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

    Comment number 6.

    The problem is the people who don't walk OR think. The person who steps out of a shop door and then just stands there blocking doors (and pavement). The group that decides to congregate loosely in the middle of the pavement, blocking it completely. The person so engrossed in their phone, they walk with their head down in their own world expecting everyone else to dodge.

    Common sense, people!

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Watch two men who know each other meet in the street: they greet, then move nearer the wall so they can chat out of everyone's way. Watch two women who know each other meet in the street: they stand exactly where they are, oblivious to all around them. Add in two pushchairs, and they hold everyone up even more. Why do women do this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    -People who are walking, and then suddenly stop in the middle of the pavement, to check their stupid phone, probably for stupid facebook, or rummage in their handbags for something.

    -Trolley bag users who stop at the beginning and ends of flights of stairs to put their handle up or down.

    -People who wait until they're a the ticket barriers to find their tickets.

    Morons, the lot of you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    People who stop at the end of escalators......... What is wrong with you?


    End rant.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Is there there also a government regulation which requires at least 1 person to bleat on about BBC licence money being wasted on every article ever written on here? It's just a bloody short article on British pedestrian etiquette, move on you miserable people!!


Comments 5 of 1097


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