Saturday, October 1, 2011

Pedestrian Rage in Cambridge

Over the week-end, students poured back into Cambridge for the start of term.  Many of them who are moving into Pembroke College are first-years, and it took me back to vivid remembrances of moving into Lluvia Hall at Mesa Court housing at UC Irvine.  So I was somewhat happily nostalgic watching them and their parents negotiate the college lanes and move-in processes.

The entrance to Pembroke College in quieter days.
That good-natured feeling vanished when I realised I’d run out of soap and ventured outside the College to find a chemist.  Cambridge was transformed into a mad-house, the sidewalks and streets clogged with people who were apparently unaware of the basic premises behind walking—steady forward movement, all stops to be made once you’ve got out of other people’s way, no irregular weaving, etc.  As I sought to stifle my Pedestrian Rage, it occurred to me, as it has on other occasions, that there’s a reason central Cambridge feels so claustrophobic. 

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 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...


  1. Yes, yes, let the anger course through you.

    The UK in general, from my limited first hand experience, is one of the western/northern European countries that have really let themselves go (I would count Ireland, and to a lesser extent Switzerland and Italy on that list, as opposed to, say, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany...).

    I don't really know the UK right-of-way laws; I was only just rudely made aware that Ontario has "crosswalks" that have no actual right-of-way for pedestrians attached to them. My understanding is that it has to be a marked crosswalk or across an intersection leg with a stop sign or somesuch, but I can't really comment on that or the details of Cambridge for that matter.

    What part of town should I look at in Google Streetview? I've seen that they love their pedestrian cattle fencing and staggered crossings like in London, which is shit and sends a shit message (I spent the day at a planning summit and have used up all my highfalutin language).

    I think most of your suggestions are likely on target (again, not knowing much about the particular burg), though I'd argue it's not about making things worse for drivers so much as it is rectifying terrific imbalances - if that makes things "worse" it's merely a sign that drivers have had it too good.

  2. Anywhere within the ring formed by the A-roads seems bad to me. Most of my daily perambulations take place in the section to the west of the line formed by Regent and Bridge Streets. Not sure about particularly egregious streets, as I don't know what signs to look for other than the onset of the twitching that comes with dealing with masses of slow-moving, window-shopping people packed onto tiny sidewalks.

    Are staggered crossings what I think they are? Because to cross from the eastern side of Regent Street to the eastern side of Hills Road (the route to the train station) sometimes takes 90 seconds.,0.128027&spn=0.001631,0.005284&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=34.534108,86.572266&vpsrc=6&hnear=Cambridge,+United+Kingdom&t=m&z=18