Years ago, I belonged to an organisation called the Pedestrians' Association.
Years ago, I belonged to an organisation called the Pedestrians' Association. Members of our local Cambridge branch included a Nobel economics laureate, a knighted international judge, the professor of Latin, David Kindersley (the sculptor), and an eccentric bus-obsessed mathematical prodigy, Simon Norton, who could recite from memory all the local timetables (he is the subject of a 2011 book by Alexander Masters).
Our main concerns back then were pavement parking and pavement cyclists and, generally, the abnegation of pedestrians’ rights by car-centric planners and local authorities. We were not ashamed or embarrassed to be pedestrians. We saw ourselves as part of a great tradition of Cambridge footsloggers that included Wordsworth, Cowper Powys, Bertrand Russell, and the Trevelyans, people who thought nothing of walking to London and back. I think I dropped out when the national association’s leading light, Terence Bendixon, resigned, and the outfit was rebranded as Open Streets. I was a pedestrian, not a street.
Three decades on, as I walk around central Brighton, it seems to me that precious little progress in securing pedestrians’ rights has been achieved. One or two streets have been trendily pedestrianised - or, to be more exact, made non-designated open thoroughfares (the last time I walked along New Road I was continually being buzzed by bikes and vans). But vehicles parked on the footway remain just as endemic, the hazard of bikes whizzing along footways seems if anything much worse than I remember it, while a whole lot of new obstructions that we did not know back then: A-boards, bottle bins, recycling bins, tourist map-boards (a complete waste of £108,000), and - above all - café tables, chairs, and smokers’ fenced sanctuaries have multiplied in recent years.
As I set off up the street from my home, I have gone only 100 yards when I reach a spot where a pub’s oversize A-board obstructs half the footway, with parked cars blocking the other half. The opposite footway is not much better, with a café’s bins and a fallen chained bike restricting one’s passage. Everyone is forced into the road.
St James’s Street, where I usually shop, must have 50 A-boards along its length, some of them blocking half the pavement, as well as a number of cafés and bars with furniture outside. Kamikazi wrong-way cyclists add to the perils; pedestrians have been knocked down.
To stroll through The Lanes, particularly in the summer, is to run a constant gauntlet of obstructions. There are, for example, two restaurants, Bella Italia and Café Rouge, opposite the town hall, which seem to think they own the adjacent footways. Café Rouge’s vast A-board, straddling the pavement near a dipped kerb, has to be one of the most anti-social in the city. It is also, like so many of these monstrosities, quite unnecessary, since it advertises something right there, in our faces.
Black Lion Street and Union Street have similarly in recent years been turned by their eateries and drinkeries into a chicane for pedestrians. Duke Street, a supposedly pedestrianised thoroughfare, is in summer almost impassable, what with externalised cafés and bars, freestanding footwear displays, bikes, poles, planters, bins and boards; at one point it often gets narrowed to a single-file pedestrian bottleneck. In Market Street, furniture has gradually encroached over the entire footway, forcing pedestrians into the road. As you pass the Sussex pub and reach English’s restaurant, the entire area, once an open promenading space, is nowadays abrogated by regiments of tables, with another single-file passage snaking through.
I cannot believe a lot of this is even legal. It is certainly time the authorities tightened up the rules and clamped down on some of the more flagrant offenders.