I was in New York recently, and marvelled at how it works compared with London or Oxford. Four things appealed in particular – the way the traffic flows across junctions, the absence of litter and the presence of policemen, and the fewness of nagging signs about things everyone knows anyway.
Now, I was in the better part of Manhattan where the street grid helps with the traffic, and New York is not exactly short of other signs and notices. The point about each of these observations is that it is policy, and not just (that is, not only) incompetent neglect, which makes the difference over here.
Take the traffic. The traffic in New York is stopped by a red light. A white light immediately indicates that pedestrians can cross. A flashing light warns them that the safe period is ending and the lights change again and the opposite flow starts at once. If a car wants to turn across the legitimate pedestrian flow, it waits, but everyone knows the rules (except the cyclists, of course, but that is true everywhere). Break the rules – walk where the traffic has priority, or stop your car when it should be moving, and all hell breaks loose – but only if a legitimate user is actually inconvenienced. Jaywalk in some of the more, er, conservative places – Atlanta, Georgia for example – and a large posse of redneck cops will drag you off to the station whether you were in the way or not – but the accepted conventions in New York just work. The absolute bare minimum of time is wasted on the change-over of priorities.
In England it is rather different. London’s Mayor, Ken Livingstone, has political and politically-correct motives for gumming up the traffic, as well as an apparent mission to make life difficult for as many people as possible. In Oxford, the dim knuckle-draggers in Oxfordshire County Council’s Highways Department foul up the traffic flow because they are too thick to understand how to do it any better. Long timing delays between far too many traffic lights, screaming Pelican crossings everywhere, diversions and blockages deliberately introduced, road-space taken away – this is what causes delay and, almost incidentally, causes pollution from the resulting stop-start flow.
The social compact between road users, which works so well in Manhattan, has broken down. The Oxford approach sets one type of user against another, not just in practical terms but in emotional ones. Pedestrians invoke Pelican crossings when they do not need to and then saunter across the road, their “right” to do so having driven out their manners or any consideration for others. Drivers, infuriated by the delays artificially introduced into their journeys, race to catch the short intervals in their favour, rev their engines and pull away quickly. Cyclists ride as if their dream had become reality, pretending that the cars aren’t there, except when they berate their drivers if the model offends them.
The thinking process of road-users is not just confused by all the signs and barriers and delays, but has been positively taken away from them. The irony here is that the thinking is instead being done by those least equipped to do it – Oxfordshire’s highways officers. They would not understand the concept of a social compact between road users – too many syllables for one thing.
What would happen, we wondered, if the highways officers of the two cities were swapped? It would take a while to undo the mess in Oxford and to restore a balance between the different types of road users and between road use generally and other factors. I bet, however, that Oxfordshire’s County highways officers could bring Manhattan to a halt in a week.