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.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Games Developer - HTML5

    £28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

    £26000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Product Manager

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to on-going expansion, this leading provid...

    Recruitment Genius: Shift Leaders - Front of House Staff - Full Time and Part Time

    £6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a family ...

    Day In a Page

    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

    Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
    Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

    Are you a 50-center?

    Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
    The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

    Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

    The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
    Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

    Hollywood's new diet trends

    Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
    6 best recipe files

    6 best recipe files

    Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
    Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works