Sydney Morning Herald - Tuesday 2 May, 2006

Why we can't put a foot right

By Wayne Burns

PERHAPS I am becoming a grumpy old man ahead of my time, but what is it with the chaos on our footpaths?

It is bad enough that pedestrians in Sydney are at risk daily from maniacal drivers, who seem to care more about talking on mobile phones as they career around the city than avoiding maiming or killing those on foot.

But as well, pedestrians are blocked, hindered, bumped, corralled, squashed and burned by - other pedestrians! My new Thomas Pink shirt suffered from a cigarette burn on the footpath just last week.

You cannot find this in any written law, but what happened to the old rule that, as on the road, footpath users in Australia should generally "keep left" as they amble, stroll or hasten around the city's busy walkways?

These days in Sydney - a metropolis found badly wanting in wide footpaths, public squares or walkways away from the Harbour foreshore - it is every pedestrian for her or himself.

Mostly, people in this city have very little regard for keeping left. They seem happy instead to meander across the whole crowded footpath, hindering and blocking the path of everyone else or careering into others by walking two or three abreast to the right.

This mayhem further adds to the mess Sydney is in, as people struggle to get around the city, contributing to grumpiness, aggressiveness and a sense that this city does not offer a pleasant environment for pedestrians.

In days gone by, some footpaths in Sydney featured lines that marked each side of the walkway. In many Melbourne streets, where most footpaths are far wider, there are discreet metal dividers every couple of metres to guide pedestrians.

Overseas, many cities have signs advising pedestrians to keep left, or right, letting tourists and citizens who may not have grown up there know about the convention to adhere to one side of the shared path.

Sister Callistus taught us (at that august institution, St Matthew's College, Mudgee) that as well as looking left and right before crossing the road, pedestrians should always walk on the left side of the footpath. It was polite and good manners to do so.

And as there is a boomlet in blaming the education system for most of our social ills, I'll chip in as well. How about teaching our kids to be polite to compatriots and visitors by engaging in a bit of footpath etiquette and manners as part of the curriculum?

And as for the Pedestrian Council of Australia - how about sticking it up some of the people you claim to represent and asking them to respect the rules of the footpath?

For a start, ask them to watch where they are going while they are gabbing on their mobile phones, tapping away at their PDAs, singeing other walkers with lighted cigarettes and stopping traffic as they carelessly, arrogantly or stupidly stroll against red lights at kamikaze intersections.

There is no way we will ever be a truly friendly city unless our ambling burghers start walking the talk.

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