|The entrance to Pembroke College in quieter days.|
Cambridge is, surprisingly, a pedestrian-unfriendly town. I say surprisingly because I would have thought that a major university town in an (almost) European country would be better set up to accommodate lots of people on-foot. It’s not that you can’t get everywhere on-foot...you certainly can. But the sidewalks are overcrowded, cars assert their right-of-way very firmly, and there aren’t as major car-free streets as I would have imagined.
Some of the problems undoubtedly have to do with the age of the town and its buildings. Many are old, and without a major demolition/building project, the too-narrow sidewalks couldn’t really be expanded, or the streets re-routed to create a more walking-friendly environment. But other, newer parts of town are similarly poorly-designed, bespeaking a lack of planning or misplaced priorities.
Given these extant structural problems, the solution would appear to be to make the city-centre in particular as inhospitable and inaccessible to car traffic as possible. There is a lot of traffic in what is a relatively small city-centre (Cambridge’s entire population is around 100,000, I believe), and offering fewer parking garages, designing stricter parking regulations or closing more streets to car traffic altogether could discourage some of those drivers.
At an even more basic level, the city should tip the balance between car and pedestrian that seems uncomfortably skewed towards the former. I realise that coming from Berkeley, where pedestrians (myself included) gleefully abuse our privileges, skews my sense of what’s natural—I’ve seen cars kept waiting literally for a minute or longer as students stream across crosswalks on Bancroft or Piedmont at busy hours of the day—but Cambridge seems unduly tilted in the other direction.
At crossings without lights, pedestrians literally have to wait for a break in the traffic (bicycle as well as car), because no one’s going to stop for you. And the lights are horribly skewed in favour of cars, giving them far, far more time than pedestrians, who have probably fewer than ten seconds of crossing time (I’ll count next time...). This has the effect of naturalising the presence of cars in crossings while turning pedestrians into aberrations. Cars often don’t even wait until they have a green light, proceeding with the flashing yellow while the pedestrians’ might still be facing a flashing green which suggests that they still have time. Equalising that crossing time, or skewing it in pedestrians' favour, would be welcome.
On the high-tech side, if the John Wayne Airport traffic lights in Santa Ana can shout at pedestrians for jay-walking, the traffic lights in Cambridge should be able to fire caltrops at abusive vehicles!
City planners (Mr Gould?) undoubtedly have other remedies for rectifying this tyranny of the automobile. If the remainder of “freshers’ week” proves to be as maddening, I’m going to have to resort to my Kenyan Traffic Techniques...