How Not to Die as a London Pedestrian

A woman darts in front of an oncoming red London bus on a street full of buses

Staying alive in London traffic is all part of the thrill
(Photo credit and copyright Jill Browne)


I knew, of course, that in the UK they drive on the “other” side of the road. But I never fully understood it until a dog driving an Aston Martin almost ran me over.

So, in the interest of Anglo-American relations and the hope for a happy outcome for every tourist, here are my personal rules for not dying. To be specific, these are some of the beginner rules for not dying while walking on London streets. I have other rules for not dying while walking in London parks, by London riverbanks, in London stores, and generally “in London.” I’ll save them for another day and just focus on the traffic for now.

1. “Look right” doesn’t mean comb your hair and wash your face. It’s written on the ground everywhere you might think of legally crossing a road. It’s there for three reasons:

(a) to give you something to read while avoiding eye contact with the reticent Brits around you;

(b) to match the “Look left” message nearby; and

(c) as a gentle suggestion that before you step off the sidewalk, you should actually look to your right for oncoming traffic. Do it.

2. Brits walk on the “pavement” and think “sidewalk” is a quaint expression from some archaic frontier town in 1888 Nebraska. Don’t be shocked when you hear them telling their children to stay on the pavement. This is not a way of killing off their young, the way we in North America occasionally send our kids to go play in traffic. No, “pavement” is supposedly a safe place for pedestrians. Walk on it, but remember, it’s really a sidewalk. The dangerous paved thing is a road. Don’t walk on that.

3. Although there is almost unanimous agreement that cars drive on the left hand side of the road, there is absolutely no such convention when it comes to walking. People walk on the left, they walk on the right, they walk in the middle. I myself have been known to do all three in the course of only a hundred yards or so. I would love to start my journey walking on the left side of the pavement and stay there until the end, but alas, too many forces conspire to make this impossible. The window shoppers are the worse, but the pavement spitters and the immobile chatterer groups are also obstacles I dislike. My strategy is to follow the person in front of me. Whether they are right or wrong (or right or left), they can go first and clear a path.

4. Not all cars drive on the left hand side all the time. It may be against the law (or maybe not), but people park wherever they can find a space. This may be on the wrong side of the road. This means that en route to the parking spot, the car will be driving on the wrong side of the road. Don’t argue, just beware that traffic will always be coming at you from all given directions, not just the one you expect. Look around.

5. London bus drivers are amazing. I ride the bus a lot. It’s a great view and also it’s a good substitute for actual aerobic exercise. Instead of raising my heart rate by running or pedalling a stationary bike, I sit up top and watch people leap into the path of the oncoming bus. It happens about once every block, unless I’m riding the Number 10 bus along Oxford Street, in which case it’s a rate of about one leap per bus length. These crazy leaping people have immense faith in the vision and reflexes of the drivers and the mechanical fitness of the buses. I don’t. My rule is: Don’t jump in front of a bus.

6. I reveal my complete inner safety nerd here. I only cross at the light and I wait for the light to turn green. This makes me a tourist attraction all by myself. I appear daily from 2 to 3 opposite Charing Cross station, should you want to catch my next performance.

7. The traffic lights don’t just go green-amber-red in London. They go green (Go), then they might flash on amber for a while (All Cars Accelerate Now), then turn red (Cars, Stop If You Think There Is A Reason To), then they might flash amber again (or maybe not, but if they do it means All Cars Accelerate Now), and then go green. The traffic signals are also hung horizontally rather than vertically. Basically, I consider myself lucky if I can find a traffic light. When I do, I loyally stand by until it turns green for me. There is a beguiling Green Man who appears for a nano-second. Prove that you got your foot off the pavement and onto the road during that instant, and the full weight of the British justice system will be behind you in the inevitable personal injury lawsuit. (After you leave hospital.)

8. There are things called zebra crossings and pelican crossings where you can cross the road. I have no idea what these are.

9. I think there are also things called safety islands but that may refer to Great Britain as a whole, or possibly just the Outer Hebrides and the Isle of Wight.

10. It’s really a lot easier to ride the bus.

Comments

  1. says

    This post has tints of a Jill Browne humour written all over, but then I’ve always been her admirer. Listen to her folks, whilst enjoying her wit. Speaking of London pedestrian, I can only smile, being used to that “other” side of the road. I’m Aussie; also lived in Malaysia, both Commonwealth countries. For all her other nifty tips, thanks Jill, and g’day!

  2. says

    My only trip on the upper deck of a double-decker red bus was exhilarating, so I know I will want to do it again. The zebra crossing zones saved my life a couple of times in the Paddington Station area, but really Jill, pelican crossings?

    Have you ever written for/to the Journeywoman website? This would be an excellent advice article for women travelers! 😉

  3. says

    Jill, for a moment there, I thought you were talking about Beijing. That city, too, has unique rules for pedestrians, the most important one being that pedestrians have no rights at all, unless it is the right to be hit by cars. I have had cars actually push me out of the crosswalk. Traffic lights don’t mean anything, if there are any at all. When I lived there, I got very adept at crossing busy streets by just trying to get across one lane at a time. And sometimes I would just try to cross in the middle of a group of Chinese. Safety in numbers, you know.

  4. says

    Thanks for the humor Jill! It’s a bit tense here in San Diego waiting for my tardy grandson to make his arrival! I’m suffering as a watch my daughter’s belly inflate a bit each day, and begin labor periodically only to have it stop! She did ten laps up the convention center steps a couple of times. I’m so glad that wasn’t in London or I’d have to worry.

    I’m going to print out the very crucial information you’ve provided just in case we end up in London in the near future. I definitely want to get out alive! So thankful for the heads up!

    Christiane

  5. says

    Loved it Jill. At present I’m on a Spanish island trying to avoid traffic coming for me on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. It’s what makes travelling so. ..er…interesting!

  6. says

    Hey, 5 years living here and I still approach traffic in London like a wild, potentially hungry and sleep deprived large animal. Your rules are spot on.

    I think a pelican crossing may be one of those where there are two street lights that blink on each side, and you only can cross when they blink or when they don’t blink. Not sure exactly.

  7. Barbara Radcliffe Rogers says

    Wonderful, wonderful commentary on surviving in London. I’ve followed your writing through several publications, Jill, and believe me you’ve found the right home for your voice. Keep making me laugh while you inform me!

  8. john howe says

    Oh Jill, Jill, Jill, you made me laugh but you have obviously not experienced the difficulties of driving/walking/travelling in India, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma or Indonesia. All but Burma and Cambodia drive on the ‘correct side’ of the road.
    If you want to experience a zebra and pelican crossing you will find them near London Zoo.

  9. says

    Thank you all for those lovely comments. You’re all very kind and nice. And I have to say, it’s a miracle any one of us is alive today, given the litany of horrors we’ve collectively been exposed to!
    Thanks for the smiles, everyone. Zebras and pelicans beware, I think we’ve got a task force.

  10. Marie Claude Arnott says

    This was sooooo London, Jill. Funny facts of a dangerous reality. The solution could be a guide… with a leash. Thanks for the entertainment!

  11. says

    That’s so funny, Jill. I saw a humped pelican crossing yesterday and honestly asked myself what a humped pelican would look like and then looked around for one, because, just like moose crossings, there must be a lot of humped pelicans if they are actually giving them their own crossing!

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