Carola Long: Kerb your enthusiasm

London has a clever new crossing - but pedestrians remain oblivious to danger
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The Independent Online

The last time I braved the crowds in Oxford Circus I had no idea that I was experiencing the end of an era. Had I known that the unveiling of an innovative new pedestrian crossing on Monday signalled the death of one of London's great dystopian experiences, I might have actually savoured the palpitation-inducing panic caused by dodging wayward umbrella spikes or death by bendy bus.

Time will tell, however, whether the new £5m "pedestrian scramble" as it's known rather disconcertingly to road engineers, really does offer a brave new world of crowd control. We'll soon see whether people flow seamlessly through the intersection with the same logic-defying grace as Esher's uphill waterfall. Pavements have been widened and not only can people cross the road laterally, they now have a 30-second window when all the traffic stops to traverse diagonally along a giant white X shape.

An updated road crossing might sound like a very exciting development, but such is Londoners' preoccupation with the whole vexed business of moving about the capital that it feels like we've been awarded the Olympic Games all over again. Some of my friends are talking of little else.

Whether the new crossing is as revolutionary as it looks, however, depends not only on the system itself but also the people using it. Is a futuristic idea, modelled on the famous Shibuya junction in Tokyo, enough to turn the average zoned-out "zombestrian" back into an alert pedestrian? Unlike the crowd that flows over London Bridge in TS Eliot's The Wasteland, where "each man fixed his eyes before his feet", most people's eyes are now fixed on their mobile.

And if their eyes aren't on their text messages – I'd say "our" if I wasn't so ashamed of my own occasional zombestrian tendencies – they are on the prize, ie the spoils of shopping. People's urgency to buy their swag as quickly as possible makes them walk into each other, shove other people out of the way, step on their feet, and dart out into the road with all the insane bravado of streakers at a football match.

The designers have doubtless taken theories about collective intelligence into account but how could they cater for the 21st-century addiction to haste and multitasking? The street is no longer a public space where certain rules are observed, and private activities forgone. Instead we eat, text, even read the paper as we cross the road and walk the pavement. These idle activities somehow seem far more urgent than actually looking to see if there is any traffic coming.

That said, while the new system can't rewind our attention spans to the pre-Twitter era, it's definitely an improvement, not least because the monochromatic pattern has a certain urban beauty to it. Perhaps Londoners' main concern should be that, like the junction in Shibuya, it could become a tourist attraction in itself, drawing large crowds eager to test just how well they can be controlled.

Forget the Christmas lights. This shiny new crossing could be the star of the Oxford Street show.