A wild side walk is all the city footpath rage

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday 8 February 2003

Going my way? Flashback to 1984 when George Street had pedestrian lanes.

The left-is-best convention no longer rules in Sydney, John Huxley writes.

From his premium sales point on the corner of George and Market streets, where he has stood, on and off, for the past six years flogging copies of The Big Issue, Marcus Prentice surveys the city footpaths, shakes his head and says solemnly, "They've become a free-for-all."

Pedestrians walking on the left. Pedestrians walking on the right. Pedestrians crisscrossing, cutting each other off, cursing into mobile phones, charging across the road.

Cosmopolitan, 21st century Sydneysiders may have learned how to talk the talk, but it seems they have forgotten how to walk the walk. "Sticking to the left was a common courtesy once, wasn't it? It helped the traffic flow," Mr Prentice says. "Now, there's no set rule."

In fact, there probably never was. Officials at Sydney City Council recall the days when yellow lines were drawn down the centre of the George Street footpaths to help organise pedestrian traffic. "I think they disappeared in the '60s," a council spokesman said.

According to the Pedestrian Council of Australia, the old road code, discarded when new, nation-wide rules were adopted in 1999, advised pedestrians to walk on the left. "It was never an official case of 'you must do this', though. One can't be too draconian about such things," spokesman Harold Scruby said.

Rather, it was a convention, a tradition. Australia walked on the left because Britain walked on the left, probably because, like one-third of the world's six billion population, it has driven on the left, almost certainly since Roman times.

British traffic expert Brian Lucas says the archaeological study of ruts in a road leading to a first-century quarry near Swindon, England, confirm this, assuming that "the side of the road with the deepest ruts was used by loaded carts leaving the quarry".

Two millenniums later, half a world away, the system is breaking down, not just on Sydney's footpaths, but in its swimming pools, and on its spiral staircases and its escalators, where signs once did try to enforce a system of "stand left, walk right".

There are two popular explanations. The pedestrian council's theory is that the convention has been diluted by the influx of migrants and tourists from countries with counter-directional habits and an inability to read correctly the body language, eye-contact and other signs used to indicate walking intentions.

Quite why many "foreigners" should drive, and therefore walk, on the left remains a mystery, given that most people in the world are right-handed. However, Mr Lucas says there have been several examples of practice being created by fiat.

Napoleon forced conquered countries to conform to the French practice of "driving" on the right, while there is evidence that Pope Boniface VII ordered pilgrims en route to and from St Peter's Basilica in Rome to keep left when crossing the Bridge of St Angelo.

Roads and Traffic Authority officials add that the quickening pace of life has led to a breakdown in lane discipline. Even Mr Prentice, a courteous man, admits that in his rush to set up his stand, he will ignore old footpath conventions and take "the most direct route" down George Street.

Though the streets have become meaner, they have not become totally lawless. Australian Road Rule 236, section 2, makes it an offence for a pedestrian to "unreasonably obstruct the path of any driver or another pedestrian". But what constitutes obstruction? Window-shopping? Stopping suddenly to answer the phone? Bashing into someone with a backpack?

The rule does not make this clear, saying only that "for sub-rule 2, a pedestrian does not unreasonably obstruct the path of another pedestrian only by travelling more slowly than other pedestrian. That is, stopping suddenly or even dawdling is not an offence.

As pedestrian advocate Mr Scruby says: "Really, what can you do about it? You can't stop people stopping and looking in shop windows on George Street. But people get very hot under the collar about these things."

Indeed, in recent weeks, the Herald has received complaints from tourists who claimed they had been stopped on George Street after narrowly avoiding a bump of bodies and sternly lectured about "our keep-left rule". (Oddly, they were from Japan, where people drive, and tend to walk, on the left).

And everyone knows the footpath problems posed by couriers, other cyclists and skateboarders. It could be worse, of course. Elsewhere in the world, large, crowded cities have experienced footpath rage. In Miami, one pedestrian recently drew a gun and chased another after an accidental clash of shoulders.

In New York, the local Times newspaper complained last year that the city sidewalks were now crowded with "jaywalkers, baby walkers, dog walkers, night walkers, slow walkers, fast walkers, group walkers, drunken walkers, walkers with walkers and, of course, tourist walkers".

Unfortunately, "All these walkers are walking into each other." People no longer knew to walk on the sidewalk, it concluded. The newspaper had some rules, directed especially at European walkers, who were "all over the place".

Adapted for Australians, they were: Stay to the right. Don't be a sudden stopper. Keep moving. Don't be a heel stepper. Get off the phone. Keep Fido on a tight leash.

And in London, Oxford Street shopkeepers have been lobbying for a fast lane to ease congestion and reduce the risk of roadside rage. Slowcoaches who broke the minimum 3mph (about 5kmh) minimum speed limit would face a 10 (about $28) fine.