At least I didn’t till I ca
me to try and cross Oxford Street last month.
As if the prospect of buses hurtling up and down the capital’s premier shopping street in a seemingly continuous two-storey red caterpillar was not intimidation enough, some joker has decided to cut the time you have to get across the pedestrian crossings to a hair-whitening six seconds.
I’m a fit healthy 44 year-old. Okay at 5% of normal my vision doesn’t exactly permit me to break into a sprint but with my white stick sweeping the path ahead I can still move at a fair pace.
But six seconds to cross four lanes allows no margin for error.
I’d already rejected the alternative of using the diagonal crossing at Oxford Circus. I know my limits and 17 seconds to get from the kerb to the centre of the crossroads, re-orientate myself and then reach the far corner against an LED clock (invisible to me) that counts down the seconds to annihilation is beyond risky.
At least the traditional pedestrian crossing was straight across the four lanes. Six seconds. Deep breath.
Being unable to see the green man I set of half a second after the crowd I’d hoped would help sweep me across, their trotting footfalls quickly pulling away from me to be replaced by the stampede of those crossing in the opposite direction.
Bumped and jostled by this oncoming traffic I was becoming increasingly aware of the growling buses on either side of me, straining against the unwelcome impediment to their progress. How dare these pedestrians stray onto their highway?
As engines began to rev and snarl a fearless young woman, more streetwise than me, seized my arm and hurried me across the final few metres. My feet had barely found the reassuring bobbles of the tactile paving before the first bus thundered by, uncomfortably close to the back of my head.
Surely bus drivers have a duty of care not to mow the stragglers down? maybe not. Maybe if you’re still on the grid when the time’s run out you are fair game; ‘sorry son there’s two types of pedestrian on Oxford Street: the quick and the dead.”
I’d been terrified – but what about elderly pedestrians or those with young children? A lot of people move slower than me. Six seconds to cross four lanes leaves no margin for error.
Now in case you think I’m some country mouse come to the capital to blow my savings on the Monopoly board’s green streets, I’ve lived in London for 25 years, spent the 1990’s working in Mayfair and still visit the West End regularly to shop or to record items at Broadcasting House.
During that quarter century I’ve witnessed Oxford Street become more and more hostile to the very shoppers it seeks to attract.
Under the lash of TFL timetable targets bus drivers are forced to rush to meet increasingly tight deadlines. To speed their progress TFL has cut crossing time for pedestrians, forcing them to race for their lives.
Making people rush, be they drivers or pedestrians, increases the likelihood of accidents. I was still feeling rattled an hour later and so turned my weary steps towards Great Portland Street and the idiosyncrasies of the Circle Line. A forty-minute detour seemed infinitely preferable to putting my life back into the London bus lottery.
Last week Network Rail was forced to concede that labelling those killed on level-crossings as ‘trespassers’ was wrong. Until TFL stops regarding pedestrians using designated crossings on Oxford Street as impediments to the smooth running of its over-optimistic timetables I will be making the same dog-leg to my journey and doing my shopping at Westfield.
Red Szell is an author and rock climber who regularly contributes to BBC Radio 4’s In Touch programme.