So here you are and welcome to London. Home of the Queen, Big Ben, orderly queues, Bangers and Mash and Double-Decker buses. Getting around in this city can be easy if you know what to do (or not do). Without question there are lots of great ways to see this remarkable city and by far on a non-rainy day (it happens) my favourite is walking. But there are some very important things you should know before you step off that curb.
Now it wasn't my intent to start this blog on such a basic premise as crossing the street and not getting killed. I believe your parents taught you how to do that long time ago. The idea of this blog is to give you my view point, tips, opinions (not short on those) hard learned lessons and perspectives as a newcomer from North America on this city of London. But the truth is crossing the street is a fricken, complicated mess and often can be life-ending. I would be remiss if at least I didn't warn you. I consider myself a person of at least average intelligence (although the typos and grammar in this post might indicate otherwise) and yet I find the basic act of crossing the London streets stressful and sometimes confusing. So here it is, the very basic but oh so important first post on, How to Cross the London Streets... and make it home for tea.
First and most important, NEVER step off the curb casually. We are not use to the traffic coming from the other direction, or everyone driving on the left, or that cars don't have to yield for us "the people". The vast majority of pedestrian accidents in London each year are attributed to "failure to look properly" and I am guessing of those accidents most involve someone without a UK postal code. I have also learned (the hard way) do not blindly follow others as they cross the street. Not unlike New York, jay-walking is a way of life in London and I do it all the time. Most people are crossing against the lights and ignoring the little red hand icon telling us to wait. But the number of near misses or more accurately "near hits" that I have seen simply because I just followed blindly adopting the "herd mentality" could lead one to learning first hand the failings of the National Health System (NHS). Just because the herd is moving doesn't mean that all cows are safe.
The other thing we as North Americans are not used to is that with the exception of the zebra crossings (cross walks) and traffic lights (traffic lights) the cars will not stop nor need to stop for you. Even crossing at an intersection the cars have the right of way. There are NO stop signs, or very few. At best they will slow down as they come to the intersection but watch out if you are in their way. Of this I know. The numbers are unclear just how many people get killed or seriously injured every year in London while (whilst) crossing the street especially as the numbers vary from year to year. But a range over the last five years seems to be anywhere from 838 - 1,870 annually. Yikes.
In a related story, there is a relatively new cause of death that is sweeping the nation and is increasing in vast numbers each year , "Death by Selfie". You can't make stuff like this up.
At the time of writing this post there have already been 15 reported deaths in London from people taking selfies on the street. No joke. Your death certificate could read, Death by Selfie and it indeed would be a very Kardashian way to check out.
Death by Selfie (DBS) has over taken shark attacks annually as a cause of death so I am thinking we might need to be a little more afraid of the selfie than we are of sharks. Again just saying, that this new fatal end just might favour the tourist and not Londoners. You know the drill, a clueless tourist who is stopping on the street, posing to get that perfect shot, with that double-decker bus in the background so they can upload to Facebook to annoy their friends back home by showing them that they are in London and their friends are not (see my photo top of post). That beautiful red London double decker bus framed perfectly behind you, showing all the world, here you are. The bus, moving ever so quickly towards camera....and BAM... you have taken your last selfie. According to Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (it's a thing) there is one death every three weeks where someone gets hit by a London bus. I wonder of those hit how many had their phone in camera-mode?
Also cars and buses are not the only things for you to watch for crossing the street. According to Transport for London (TFL) cycling accidents are soaring and when I say "cycling accidents" I am not referring to cyclists getting hit by a bus or car I am referring to cyclists hitting pedestrians while they are crossing the street. These cyclists or as I personally prefer to call them MAMILs (Middle Age Men in Lycra) or WILMA's (Women In Lycra Middle-Age) have overtaken the London streets and parks, getting their own private lanes and in a lot of cases have been the cause themselves for many a accident. Now I get that the London Mayor has boosted his support for the lycra clad Eco-Warrior, their safety, their new personal bike lanes, etc. and I am not suggesting that he is wrong but did you know that according to the Guardian it was more dangerous mile for mile to be a pedestrian in London than to ride your bike? Hmmm?
Next, the traffic lights. They all don't function exactly the way that they do back home. First if you got yourself a green walk man signal the moment it starts to flash you have got mere seconds to get to the other side. I mean run. Because the moment that light changes there are a line of cars like at the start of an F1 race revving their engines just hoping (maybe) you will get out of their way. The other thing I have found with the cross signals is that they do not necessarily mean you cross the entire street. Actually on the streets I tend to walk which are usually busy High Streets (with lots and lots of shopping) the green walk man signal is just to get you to the middle of the road. There is a median dividing the two directions of traffic and your crossing light in a lot of cases will only get you halfway cross. Be aware that the green man doesn't necessarily mean it is safe to cross but rather it is merely (as I have discovered) just your best chance of getting to the other side. Also a yellow light back home means the light is about to turn red. It turns yellow and gives you three seconds to get your ass to the other side before it turns red. In London a yellow light means that the light is about to turn green and it gives you a whole entire ONE second to move.
Finally...roundabouts. Hate them. No lights, no stop signs just you and the speeding non-stop concentric circles of traffic going around and around. At the smaller roundabouts best advise is look left, right, left, right, look for a break in the traffic and GO. Good advise at most crossings actually. But the bigger, busier ones, whole different story. If you find yourself at a huge, busy roundabout with a constant stream of traffic there is likely something they call the "subway". This coming from Toronto was very confusing as our subway signs mean what they call "the tube". The London "subway" is an underground passage or tunnel to get you to the other side of the street. You are not, and I repeat NOT to be attempting to cross this mammoth circular nightmare. The subway is there for a real good reason and by now you know the reason, to get you cross the street without dying.
So take care when you step off the curb. Be aware that if "you" the visitor get hit by a car or bus or more embarrassingly by one of those MAMIL's, regardless of circumstances, Transport of London, once they retrieve your non-responsive body, your non-British ID and your North American iphone (set to camera-mode) they will likely just add you to the growing statistic of "failure to look properly".
Stay alert...now go shopping.