A Walk through Winter Lockdown (an ethnography)

The neighbourhood where we live is full of trees, but not necessarily leafy. This is particularly true now, when the deciduous trees are skeletal silhouettes, no matter the time of day or position of the sun. But even in summer, there are too many pines and other conifers – the neighbourhood is needle-y. And yet the trees are towering and majestic. They were here before most of the houses, before most of the streets, pavements and other signs of human habitation.

The fallen leaves, needles, nuts, and cones from so many trees have created a mushy, muddy detritus along the edge of pavements and gutters, built up over months. It is messy, but not smelly in the cold, damp air. Along with bumps and cracks in the pavement where tree roots have pushed upwards, and puddles where rain has pooled downwards, the slick surface of compressed and decomposing natural materials narrows the available space and makes an additional hazard during daily lockdown walks.

Our neighbourhood is not in a city, but it is in the densely populated southeast of England. There are never urban crowds, but we are rarely alone on a stretch of street for long. There are other households with children, some young, some older. Teenagers are usually absent from their family unit. There are joggers and dog-walkers. There are pairs of women, taking advantage of being able to see one other person outside the house, and there are pairs of elderly residents, occasionally masked, usually walking very slowly, sometimes holding hands.

Were so many out walking so regularly in the neighbourhood at all times of day in January 2019? Did they walk at different times of day or not at all? Is this only a lockdown practice, and is there any observable routine?

Whether or not the when and where of pedestrian practice has changed, the how has definitely become ritualistically different. On quiet residential streets, some cross to the other side of the road when they see someone coming towards them. Some wait until the two households are almost upon one another and then string out into a single file, or step into the muddy grass of a verge. Some go onto the road. Joggers usually do. People with children or dogs usually don’t.

But going onto the road is risky for anyone if there is traffic, which there often is on the busier streets. Passing cars are still a threat, even if the roads are less busy than they were a year ago. Traffic is also loud, drowning out the birdsong – or at least the bird squawking and twittering that is the more common audio accompaniment on the side streets.

Thus on the busier roads giving space can mean stopping entirely when width allows, such as at a driveway or dropped kerb. Stopping and waiting until the oncoming household has passed or to cross the road to continue is unattractive, causing a new type of negotiation in body language and facial expression.

Pedestrians who forge ahead without making eye contact expect you to stop. Those who smile and slow down to reach a conveniently wide place are readying themselves to pause purposefully. Some hesitate, creating more obstacle and delay. Some have buggies or wheeled trolleys and take up more space, or struggle to divert without a dropped kerb. Sometimes pedestrians hurry past each other, too close, but reducing risk through speed, heads turned sideways, a muttered ‘sorry’ over their shoulders.

These new ways of negotiating pedestrian space in a residential neighbourhood engender new types of interactions and connecting or disconnecting. There are new norms around good or bad manners – for example, saying ‘thank you’ where someone has stopped or taken the less attractive path, on the road or in the mud.

There is also new recognition between those who might normally be elsewhere during the working day. Does this create new communities of neighbours who might otherwise never meet? Does it integrate population subgroups, such as elderly residents, families with young children, or dog walkers, exposing them to the diversity of life stages and situations around them? Will any new experiences of neighbourhood and community be retained as people return to other routines of work, school, and socialising?

It’s a question of continued observation… my attempt at an ethnographic approach!

An Unnecessary Obstruction

The Department for Transport (DfT) in England is currently consulting on three options that will reduce the amount of parking that occurs on ‘the pavement’ (or ‘sidewalk’ or ‘footway’ alongside a carriageway). The aim is to address the obstruction that vehicles cause when they park where people are trying to walk.

The ubiquitous habit of parking on the pavement in the UK has evolved due in part to infrastructure design, in part to outdated legislation, and in part to misguided priorities.

First, many residential streets in the UK are narrow and many houses have no off-street parking, or insufficient space. Some of this is down to history, with neighbourhoods built before mass car ownership. However, there are also many more recent developments, where narrow, winding streets and cul-de-sacs were in fashion and developers did not predict that cars would get so much bigger or that households would have so many of them.

Secondly, although the Traffic Management Act 2004 offered a much-needed update to parking management and enforcement in the country after 20 years of neglecting the issue, it did not make the process of introducing parking restrictions any less bureaucratic, and it did not directly address the prevalence of pavement parking. It allowed local governments to take over responsibilities for creating and enforcing parking restrictions from the police, but only by writing and advertising Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs) with precise measurements and correct signs and road markings.

The default is that parking is permitted, even if it is on the pavement. That is why the DfT proposes Option 1: streamlining and digitising the TRO process. This would help authorities pass more TROs to prohibit parking where it is a problem, whether on the pavement or not. However, I would argue that it is unlikely to make much of a dent in the profligate habit of pavement parking seen in your average residential neighbourhood.

Why? Because the third reason parking on the pavement is so widespread is down to cultural norms: it is quite simply assumed and expected in most places that the private space a household has available for parking should not limit the number of vehicles it owns, so long as there is some unrestricted public space on-street nearby. If that street is not wide enough for traffic to travel safely between cars parked fully on the street, then the cars park partially on the pavement. There is absolutely no consideration as to whether pedestrians can travel safely on the pavement or are forced to walk around into traffic.

Thus the DfT suggests Option 2, where consideration should be given as to whether pedestrians, including those in wheelchairs or pushing children in buggies, are being obstructed by the cars parked on the pavement. In such cases, Option 2 suggests, local authorities could issue a parking ticket to the car causing the obstruction without the need for signs or road markings.

But there is a catch – parking enforcement must have some way of showing that the vehicle was not just on the pavement, but causing an ‘unnecessary obstruction’ by being there. The consultation suggests that this could be demonstrated at least in part by an exercise in measurement, as the amount of obstruction depends upon both the width of the pavement and the width of the vehicle, and how much the two overlap.

Yet how to define, let alone demonstrate the ‘unnecessary’ bit? The document undermines its own arguments by suggesting that an obstruction to the pavement may be necessary if there is not sufficient carriageway for vehicles to pass on the road. In other words, parking is necessary, driving is necessary, and only if both of these can happen safely is walking on the pavement safely a necessity.

Thus, we turn to Option 3. Ban parking on the pavement. Make pavement parking enforceable by default, unless a TRO, with all its bureaucracy, signs and road markings, streamlined or not, is officially designated to allow it. Make local authorities and local communities decide if they really want to give up their sidewalks to SUVs. If they do, they can, but only after some actual consideration.

The counterargument is that too many cars will no longer have a place to park, too many exceptions will have to be made. That is the argument of those who think parking has more rights to the pavement than pedestrians, who assume parked cars are a necessary obstruction – if they think about it at all.

In my view, Option 3 is the only one worth considering. Surely if we really thought about the pavement parking we encounter when walking around our own neighbourhoods, we would conclude that it is almost always an unnecessary obstruction we’d all be much happier without.

A Transport Defence System

I’ve been thinking a bit over the weekend about the attacks in Barcelona. And Charlottesville. And London, Nice, and more places than I can quite keep track of recently. And what I’ve been thinking about most is the weapon of choice in all these attacks: motor vehicles. Cars, vans, trucks. Objects whose purpose is to enable people and goods to get from A to B. A purpose I have long considered a main driver of my professional life. Pun intended. But in these cases, the transport purpose of vehicles is being perverted.

Not that motor vehicles have ever been innocent. Even before the idea to consciously use them as terrorist weapons was fomented, motor vehicles have killed people in their thousands. Through the sprawling, sedentary urban forms and the subsequent inactivity they foster, through carbon emissions and local air pollution, and of course, through road traffic incidents. Some who is run over by accident is as much a casualty as someone who is run over on purpose.

Which is not to say that an accidental weapon is as potent as one used with intent. The terrorists, no matter their ideological background, are driving into crowds, into pedestrian areas, in places where they can cause the most damage. So how do we limit the damage?

Obviously there are debates about surveillance and police presence in vulnerable places, about the means available to gather intelligence about terrorist cells or radicalised and potentially violent individuals, about the regulations and background checks required to access vehicles, particularly rented ones. Still, if transport is the weapon, surely transport planning can be part of the solution.

The security services have already been speaking on the radio about concrete barriers and similar physical infrastructure. Indeed, they have been talking about such things for years. I once attended a meeting in Wales back in the days when the new Wembley Stadium was under construction, and Cardiff was hosting football matches and events of international importance. The Welsh police and anti-terrorist units discussed the need then to have physical infrastructure that could stop car bombs from approaching and detonating near ‘soft targets’ like the stadium. The room was full of planners, transport planners, architects, engineers, and urban designers. We were being tasked not with coming up with the idea of having physical barriers in the first place, nor even necessarily where they should go. No, our job was to integrate such barriers into the urban fabric.

So what is the transport planning part of the solution to this new use of vehicles as weapons? It is to develop the public realm with beautiful planters, seating, bollards, and other street furniture or even street art that also act as barriers to motor vehicles. Perhaps it is also to create new pedestrian spaces. Or make more spaces pedestrian-only, 24-7, protected by physical infrastructure, rather than opened up to motor vehicles and deliveries at various times of day. And then to solve the delivery issues by creating appropriate delivery consolidation locations, loading bays, and more creative delivery options, such as bicycle couriers who are allowed to enter the pedestrian area. And whilst we’re on bicycles, why not combine the creation of new, segregated bicycle lanes with lines of attractive and protective concrete planters? Planters have been used instead of kerbs or verges to segregate cycle facilities before, so why not make sure they also serve a defensive function on crowded roads and bridges?

If we put our minds to it, transport planners can think of many ways that they could help develop a defence system to deal not only with the use of motor vehicles as weapons, but also to address some of the other dangers motor vehicles present to human life. Concurrent objectives could include segregating vulnerable cyclists and pedestrians from motor vehicles to reduce accidents, creating better spaces for pedestrians and cyclist to encourage more active travel, and increasing the distance of places crowded with people from the generators of local air pollution. It might not be enough to completely stop the use of motor vehicles as a weapon in the future, but we can do something constructive to save lives now.

A Culture of Crossings

The drawing in of the autumn nights and the sight of packs of newly arrived university students sets me off on a walk down memory lane:

It was nearing midnight. Autumn leaves crackled under foot and the moonlit air was crisp and cool. It was a like a Fall evening back home in New England, not how I’d expected the weather to be during my first time living in the notorious damp of old England.

I stood at the corner of the road with three young men and one other young woman. One of the blokes was German, the others were English. They were all in their first year at University. I was on my Junior Year Abroad. Feeling slightly tipsy after an evening spent in a couple of pubs sampling local specialities like ‘cider and black’, I wondered why we’d stopped. I took a step forward to cross the road when I felt a hand briefly on my arm.

“Wait for the green man,” said the tall, blond German, with a flash of his goofy grin. “I pushed the button,” he added.

“Really?” I looked around at my English companions. One of them shrugged. They would happily jaywalk, but they were equally happy to humour our Teutonic friend. And so we did. A full minute passed, during which the roads around us were so deserted of moving vehicles that we did not even hear a single car in the distance. Eventually, the light turned from the red man to the green. We crossed the road and continued our journey back to our student rooms.

This memory gave birth to a hypothesis that I have long nourished, mostly in private. I have no proof. I have completed no scientific studies. I have not even undertaken any surveys. But I still have this inkling that there is a nugget of truth in my idea, which is, simply, that there are cultural influences and differences in how we cross the road, and how we regulate crossing the road.

Chicken jokes aside, we all cross roads because we want to get to the other side. Most people would agree that they usually prefer to get there sooner rather than later. Individuals rarely jaywalk because they like dodging traffic. They jaywalk because they don’t want to wait. I’ve never had the impression that Germans jaywalk less because they have more patience. Rather, they like order, they like regulated roads and they like to follow those regulations.

I am aware that a person can be stopped and fined by a German police officer if said person jaywalks. But a person can also be stopped and fined in many parts of the United States. Can be and will be are two different matters. Unless a person is in Singapore, where apparently jaywalking can warrant a prison sentence, enforcement is minimal in most parts of the world, even if there are laws to govern such behaviours.

I am not necessarily interested in the lack of enforcement, but the rather the reasons for this lack. My speculation is that enforcement is minimal in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States for different reasons. In Germany, it is usually simply unnecessary. Vehicles are supposed to give way to pedestrians, and yet most Germans will still find the nearest crossing, press the button and go when it is their turn.

In Britain, pedestrians must either be at a crossing or already have stepped off the kerb before a car must give way, but it is common to see people press the button and then step out anyway if they think they can get at least halfway across before the oncoming traffic reaches them. British people seem to like having their road layouts formalised with controlled crossings of a variety of types, only to ignore the regulations that accompany those crossings when on foot.

Americans, meanwhile, if they walk at all, prefer a more laissez faire system altogether. There are fewer formalised crossings. Instead, there are long stretches of road generally designated ‘Yield to Pedestrians’ and other long stretches of road where pedestrians have no choice but to dodge across traffic. Drivers and pedestrians have to take some responsibility for watching out for each other. Even signalised crosswalks are often subject to a less rigid determination of right of way, as drivers can frequently, legally turn into crossings with a white ‘WALK’ or man light, so long as they don’t run anyone over.

Conclusion? There is a culture of crossings. However, university memories aside, I don’t think I quite have enough evidence to base a doctoral thesis on. I guess I need to make just a few more observations the next time I find myself waiting for a green man – in any country.