space, the traffic contracts.

Several central London councils have followed the Jacobs technique. In Trafalgar Square, Tottenham Court Road and other arteries, the past couple of years have seen roads contract, or even (in the case of Trafalgar Square) vanish. And sure enough, London has not ground to a halt.

Of course, the congestion charge has helped. But it has not cut car use by 50 per cent; and even where road space has been cut by half, the traffic still flows.

Now the authorities have apparently decided to take the idea further, closing or narrowing more roads in the hope (presumably) that the traffic will melt away. High Holborn had all but two lanes removed and the closures then moved to Shaftesbury Avenue.

Barriers went up and a few chaps occasionally waved a spade, while everybody sat back to see what would happen.

Well, now we know. The trick works only up to a certain point. Anything beyond that, and what you get is chaos.

Since the latest experiment began, central London has been one big traffic jam. It's reminded us all of what things used to be like BK (Before Ken). Nothing moves.

Naturally, motorists are becoming frustrated. So those people who must move on wheels have hit on a cunning solution. The middle of the road may be full, but how about those car-free strips down both sides?

Yes, the pavements, dummy. Theoretically they are for pedestrians, but pedestrians cannot expect to keep all that space to themselves. Just a couple of wheels; who's to notice?

It began with motorbikes. Cyclists on the pavement are by now so routine that only the most obsessive old bat (me) could possibly still object to them. But beside the motorcyclists they seem almost benign. There you are walking along, and suddenly, roaring down the pavement towards you: a motorbike. What are you to do? Interpose your body?

Now cars are doing it too. It began in Gower Street, near where I live in London, where traffic jams are almost permanent and the pavements temptingly wide. The first one I noticed was, of course, a white van. I shouted at the driver, but he drove on regardless, as drivers of white vans do.

Then it was a private car. I bashed his door, and the driver went pink, but there he was, on the pavement, and since there was no way back on to the road, there he remained. And now everyone's doing it. In Drury Lane, where the pavements are extremely narrow and the road is constantly blocked, either with parked cars or roadworks, they do it every rush hour.

The next closure is scheduled for Oxford Street. Look out for your toes, if you're in London shopping. The cars are coming to get you.

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