Samuel Pepys was not an easygoing commuter. In the struggle to get from Seething Lane to Whitehall, he exhibited something close to the mindset of the average London cyclist, deploying the word ‘cunt’ while slowly inflating with murderous feeling. Being Pepys, he sought to cope with the worst of the ‘traffic’, axle to axle on Ludgate Hill, by sending for a barrel of oysters or getting out of his coach to investigate the cake situation. On Wednesday, 25 September 1661, we find him making his way from St Martin’s Lane with Colonel Robert Slingsby: ‘He and I in his coach through the Mewes, which is the way that now all coaches are forced to go, because of a stop at Charing Cross, by reason of a drain there to clear the streets.’ He had been down that way the previous October, at St Giles Circus, to see the hanging, drawing and quartering of Thomas Harrison, the first of the regicides, and he was no more pleased with the congestion then. Citizens in Restoration London were obsessed with the nearness of death, also with shaving minutes off everything you could shave minutes off, including crossing the road. Was that the beginning of urban hurriedness, a phenomenon we now take for granted?
For some weeks now I’ve been standing at St Giles Circus – the junction of Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street, New Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road – watching people try to pass from one side of the road to the other. Given that we are now in 2015 – and have traffic lights, generally decent shoes and pavements free of slurry – you’d think crossing the road might be a little easier than the journey up the north face of the Eiger. Not necessarily. The crossing has traffic lights but they don’t really work. They work on paper: the green man appears and stays there for a little less than five seconds, which is just about enough time for a purposeful 21-year-old sans mobile phone to nip to the other side. But there are four problems. One: most people aren’t 21. Two: most people are on their phones. Three: busy Londoners are generally not as mechanically well-tuned as the traffic lights themselves when it comes to following a rule about exactly when to come and precisely when to go. People set out when the green man appears and before they get halfway they are running on red, and very few of them know there are cars about to stream onto the crossing from three blind corners, and many of the drivers are quite unaware of the existence of a crossing twenty yards ahead. The fourth problem is to do with bikes. We’re supposed to believe that cyclists are saving the world. But they often kill themselves in saving the world or injure other road users, caught in their tender spokes. For pedestrians, London bikes are much worse than white vans – at least you can see a white van – and as I stood at the crossing I kept seeing helmetless maniacs raining down like bombs, or bombing through like rain. In the kamikaze theatrics of urban transport, cyclists see everyone as the enemy, especially buses, which stop by the road to pick up the people who really are saving the world.
Under the shadow of Centre Point – currently mid-renovation and sheathed like a Venetian palazzo, with its image printed on the sheath, lest we miss the armour-plated splendour of what Ernö Goldfinger called ‘London’s first pop art skyscraper’ – the Circus is currently part of Crossrail’s £1 billion redevelopment of Tottenham Court Road Station. From 2018, trains will ferry commuters to Canary Wharf in 12 minutes and to Heathrow in 30. Pre-Crossrail, 150,000 people currently use the Underground station every day. According to the Architects’ Journal, the area around the station is set to become ‘a mixed-use development which will pay tribute to the area’s rock, jazz and pop heritage’ centred on Denmark Street – officially guitar heaven. The Rolling Stones recorded at Number 4, the Sex Pistols lived at Number 6. ‘Including 1834m² of residential floor space, an 800-capacity submerged auditorium and a 723m² “urban gallery” space for pop-up shops, the project is one of several nearby which anticipate major transformation in the area.’ There there will also be a new pedestrianised ‘walking’ area between Soho Square and Charing Cross Road, with plans to enhance the east end of Oxford Street as a ‘retail destination’. It’s predicted that an extra 50,000 passengers a day will use Tottenham Court Road station and the traffic system will be ‘streamlined for easeful mobility’.
At 4.30 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, I spent a while looking into a hole. This is the cavernous future ticketing hall of what will become the new Crossrail station. It runs from Tottenham Court Road up to the old Spanish Bar in Hanway Street and is about the size of a football field. What I mainly saw were white and orange-hatted men lifting insulation blocks with the help of a giant crane. The building site is surrounded with the usual Keep Out signs, but I sneaked past and saw layers of London, some of it looking like the streets Pepys might have walked on. Minutes later, at the crossing, there were about forty people on the Oxford Street side. Again they marched across as soon as the green man appeared, yet he turned red when most of them were only halfway. The 73 bus to Stoke Newington immediately inched forward. On the next green man, the driver of the 134 to North Finchley beeped his horn at a blonde woman in a gypsy skirt. A cyclist shouted over his shoulder. A taxi that appeared to be roaring through jerked on his brakes and the pedestrians scattered. ‘I ♥ London’, it says on the hoodies at the tourist stall.
Beating the lights, for a city dweller, is a civic obligation. Early one morning, I watched for an hour as people on their way to work took chances. Large numbers don’t use the crossing at all, a few climbing over the metal barriers to cross the road nearer the corner, forgoing the lights altogether. We might forget that living in a big city means submitting to a lot of rules about how to live in a big city. You can’t park, you can’t wait, you can’t cross, you must queue, you’re being filmed. There are rules, zones, fines. People in the country don’t have that, and urban dwellers might, at some level, always be looking for strategies that could justify their basic refusal to conform. I thought of that as I watched a man in a business suit climb over two sets of barriers to cross the road. He just wouldn’t walk the extra few metres to be told what to do by an electronic system.
I drove through the crossing from each of the three roads feeding into it, attempting to see the matter from the executioner’s point of view. Coming in from New Oxford Street, there was a queue and a veritable Manhattan of horns beeping. Late one night, rickshaws were joining the fun, and people were stepping giddily from All Bar One. The drivers were agitated; they wanted to move. A giant wrecking ball was overhead as my part of the queue got a green light, and we turned into the crossing with an eagerness to get through. As I turned, I was faced with a mob of girls swinging shopping bags, a number of them shouting into their phones and looking backwards. They must have had a green man as I turned but he was red when I arrived, and they were still walking. I counted it out: two, three, four, five, they were still crossing, and I beeped on six.
The traffic signal was invented by John Peake Knight, a superintendent of the South-Eastern Railway, and the first was installed outside the Houses of Parliament in 1868. They have always been objects of dispute, and even of irony: the first one exploded one morning, due to a leaky gas valve, badly injuring the policeman operating it. The three-colour system was invented in America and operated in New York from 1918. Britain’s first automatic signals appeared in Princess Square in Wolverhampton in 1926. There are now more than 6000 sets of traffic lights in London (a quarter of the UK’s total) and the number has risen by 30 per cent since 2000. ‘It is plain that lights have an important role to play,’ Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC, told the Evening Standard in 2011. ‘But with ever more congested streets they need to be very finely tuned to ensure they are not doing more harm than good – and that means they must react to changing traffic conditions.’ According to recent figures from the Department of Transport, Westminster has the third worst record in the country for pedestrian fatalities at road crossings, with an average of 14 deaths a year. (Of the ten worst crossings in the UK, three are in Oxford Street.)
I tried several times to get the person from the council to walk across the road with me, not to confront them with big questions, necessarily, so much as to have the benefit of witnessing their policy on legs, and asking them if the crossing looked different in real life from the way it looked on their screens. In real life, cars, vans, buses and bikes often missed pedestrians by mere inches, and it was an accident black spot waiting to smear the headlines. But news isn’t news until it is news, and they didn’t respond to my emails.
Gradually, the revolutionary habit at the crossing was becoming ingrained. At first, behaviour had been almost normal – most people waited for the green man and then moved across at speed – but now pedestrians were dithering until the sign began to flash, then walked slowly on red as if guided by their own internal warning system, drawing from a proud sense of their own judgment. ‘These lights don’t make sense,’ one woman said to me. She was on her lunch break from Uniqlo and was walking to Neal Street in Covent Garden. ‘It’s like everything in this city: run by people who seem to get off on the idea of customers being irate.’ I let her go and stood back to watch the next few changes of lights. I counted the rolling stock coming through: red car, black cab, white van (‘British Premier Meats’), the 24 bus to Hampstead, a motorbike. The green man showed and a large group of people poured onto the crossing, the whole group, bunched in the middle of the road, being narrowly missed by the 73 bus to Stoke Newington. It was already red before those at the back of the group got halfway. A man wearing a black Alpine rucksack tried to beat the lights and a boy on a bike screeched to a halt at the very last second, having swung in from New Oxford Street. ‘Jesus Christ,’ the cyclist said. ‘Are you trying to get yourself killed?’
After many weeks (extra construction work had begun), a traffic marshal, complete with white hard hat and high-vis trousers and tabard, arrived at the crossing, coming not shyly but not in glory either, and proceeded to spend the day helping the lawless pedestrian in her battle with the city juggernauts in their various guises. The marshal wondered aloud if people were always in this much of a hurry, and I wondered, in turn, if there wasn’t something churchy about his way of pushing us towards the life everlasting. He said we’d all have a long enough wait once we were dead. ‘Look at that,’ he said of a pair of young men climbing over the barrier to cross further along. ‘Oi! They want stringing up.’
‘They used to do that around here,’ I informed him.
‘Bring ’em back,’ he said. ‘Gallows, you say? I’ve a few candidates for you. Believe me: the big crime today is that nobody wants to wait his turn.’ But when would it be their turn to get all the way across?