How to Make London More Pedestrian Friendly

As a personal trainer in London I’m often asked by my clients: “what exercise should I do between our sessions to help me lose weight?”. Part of my reply is always: “Walk more.”

Walking is one of the easiest exercise activities. No equipment needed apart from a good pair of trainers, no barriers of technique or expertise, and totally free. But just how pedestrian friendly is London?

Ask any keen walker in London and you’ll get the following complaints: air pollution, aggressive road traffic, aggressive cyclists on the pavement, dangerous pedestrian junctions, difficulties of navigating the city, the list goes on.

Progressive infrastructure plans in London

There are some good things happening in London. In Wandsworth, Transport for London plans to reroute the A3 and A205 away from Wandsworth Town Centre and make the High Street accessible to cycles, buses, and pedestrians only.

A few years ago the new diagonal pedestrian crossing at Oxford Circus was introduced (intersection of Oxford Street and Regent Street) so that pedestrians have complete priority at regular intervals. This should be rolled out across London’s main intersections.

More traffic police

Cars, vans and lorries breaking the traffic laws are a major threat to pedestrians. Any strategic plan to make London more pedestrian friendly needs a clampdown on road traffic offences: driving through red lights, speeding, driving down the wrong side of the road to leapfrog traffic jams, driving the wrong way down one way streets.

We need to fund traffic police properly, so that offenders are punished and drivers know their chances of being caught are high. The deterrent effect of a highly visible police presence would make London far more pedestrian-friendly.

London’s most dangerous junctions for pedestrians

Oxford Street is particularly hostile to pedestrians. The intersections with Davis Street, Duke Street, and Holles Street have been highlighted in a recent survey as some of the most dangerous accident black-spots in the country for pedestrians.

At the very least, we need a 20mph speed restriction along Oxford Street and the roads leading up to it. Better still would be the complete pedestrianization of Oxford Street, as advocated by Christian Wolmar, one of the Labour candidates for London Mayor.

Zebra crossings in London

Part of the problem with zebra crossings is that many pedestrians don’t know how to use them safely. They walk across the road without warning, giving motorists no time to stop. Equally, many motorists ignore pedestrians who are clearly waiting to cross.  One of the most dangerous zebra crossings in London is the famous Abbey Road crossing outside Abbey Road studios where the Beetles recorded some of their songs. We need to replace all zebra crossings with proper traffic light crossings, where is there no ambiguity.

The rise of pedestrians immersed in their smart phones, texting, and wearing headphones makes zebra crossings doubly hazardous.

Traffic light pedestrian crossings

Motorists pay more attention to red lights, so these crossings are much safer for pedestrians. The countdown clock for pedestrians is a good development, but the time it takes for the lights to change in favour of pedestrians after pushing the button is not so good. 20 seconds from pushing the button to the green man showing would be ideal, but too many crossings make pedestrians wait for over 1 or even 2 minutes.

The approach to pedestrian crossings should also have several metres of increased friction on the road surface to enhance braking ability, and as an audible warning to drivers that a pedestrian crossing is imminent.

There’s a new SCOOT system which has been trialed outside Tooting Bec tube station and Balham tube station. It’s a hi-tech pedestrian crossing system: Pedestrian Split Cycle Optimization Technology (SCOOT) which detects the build-up of pedestrians waiting to cross and changes the lights accordingly.

There used to be more pedestrian crossings which bleeped when it was time for pedestrians to cross, but the bleep has been removed from many crossings for some mysterious reason. The bleep was handy to alert pedestrians when the traffic lights changed in their favour, and particularly helped blind people. Does anyone know why the bleep has been removed?

20mph speed limit in central London

Imagine how many pedestrian lives would be saved by this simple measure. Collisions with pedestrians at 20mph result in much less serious injury than collisions at 30mph, but this proposal has met with great opposition from motoring lobby groups. It’s time for government to take the lead and change the culture.

But for this to work it needs to be policed with speed cameras and traffic police.

Reduce air pollution

Boris Johnson has taken his eye off the ball when it comes to reducing air pollution in London. Cuts in government funding for monitoring air pollution levels are a major backward step too.

Walking is a healthy option, but it would be healthier still if we could breathe clean air. An obvious first step is to phase out diesel engines to reduce nitrogen dioxide and particulate levels.

More extensive government subsidies for hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles would be a bold step forward. Electric vehicle recharging points are a rare sight in London (I saw one in Highbury Crescent near the swimming pool on my way to one of my personal training clients in Highbury Fields, but that’s the last one I’ve seen for a while).

Cultural shift

Britain is still a car-addicted country, and London in particular. Contrast this with other European cities like Amsterdam and Munich which have a much more mature attitude towards transport, putting cyclists and pedestrians first in many segments of these cities.

There’s a huge bias in favour of motorists. Just look at the lenient sentences for motorists causing death to pedestrians and cyclists by dangerous driving, remember the popularity of the TV programme Top Gear, and count how many car ads there are on TV every night. It was good to see an ad for Halfords cycles a few weeks ago, but this is the exception.

We need government-led initiatives to create a cultural shift to put people’s health first.

Fewer roads for cars, more pedestrian-only spaces

We need to stop building new roads for cars. It will only encourage more cars onto the road, which is the last thing London needs. We could follow the example of NYC which pedestrianized parts of Broadway, which led to a boost for the local economy, reduced accidents, and got people more active.

Turkey’s capital Istanbul took the bold step of making the Historic Peninsula pedestrian-only. There was a surge of economic activity  in the local shops, bars, cafe’s and restaurants. Air pollution in that section of the city plummeted, and physical activity rose.

Here in London we have some great pedestrian-only spaces: Granary Square near Kings Cross, the area outside Kings Cross station itself, Duke of York Square on the Kings Road, to name just three. We need many more pedestrian squares, so we’re more on a par with cities like Munich, Seville, Florence, Amsterdam, Rome and Paris.

Better pavements and street signage

During the last tube strike, I walked around London to my personal training clients, and noticed that many roads have no road name signs. Better signage would make London more pedestrian-friendly, and encourage walking in parts of London you might be less familiar with.

Another thing I noticed was how many broken and uneven paving stones there are, and trip hazards like this are a big disincentive for elderly and disabled people to walk around London.

Pedestrian bridges across the Thames

Rather than the monstrously expensive Garden Bridge, far better to have a larger number of simpler and more functional bridges for pedestrians and cyclists (no motor vehicles) across the Thames. The Millennium Bridge which connects St Paul’s on the north side of the river with Tate Modern on the south bank is a great example. More of this would make London so much more pedestrian friendly.

Walking boosts mental health

It’s better for your mental health to walk or cycle to work than to drive. You’re in the open air, see more nature (particularly when walking) and you don’t get caught up in traffic jams (particularly when walking).

Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London and author of the Fitness4London blog.



  • Dave H says:

    Sorry but you are certainly wrong about the relative safety of light controlled crossing vs zebra crossings, and some London Boroughs have returned crossings to zebra crossings from light controlled on safety grounds.
    A zebra crossing requires direct communication between the road user on the carriageway and the pedestrian, unlike a light controlled crossing which allows both to make assumptions about the actions of the other. Many who regularly walk for transport have developed that piercing stare, directed through the windscreen at the driver’s eyes which tells the driver I have the priority and you will stop for me, it is used both for marked pedestrian crossings and enforcing Highway Code Rule 170 on drivers who seem to have forgotten all they read up on to pass a driving test.
    It can also be used for the ‘Mastermind’ principle of sensible road user behaviour, which works on the premise that once any road user has started a move it is safer and far more sensible to let them finish it, than to try forcing your priority to barge through because you have that priority.
    As a trainer you’ll probably be aware that around 2.3bn years of development and testing has delivered a human life form which has a maximum design speed for unaided operation in the region of 18-20mph, roughly the speed a fit person can sprint at over a moderate distance (a 4 minute mile requiring a 15mph average speed).
    Evolution weeded out those who broke apart when running into trees and falling over and a person with good muscle tone generally survives a 20mph impact with a non-sharp surface with little more than some heavy bruises, especially if they are able to take that impact in a relaxed and appropriate way.
    20mph is also the speed above which our congnitive focus begins to narrow. The 120 degree theoretical view from our eyes begins to discount peripheral information and focus down on distant objects over a narrower angle, which in turn requires guidance from road markings and signs/signals etc to help us deal with the faster rate of the world coming past.
    At 20mph the dynamic envelope for vehicles is smaller than that for higher speeds and the minor adjustments needed to merge with other traffic on foot and on wheels often allows the removal of rigid stop-go traffic control and moving to negotiation of priority through eye contact with the other road users.
    Direct vision linked to effective use of the second inbuilt safety system which covers for the fact that eyes are only a 120 degree system, makes hearing a vital element with the proviso that any road user who notices a lack of reaction from another road user to an audible warning of presence, should recognise the possibility that the other user is deaf or has some other cause for a failure their hearing. Use of audible warnings of approach is a detail we need to place a much greater emphasis on.
    The rail industry has clear protocols for using sound warnings and giving acknowledgment that the warning has been heard and is being acted on. The rail industry has not killed a passnger on a train since 2007 and now sees a single worker death per year as a serious issue – compared to accepting at least one worker death per month as the normal ‘tariff’ barely 10 years ago. In that time the position has turned from putting a few bus loads of passengers and staff in coffins per year to the current position of as close to vision zero as possible. It could be done for the roads – if attitudes can be changed.

  • p a high says:

    I agree with most of your points here.
    As I understand it, the beep is removed from those crossings where they may cause a nuisance to residential occupiers.
    Diesel is a filthy fuel, and Boris needs to start with banning the old black cabs, the older buses and needs to quickly increase the low emission zones and reduce levels for all diesel vehicles. At central gov’t level, road excise and fuel duty needs to be much higher for diesel cars than petrol.
    Finally, Oxford Street in particular needs to be pedestrianised – this is a “no-brainer” as far as I’m concerned.