Wednesday 2 March 2011

Let's Talk About...

... Pedestrian Light Controlled crossings. Or as they're commonly known, 'pelican crossings' (nothing to do with the bird, by the way, it's all related to the first letters of the three words, with the 'o' changed to an 'a' to make it sound like the, um... yes... the bird's name).

Unlike its fish-eating, large-billed and totally peaceful, aquatic counterpart, pelican crossings, especially those of the urban variety, could very easily be classified as 'war zones' with UN forces being deployed to safeguard citizens' well-being.

What should be a smooth, trouble-free process, very often turns into a Freddy-Krueger-like scenario. In an ideal situation the Pedestrian Light Control instruct drivers when to stop and those on foot when to cross. When the red figure shows, do not cross. Press the button on the box and wait. Sometimes for ages, I know, I know, but getting scraped off the wheels of an Eddie Stobart lorry is no fun either. As soon as the asexual green figure shows, check the traffic has stopped and cross with care. Did you read that? With care! You would be surprised at the large amount of drivers who believe a green man is like a carte blanche to increase their speed as they drive through the red light and leave behind a trail of maimed bodies and broken limbs. Sometimes there is not sufficient time to cross, so do not start to cross when the green figure is flashing because you'll get run over. Simple as that.

Well, if it was only that easy. Take the pelican crossing on the corners of Kingsway, Southampton Row and High Holborn in Holborn, central London. It's the closest you'll ever come to a real version of 'Battlefield Earth', including actual Psychlos. If it wasn't for the Cuban embassy's proximity to Holborn tube station (a building to which I have to pay a visit every now and then), the Peacock Theatre in the vicinity (we often go there to watch dance shows) and the existence of a Nando's within spitting distance of the underground, I would probably give this corner as wide a berth as possible. For some reason, everytime I'm exposed to this crossing the image of John Travolta as a dreadlocked, nine-foot-tall, sociopathic humanoid is enough to make me regurgitate my half PERI-PERI chicken. And yet his species is not the worst.

Pop by the area during rush-hour and this is the scene that will greet you. Cars speeding down Southampton Row, motorists on High Holborn held by a red light, but revving theirs vehicle up and desperate to shoot off, West End-bound. On the pavement, dozens of commuters are checking their watches and the gaps in the traffic. As soon as there's a lull in the flow, onwards they advance, green man flashing or not. Bolstered by their courage others follow. In the mêlée, drivers slam on their brakes, windows are rolled down, swear words, like the arrows at the Battle of Agincourt, are volleyed towards passers-by. This is, however, the first stage of the conflict. Because then the green figure makes its much desired cameo appearance.

Although I'm not a rugby fan, as I don't understand the sport, I can now perfectly comprehend why it's so popular in the UK. Of course it has to be; it permeates this country's everyday life. The onslaught of pedestrians crossing the corners of High Holborn and Kingsway can only be compared to the advancing, menacing movement of eight forwards at the same time, as they scatter across the pitch, pardon me, the road, I meant the road. Pushing, shoving, elbowing, tackling (yes, I have visual evidence), nudging and entangling (I heard once about a woman who got one of her earrings trapped in a fellow's fly as she tried to duck someone's bag flying overhead. The result was far from hilarious as the lady and the man were both caught on CCTV and the tape was passed on to BBC London News. After watching the images on the Six O' Clock News, the man's wife divorced him on the spot and cited as the main reason that that same morning she had tried to talk her spouse into wearing trousers with a button-fly instead of a zipper one. Of course, the episode according to the man's wife was far from accidental. She was convinced that both the lady-with-the-earring-in-someone's-fastener and her husband were having an affair and had decided to go public with it). You could be forgiven for thinking that once a commuter reaches the other side he or she throws themselves onto the pavement in the same manner a rugby player does when they score a try.

In addition to this rugby motif, the same pedestrian crossing has introduced an Olympic theme. I noticed recently when I was in the area that they had installed a timer. You know, one of those devices that counts down the amount of seconds you have left to cross. Or to live, in some cases. The scenes were too surreal to describe, but suddenly we all turned into amateur versions of Usain Bolt. I know that London will be holding the Olympic Games next year but we certainly don't need this kind of incentive. I can onlly imagine a person, man or woman, it doesn't matter, coming all the way from New Oxford St., spotting the green man at the intersection of Kingsway, Southampton Row and High Holborn and clocking in that he or she has 10 seconds to make it to the other side. This is probably how Sebastian Coe and his team are attempting to discover and use people's natural talent for the long and triple jump competitions. I'm sure there's a gold medal somewhere in there in the making, fellows. Either that or more human posters will be plastered on double-deckers as a result. With Bansky probably making his own contribution by painting a large bill over the person's nose.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 6th March at 10am (GMT)


  1. What's the steroid use for pelican crossings -- is it banned?

  2. Oh dear - it looks like maniac drivers are universal. I have often wondered if they are channeling the spirit of Indian warriors and seeking to count coup on hapless pedestrians. Or perhaps they fancy themselves driving a chariot in Ancient Rome, lashing the horses on to great speed and delighting at the blood as they squash the poor guy on foot beneath their chariot wheels.

    We have the same problem here in SF - in fact, SF has one of the higher rates of pedestrian accidents and deaths in the US. I swear, sometimes they come up on the sidewalks to get us. I have had fantasies of squirting them with paint or bashing out the car's light with a baseball bat but I know that I can't run away fast enough.

  3. now, honestly, Cuban, I don't believe that the man's wife would have divorced him over so casual an encounter as an earring attached to his zipper in the midst of such a melee... that's urban legend. Crossing the street is terrible in Boston. As if starting when the light is green and stopping when the light is red...I knew of quite a fine person who was rear ended and died, just because he'd stopped at a red light. That's a common form of accident.
    I'm now in Tucson and cringe when my friend drives because I'm sure that someone is going to pull out from a side street, certain he is entitled to cross...but it doesn't happen. It's quite amazing to be in a polite driving environment, though it seems as if cross walks don't matter much and that you really have to make sure no car is coming.

  4. Oh boy, that sounds dangerous! I don't think I'd ever get anywhere in London if I were walking then... I'd just stand there, waiting for the right moment to cross, which would never come :).

    The secene is the exact opposite where I live. It's a sprawling cosmopolitan city and you can't get anywhere without a vehicle. So, there's hardly anyone walking on the road (except joggers and such on the pavements.) So, when motorists see someone walking in non-exercise clothes, they get so goggle-eyed that they forget to watch the road in front of them ... which may lead to a small accident or two :).

  5. Hilarious. In my part of England, pelican crossings are really quite civilised... I have lived in London but tend to avoid the centre, especially at busy times. I hadn't heard about the earring story - is that for real?!

  6. What John Travolta is 9 foot tall and a sociopathic humanoid?

  7. My people, the story of the earring is as real as I'm Russian. :-)

    Thanks for your comments. Coincidentally, I was in Holborn a few days ago. Not much transformation. They still play rugby when the lights change.

    Greetings from London.

  8. I totally relate to this. Crossing streets in big cities is indeed a sport that requires stamina and speed.

  9. Mate, try crossing a road in America. They put up pedestrian crossings as a weird nod to the fancy idea of walking but since no one actually bothers to walk anywhere, the crossings are virtually useless. A person is given twenty seconds to cross the entire road, which will be twenty feet wide. Plus, drivers can still turn right on a red so even if it's a pedestrian's right of way they can be legally run over. And there's no beeping noise of people who are visually challenged. No black and white walkway to distinguish that crossing from the rest of the road. Not even any freaking pavement that goes up to the edge of the road. And the button to press to get the green man signal is miles away.

    I never realised how sane and logical pedestrian crossings were in the UK until I moved the America.


  10. Jai, thanks for that tip! Now I feel lucky to live in GB. :-) Here I am counting my blessings.

    Greetings from London.



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