Keeping left, or not, as the case may be….

Posted: April 28, 2010 in cycling, England, lifestyle, random thoughts, rants, society
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Keeping left, or not keeping left

Cycling in London can be a curious experience. Trapped someone in between the day-dreamy world of the pedestrian, who ambles where he pleases, and the motorists, who are, by threat of loss of license or even imprisonment, obliged to strictly adhere to the Highway Code, which in the United Kingdom, obliges them to keep to the left hand side of the road. We try to cycle in accordance with the highway code as well, but we also share pedestrian/bike spaces, and the difficulty in negotiating heavy London traffic calls for innovation, initiative and compromise.

I was recently riding through Brompton Cemetery in Chelsea, which is a shared cycling / walking space, as is the increasingly popular trend in this day and age – and I certainly have no problem with that, but I was doing my best to cycle on the left, whereas the majority of the pedestrians were obviously out to deliberately thwart me. Of the 17 pedestrians I passed in both directions, as I rode south from Lillie Road to Fulham Road, 14 were walking on the right!

Keeping to the left seems quirky, British and old fashioned to many in Europe, and to Americans, who especially love to parody the fact in European holiday style movies, that almost always seem to feature a scene in which the lead male accidentally tried to enter the car on the wrong side. It is a minority in the world of motoring, though it is more common than most people think. Almost all of our European neighbours keep to the right, although there are the following exceptions: Cyprus, Guernsey, Ireland, Isle of Man, Jersey, Malta and of course, the United Kingdom. All of these European islands were once part of the British Empire.

KEEP LEFT signs are mostly found in Commonwealth countries and other former British colonies, such as Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and South Africa.

Other countries that drive on the left in Asia are Thailand, Indonesia, Bhutan, Nepal, East Timor and Japan, none of which were part of the British Empire. In South America, only Guyana and Suriname drive on the left. Most of the Pacific countries drive on the left, in line with Australia and New Zealand, with Samoa joining most recently, on 7 September 2009, the first country for three decades to change the side on which it drives.

I mentioned that most of Europe adhered to the driving on the right, as of course, does the number one car owning nation in the world, the United States, along with their neighbours the Canadians, and most of the rest of the Americas, Africa and Asia. In all, there are currently 76 countries that keep left, and 163 countries that prefer the right.

So why do some nations prefer the left, and some the right. The subject of much pub-debating, and with the exact origin lost in the mists of time, historians do now agree that the origin of keeping to one side or the other lies with ancient travellers preferring to pass an oncoming horseman to the left, in order to hold his horse’s reins in his left hand, and keep his right hand free to swing his sword – or show a friendly open handed salute on the side of the oncoming horse. This is also the origin of shaking hands with your right hand.

Archaeological evidence in the form of wheel-ruts on Romans roads shows that the Romans always kept left, presumable for the same sword-swinging reason, and as they were the first extensive road-builders in Europe, the first European highway networks was a KEEP LEFT system all the way, and as the saying goes, when in Rome, do as the Romans do… This left-sided system survived the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, and even the renaissance. Yep, even Leonardo would have kept to the left in Italy. Hard to imagine when you see modern Italian traffic. The first law passed regarding which way to pass was not until 1756, when users of London Bridge became legally required to pass each other on the left. The first Highway Act was passed in 1773, and became more firmly obliging with the amended Highway Act 1835. In the meantime, the French Revolution, and then the Napoleonic Wars were raging across continental Europe. Napoleon being anti-British, decided that from then on, Frenchmen, and the rest of Europe that he subsequently conquered, would do whatever the opposite of everything the British did.

The Americans, who were also not so fond of Britain at the time, copied the French. After the liberation of Europe following Waterloo, some European countries, like Italy, changed back, and some stay right hand sided. Gradually throughout the 20th century, many countries, including all of the mainland European nations switched to right hand traffic. Despite this, left hand drive countries consistently have lower rates of traffic accidents, and this is attribute to the fact that 90% of people are right eye dominant.

Surprisingly, there is no legal obligation to keep left, which in such an insanely crowded country does result in both sidewalk rage – and the annoying left-right two-step where both of you try to get out of the way in the same direction. In places like USA, Canada, and most of Europe it is both the norm and expected that pedestrians keep to the right, although it is convention, not law. In Taiwan, they go one further, with a dividing line in the centre of the path and arrows showing you which way to go.

In the UK, there are no laws, nor any social convention regarding this. In most places, it isn’t too important. Britons have tended to develop a sort of body language that indicates their intended direction, and normally both people correspond, although sometimes this does result in that dreaded two-step.

In London though, it is another thing all together. The London Underground does use KEEP LEFT signs on stairs and walkways, but these are not always observed, especially when there are large crowds trying to disembark a train. In some of the worst stations, there are even dividing rails to try and stop people walking on the wrong side. Escalators are also obviously directional, but there is a very strong rule of standing on the right, and walking on the left, which most locals observe, and most foreigners don’t get until a Londoner runs them down! Walking on Oxford Street is one of the worst experiences a human can endure. ESPECIALLY at Christmas time. Not only are most pedestrians completely unaware that they are sharing with 200 million other pedestrians a year, but their sense of direction gets completely muddled by all the shiny things in the windows. Pavements are for walking not browsing! If you want to browse what shops have for sale, there is a wonderful thing now called the internet – go browse that instead! I do try to avoid Oxford Street at all costs, but occasionally your intended point of travel obliges you to endure the madness of it, it is utterly impossible to ever maintain a reasonable walking speed along any section between Marble Arch and Tottenham Court Road though. Ten years ago there was even a campaign to introduce compulsory directional fast lanes ( ), but it never got going.

Other Commonwealth nations also follow the KEEP LEFT when walking rule, but, often not very strictly. In most parts of Australia and New Zealand, there is a tendency to walk on the left, but other than in city centres, the pavements are less crowded than in Europe and North America, allowing a little more leeway for random directionality. Japan is a different story – Keeping left is definitely de rigueur, and not doing so is a social faux pas, and they will usually try to walk through you if you are in the wrong.

Which brings me back to Brompton Cemetery. I was keeping left, gently ringing my bell to ensure any day dreaming pedestrians had ample warning of my approach, and kindly overtaking them, by moving around them to my right – into what would be the oncoming traffic were I on the road. No problems there. Except it suddenly occurred to me, what would happen if I were to have an accident? If I overtook right side walking pedestrians to their right, and crashed into another cyclist, who was keeping left?

I would be at fault, of course, being the one not keeping left. So as a cyclist, I am obliged legally, to keep left, but have to negotiate pedestrians who can keep left, keep right, or go straight down the middle. So as a cyclist we just have to be the most adaptable – dealing with left keeping traffic, who mostly don’t see you – especially when pulling out of side streets, and pedestrians who might be going anywhere, because with London pedestrians, it is anything goes….


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