For crowded sidewalks, a 3 m.p.h. fast lane

Four strands of electric lights hang like rows of imitation pearls between the lampposts on Oxford Street, reflecting the parsimony for which the area's trade association has become famous. In the windows of Selfridges, the street's well-known department store, robotic polar bears skateboard and frolic in a snowstorm.

There are more elegant thoroughfares in the British capital, but Oxford Street is as classless - and crowded - as London gets this time of year.

And there's the rub.

The sidewalks are so cheek-to-jowl with Christmas shoppers that local businesses want to fine lollygagging pedestrians 10 ($15) for dawdling. In the interest of commerce and British decorum, slowpokes on the mile-and-a-half-long street would be ticketed just like speeding drivers.

"In an ideal world there would not be any regulation. But there are too many people and there is too little space," says Rhona Harrison, a spokeswoman for Operation Tugboat, the campaign to segregate the sidewalks.

Oxford Street is visited by more than 9 million tourists each year, and about 60,000 people work in the area. Local merchants have noted that it's so crowded that people move at 1 m.p.h., compared with an estimated average pedestrian speed of 4 m.p.h. Now they want each side of the street divided into two lanes, one with a minimum speed of 3 m.p.h. The street would be patrolled by special marshals with speed cameras.

Anyone caught in the fast lane while reading maps, using a mobile phone, or carrying bulky shopping bags would be liable to an on-the-spot fine. This, presumably, is after they have been pulled over into the slow lane for a reprimand.

The proposal, now under consideration by Westminster City Council, has received enthusiastic support from local residents and workers who say that they experience "pavement rage" at least once a day in the form of angry pushing or shoving.

In a survey of 510 people who live or work in the area, 89 percent said they had experienced pavement rage at least once. Of these, nearly two-thirds said that they were the victims of aggression, and about a third said that they were perpetrators.

"A fast lane would be jolly good, and I think the slow walkers should be told to get out of it," says interior designer Rita Furzey, a longtime resident of a side street off the main drag. "If you just want to get from A to B, you have to duck and dive all the time. It's horrendous."

The council as yet remains unpersuaded. Louise St. John Howe, chairman of its transportation committee, defends the right of people to walk on the pavement at the speed they choose. "A pedestrian fast lane is an interesting idea, but this specific proposal looks like a recipe for unnecessary red tape. It might help a few, but at the expense of a majority of shoppers," says Ms. St. John Howe.

But Operation Tugboat's Ms. Harrison thinks that people would to use the lanes of their own accord. "We hope the scheme would become self-regulatory, like the Tube [subway] escalators, where people stand to one side," she says.

Another scheme under consideration is one-way pavements. William Egan, a film editor, heartily endorses the plan. He says he faces the daily hardship of negotiating a route through the crowds of window-shoppers currently admiring the Christmas decorations between Oxford Circus and his workplace in nearby Soho.

"It's like this all the year round. People are rude, and you get forced out into the street in front of traffic."

Even if the new proposal is adopted, nobody seems to have worked out how the fines would be collected. Earlier this year Prime Minister Tony Blair said that in the future drunken hooligans might be marched to the nearest ATM and relieved of a 100 fine.

That suggestion caused such widespread derision that nothing more has been heard of it. Meanwhile the Oxford Street challenge continues.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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