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Blessed are the pedestrians...

Adam Weymouth

…for they shall call forth consideration from the motorists.
Michael Northcott believes it's time for less segregation and more negotiation in the planning of our shared public spaces.


Not long ago, I broke my wrist and had to abandon my bike in favour of a daily walk to work. I had forgotten just what a hazardous life pedestrians lead in Edinburgh. One day, as I crossed an extensive but quiet cobbled junction in the New Town, a white van approached me in the middle of the crossing and hooted at me to indicate that I was in the way. Now the Highway Code clearly states that at uncontrolled junctions where pedestrians are already on the crossing they have a right of way over approaching vehicles. But how many drivers even know this, much less observe it? The result is that whenever one steps off the pavement one takes one's life in one's hands. At the university where I work, we have to warn foreign students not to step into the roads, even at junctions, because they are likely to be mown down. And indeed a number of them are injured in this way every year.

The answer to this problem, according to the city council, is to dig up the junctions and install more traffic lights and metal barriers, at great expense, and considerable inconvenience to bus drivers and other road users. By corralling the pedestrians in virtual sheep pens our policy makers render the roads 'free' space for car drivers to drive at up to (or above) 30 miles per hour between traffic lights in built up areas - or in other words at speeds that are dangerous to life and limb.

I resent the implication of these new road designs that prioritise freedom and space for car drivers over pedestrians, who are restrained on overcrowded pavements. And it turns out that this strategy is contrary to officially declared UK government policy, which promotes a hierarchy of users placing the disabled, young children and pedestrians at the top, cyclists next and motorised private vehicles at the bottom.1 But as with so much of central government policy this has become little more than a vague aspiration in car-dominated Britain.

Why do we need this hierarchy? Some, like Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, are opposed to it because they believe it restricts the freedom of the driver.2 But in the Bible, true freedom is not simply an absence of restraint but instead a new set of priorities and values. And sometimes, for the weak to have anything approaching equality and freedom, the strong have to be restrained. Here is how Ezekiel describes the society God liberates:

I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick: but I will destroy the fat and the strong; I will feed them with judgment. Ezekiel 34:16

In the Christian tradition this reverse hierarchy in which the weak are respected above the strong is to be transposed into human hearts, as the gospel parable of the sheep and the goats makes abundantly clear.3 The sheep, who are the righteous, are the gentle ones who attend to the weak, the stranger, the widow, the prisoner, the poor. Jesus says: 'In as much as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it to me.'

Regardless of whether Boris Johnson has a grasp of these scriptural principles, you would hope he had learned something similar as a keen cyclist - namely that for the roads to be safe places, those who are surrounded by metal boxes and air bags need to be restrained from destroying the freedoms of those of us who are not.

The last Labour government promoted a new road safety policy designed to restrict traffic in residential areas - and later in all city areas - to a 20 mph limit to reduce the death and serious injury toll on our roads. This policy has been adopted by some local authorities and is already saving lives4, although the new coalition government no longer supports it. But an even more radical strategy for traffic management is underway in some towns and cities around Europe including in a few places in England and many more in the Netherlands, and in some towns in Germany.

The concept of 'shared space' was first developed by the Dutch traffic planner Hans Monderman who died in 2008. It involves removing all the boundaries between different road users, including kerbs and different levels of pavement and road, along with all traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, road paint and road signs. Instead all road users have to negotiate with each other for right of way.

It has been found that this not only reduces accidents - to zero in many cases where it has been tested - but also increases agency for all road users because it turns them all, drivers and walkers alike, into negotiators.5  Unlike the speed camera and the traffic light, it creates more considerate road users. Drivers are given back moral agency and, when invited rather than coerced to give priority to weaker road users, it turns out they actually do so. This approach produces both a cleaner and more pedestrian-friendly streetscape - something that the government's Communities Minister Eric Pickles now says he approves of - while also encouraging drivers to drive more slowly and respect pedestrians and cyclists . The approach is not as revolutionary as it might seem since many medieval towns - Siena for example in Italy - have such streetscapes still. But in the road-dominated urban areas where it is now being introduced it is a radical departure from conventional approaches to traffic management, hence perhaps the resistance to the concept in conservative Edinburgh.

There is a deeper theological message here. We may read the parable of the sheep and goats as a parable of judgment that is above all about punishment and reward. But for Enlightenment philosophers like Scotland's David Hume, and Germany's Immanuel Kant, if people do the right thing only because they fear punishment, or are seeking the reward of a heavenly sheep field, this indicates they are not acting truly morally - for it is only acts of goodness that are disinterested and freely chosen that can be said to be truly moral and truly free.

But this is entirely to misunderstand the teachings of Jesus and the moral import of the New Testament which is about love above all. And the meaning of love cannot be understood as an act conceived in isolation. Love is about connection, mutuality, relationship and shared wellbeing.

The core message behind the parable of the sheep and the goats is one that turns on recognition and discernment. The ones who have visited the sick and the prisoner, clothed the naked and fed the hungry did not do this as an act of religious zeal or when under compulsion of any kind. They did it because they recognised in the other one an equal dignity to their own and responded to that. In so doing, Jesus said, they served him as well.

So moral discernment is not about weighing a balance of consequences between pedestrians and motorists, or between rich and poor - no, this parable sides with the weak. In doing likewise, we follow Christ's own ethic of weakness, following what St Paul calls the kenosis of incarnation. Early Christians imagined their lord not as an all-powerful king or a powerful heavenly judge but as a shepherd who came to seek and save the lost. This is nowhere more evident than in early Christian art which again and again depicts Christ as a good shepherd with a rescued lamb on his shoulders. For the first five centuries after his death, there are no representations of Christ sitting on imperial thrones or bedecked with crowns, sceptres or orbs. It is only later in Byzantium that this becomes standard.

The early Christian vision of rule has its roots in the pastoral; it is one of rescue and remedy, not of punishment and coercion. It ushers in a politics of gentleness of the kind that puts the disabled pedestrian ahead of the car driver and invites the car driver to share space equally with the disabled. The problem with our modern notion of freedom is that the freedom of the strongest inevitably results in the oppression of the weakest.

Now I agree with Boris Johnson (and even Jeremy Clarkson) that coercion and punishment do not bring out the best in people, not even in car drivers. But it turns out that when enlightened traffic planners appeal to drivers' better natures, they are not disappointed. This is the result of pastoral rule as opposed to the coercive rule of the CCTV camera, the speed camera and the traffic light.

When invited to drive as if people matter more than speed and machines, drivers respond intuitively and give way to other, more vulnerable road users -  even a guy with a broken wrist trying to cross a junction on his way to work. 

Michael Northcott


1  Green Paper on Urban Mobility: Towards a new culture
for urban mobility, European Commission, Directorate for
Energy and Transport, Brussels 2007.
2  Greater London Authority, Way to Go: Planning for better
transport, November 2008.
3  Matthew 25:31-46.
4  Andrew Porter and David Millard, '20 mph limit to cut road deaths', Daily Telegraph, 18 April 2009.
Civilised Streets: Briefing, Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, London, 2008.
6  Adam Gabbatt, 'Signs and bollards damaging English' streets character says Eric Pickles', The Guardian, 26 August 2010.