Advice for foreigners on how Britons walk

 
Pedestrians walking across a London bridge with Shard in background

We drive on the left, but which side do we walk on?

Some friends from Australia asked me this question as we battled down London's Oxford Street the other day, weaving our way through determined shoppers, rushing office workers and ambling tourists.

The answer is we don't. The British have little sense of pavement etiquette, preferring a slalom approach to pedestrian progress. When two strangers approach each other, it often results in the performance of a little gavotte as they double-guess in which direction the other will turn.

The British are ambulatory anarchists. We are oblivious to the Rules for pedestrians helpfully published by Her Majesty's Government. There are 35 in total but, frankly, who knew and who cares?

Rule Number One tells us we must "avoid being next to the kerb with your back to the traffic" which implies we ought to walk on the left of the pavement. Such advice is blithely ignored, as any stroll down a busy high street will confirm.

Legs walking

An attempt to bring order to this chaos was suggested in 2000, amid reports of rising "pavement rage". The Fast Lane Campaign proposed designated coloured lanes for pedestrians walking along Oxford Street in London - a fast lane for those rushing to get from A to B and a slow lane for window-shoppers and dawdlers.

Inevitably, the idea was laughed away. One group representing the rights of pedestrians dismissed it as anathema to the anarchic spirit of British walkers.

The British are bemused by countries which police pedestrians - treating those who don't use designated crossings as criminals.

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The rule of law may be a fundamental British value, but we recoil at legislation that might impact on our right to roam free in the public realm”

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There are laws against jaywalking in the US, Singapore, Poland, Serbia, Iran, Australia and New Zealand among other countries. But in Blighty, the state leaves it up to the individual to make their own judgement. The only exception is in Northern Ireland where, occasionally, a pedestrian may be prosecuted for jaywalking if it is deemed to have caused an accident.

Telling people how to walk is simply not British.

We may have a reputation for orderly queuing but I suspect that stems from foreign bewilderment that such organised behaviour, where it still exists, is voluntary. There is no rule that says you have to line up at the bus stop. Residual affection for the queue is explained by a general belief in fair play, first-come first-served and good manners.

The accepted autonomy of the pedestrian, free to ignore the demands of pelicans and zebras, is in contrast to views on the behaviour of cyclists. The shift from foot to wheel, from kerb to street, changes everything. The sight of a bicycle rider happily free-wheeling through a red light inspires a fury never inspired by a walker who won't wait for the green man at the crossing.

The rule of law may be a fundamental British value, but we recoil at legislation that might impact on our right to roam free in the public realm. A sign demanding that we Do Not Walk On The Grass is often seen as an invitation for rebellion. A legacy of the enclosures which robbed people of their village greens and common land, perhaps, Brits fight for such freedoms.

Keep off the grass sign An invitation to rebellion?

At some busy UK railway stations, I have seen one-way systems for pedestrians - staircases and walkways emphatically marked with arrows and "no entry" signs to regulate foot traffic. While tourists obediently follow the instructions, the locals seem almost to take pleasure in walking up the wrong side.

On London tube escalators there are instructions to walk on the left and stand on the right, some with feet symbols to ensure everyone knows the form. People do obey these requests, for the most part, suggesting that different rules apply underground.

But on the street? No, we don't walk on the left or the right. We are British and wander where we will.

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Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 1097.

    1094.Andirella
    I grew up with the keep left rule and when I started in the City everybody observed this rule. It aggravates me no end that people now think the rule is keep right.I don't understand why the rule changed as in England we move on the left !

    +++

    Is that due to lack of instructions on their iThings about the side of the pavement on which they should walk?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 1096.

    946. Canada: jaywalking results in a large number of injuries as motorists do not expect pedestrians in the road or walking against red lights - that said, the pedestrian is King on any junction if 'they' have a Green light, and applies to those motorists turning right on a red light (also allowed). New York, a nightmare, 'volume of pedestrians' the determining factor as red lights often ignored.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 1095.

    London Underground stations have no single rule. It is all down to Legion modelling of passenger flows as to whether it is right or left. For example Liverpool Street station has both Keep Left and Keep Right signs depending upon how you approach the ticket gateline. I have been reprimanded by a 'KeepLefter' in a Keep Right area. I hate Oxford Street and I work off of it.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 1094.

    Re comment 1018. I have worked in the city for 30 years and have lived my whole life in London. I grew up with the keep left rule and when I started in the City everybody observed this rule. It aggravates me no end that people now think the rule is keep right.I don't understand why the rule changed as in England we move on the left !

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 1093.

    1092. memberjgl
    I think the underground is more a request rather than an instruction to walk on the left and stand on the right
    _____

    Us Londoners will make sure that request is enforced though.

 

Comments 5 of 1097

 

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