Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Fifty years ago, the Beatles crossed Abbey Road. The iconic album cover created the world’s most famous crosswalk, and a traffic nuisance that endures today.
On this day 50 years ago, the residents of Abbey Road were probably unaware of just how much they were going to hate the Beatles.
It was on August 8, 1969, that the band snapped the photo that would change Abbey Road’s future forever. The following month they would release an album named after the northwest London street where it had been recorded, and that album’s iconic cover would seal the street’s fate. A photo of the Fab Four crossing the street in tidily-arranged profile made Abbey Road the site of the most famous crosswalk in the world.
In terms of traffic management, it’s been downhill ever since.
Even to this day, Abbey Road is thronged with Beatles fans trying to recreate the image themselves, slowing down traffic and putting themselves in some danger as they do so. On the 50th anniversary, that was as true as ever.
Getting the pose right is not easy. When the original photo was taken, police were on hand to stop traffic while photographer Iain Macmillan scaled a step ladder to get the right angle. Visitors ever since, by contrast, have had to contend with the fact that this quietly opulent street is actually quite busy with traffic, ever complicated by the daily gauntlet of posing fans.
This can be tiresome for locals. As a disgruntled taxi driver told the BBC on the event of the album’s 40th anniversary, “It really does annoy you. All they’re doing is posing on the crossing. Someone’s going to get mown down one of these days, there’s no doubt about it.”
Meanwhile the actual Abbey Road sign has been stolen and covered in graffiti so many times that the local borough has put up replacements screwed inaccessibly high up on the walls of houses. It’s not as if the still-running Abbey Road Studios isn’t aware of the issues. For the anniversary, it has installed a large printed backdrop of the crosswalk in its parking lot, so that fans can take a photo without getting in the roadway.
If you're planning on coming to the zebra crossing today and the queues are too long, step inside the Abbey Road car park for one day only and take your photo with the original Beatles' 1969 image! #AbbeyRoad pic.twitter.com/I8Dne7MJM8— Abbey Road Studios (@AbbeyRoad) August 8, 2019
That, however, is the price of immortality. Aware that the Beatles made a simple traffic management system into an icon, Britain has actually given the crosswalk listed status—that is, registered it for historic preservation—since 2010.
On balance, they were right. The crosswalk is certainly a hub of chaotic energy between drivers, pedestrians, and tourists taking a gamble for the perfect shot, but people are not, in fact, “mown down” in this section of Abbey Road. The album cover, no doubt unintentionally, is a rare celebration of the pedestrian in a music industry that far more often glorifies cars and driving.
And who knows? As London and cities throughout Europe rethink their relationship with cars, maybe crosswalks like the one in Abbey Road will indeed become historic monuments, relics of a time when taking a photo in the roadway was still a dangerous thing to do.