The death of the zebra crossing?

The Daily Mail reports

The zebra crossing is facing extinction just as it prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary in Britain, experts have revealed. The iconic crossing is being phased out and replaced with more sophisticated substitutes after a rise in deaths in the last four years. Ironically, the crossings were first introduced in Britain to tackle mounting road deaths in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But it seems the effectiveness of the crossing today could be in decline as it emerged many drivers fail to stop for pedestrians walking over the black and white painted pathway.

… during the last five years more than 1,000 zebra crossings have vanished and many others have been replaced by fewer more sophisticated alternatives with lights and flashing signs. Low fines and the reluctance of motorists to stop have also seen deaths on zebra crossings double in the last four years. Andrew Hammond, head of road safety at the AA, said: ‘Zebra crossings are looked on as inferior to other pedestrian crossings as there is no red light telling cars to stop. ‘In towns and villages there is a pressure from residents for councils to fit pelican crossings as they believe they are safer, so zebras are being phased out. I suspect zebra crossings will continue to have a role in some busy town centres where they can be effective at helping people cross without constantly stopping the traffic. But in villages and towns I think they will eventually become extinct.’

Mr Hammond said the solution is having more crossing points for pedestrians, even if they are not fully-fledged zebras or pelicans. Zebra-crossings could be down-graded so they indicate a good place for pedestrians to cross and motorists know to watch out for them, but are not legally obliged to stop,’ he said.

The first thing to observe is the entirely car-centric perspective of the AA’s ‘road safety’ representative, Andrew Hammond. For him, zebra crossings are considered useful only in locations where they can help people cross ‘without constantly stopping the traffic.’ The type of crossing, in other words, is entirely dependent upon the impact on motor vehicle flow, which should naturally come first, even in towns. The idea that pedestrians should be able to cross roads in towns and villages when they want to (which is the key advantage of zebra crossings) – even if that might mean stopping the traffic, momentarily – is apparently anathema to the AA.

Likewise, for Mr Hammond, a better ‘solution’ for allowing people to cross is to replace the zebra crossing with a down-graded version, at which motorists merely have to ‘watch out’ for pedestrians, while not being ‘legally obliged to stop.’ Of course, what this actually means are that zebra crossings are being ‘downgraded’ to the status of ‘a road’ – although the ‘motorists watching out’ part of this equation is increasingly denuded.

The evidence that zebra crossings do actually ‘stop the traffic’ (beyond the trivial sense of stopping it while pedestrians are crossing) is not provided. I’m not at all sure how or why the presence of these crossings increases overall motor vehicle journey times – in my experience, they merely delay the time at which a motor vehicle arrives at the tail end of the next queue in a town or city. Slow journey times in built-up areas are entirely a function of other vehicles, not pedestrian crossings of any kind.

In any case, the motive behind the removal of these crossings is allegedly ‘safety’; they are, it seems, inferior to other crossing systems (which almost entirely involve pedestrian delay) because, in Mr Hammond’s words, ‘there is no red light telling cars to stop.’ Apparently motorists are increasingly having a hard time working out how to stop their vehicles without the presence of a light signal telling them to do so. This is rather interesting, given that there is no red light telling cars to stop at ‘give way’ junctions, yet they usually manage to stop there. The meaning of the dashed lines at junctions is well understood. Likewise, all drivers know they have to yield to pedestrians crossing on a zebra. They just know they can escape punishment for not doing so. In other words – despite the logic of the man from the AA – this is a problem of enforcement, not of a lack of a red light.

Despite the already rapidly dwindling number of zebra crossings in the UK, they (or their equivalent) are rather prevalent on the continent; indeed, they are in rude health. Here are some examples –

Directly outside the main entrance of Gare Cornavin, Geneva’s central station. An enormous crossing, on which pedestrians have priority.

Place du Neuve, Geneva. A large, rather busy square, across which there is a long zebra crossing. Not sure if it is legal to cycle across it, but cars were happy to yield to this family.

Intersection of Rue du Mont Blanc and Rue de Berne, Geneva. Zebra crossings where people want to cross. (To the left, Rue du Mont Blanc has been completely pedestrianised, although I am not sure how recently).

Other examples of the Geneva streetscape –

More photos can be found in my post here.

Paris also has rather a large number of zebra crossings –

My picture here gives the misleading impression that this is a quiet road, but this is actually the Quai des Grands Augustin, the racetrack running along the south side of the Seine. A zebra crossing here too.

More zebra crossings – again, these are rather typical in plenty of Parisian districts. More photos of Paris, and its zebra crossings, can be found here.

And in a typical Swiss town, plenty of zebra crossings too, precisely where pedestrians want them.

Rather hard to see, but there are in fact three pedestrian crossings here, within the space of a hundred metres. This is the main road into Nyon from the north, where it goes under the railway station. Because pedestrians will be walking to the station at these points, they have been provided for.

Other spots in Nyon town centre –

And directly outside the front entrance of Nyon train station, we again see a zebra crossing, meaning that passengers arriving by train can walk directly across the road, without delay, into the town.

Now to compare with my town, Horsham. At what is quite possibly one of the busiset locations for pedestrians in the entire town – the eastern end of the pedestrianised West Street – there is no zebra crossing. Pedestrians – despite vastly outnumbering the motor vehicles passing through – have to defer, as shown in the photos below.

Not good enough.

In fact, there is only one zebra crossing in the entire town; I strongly suspect it was only put in because it provides direct access from the town centre to a Sainsbury’s supermarket built on a school playing field in the 1990s. There was no pedestrian crossing prior to this development.

You can see it in use in Google Streetview.

 The Streetview car approaches! We can see a lady in blue jeans about to step onto the crossing, on the right. This road has a 20 mph limit.

It doesn’t like Google is going to stop though – and the lady thinks better of stepping onto the crossing in front of a vehicle on important business.

Wait there, lady!

As we look back after moving on, we can see that the car behind us grasps the concept of the zebra crossing.

Perhaps the Google Streetview driver was confused by the absence of a red light.

This entry was posted in Car dependence, Infrastructure, Road safety, Town planning, Transport policy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to The death of the zebra crossing?

  1. Ben Bawden says:

    “… there is no red light telling cars to stop …”

    Surely cars should stop to let pedestrians cross whether there is a red light, a zebra crossing, or nothing.

  2. I love zebra crossings. I hope they can be saved from becoming another one of the victims of motorist superiority. Unlike other types of crossing, zebra crossing give priority to those who should always have priority in places where people live, work and shop; pedestrians. These are places where the motorist should be an occasional guest, and behave as such, driving slowly and giving priority to people using modes of transport more appropriate for the situation. I’d love to see them everywhere, across the openings to side roads & added to signalised junctions in cities, towns and villages, acting as a constant reminder to motorists that this isn’t their domain, that these are the places where low levels of slow motor traffic should be merely tolerated, rather than large volumes of fast motor traffic being overtly indulged.

    Everyone is a pedestrian sometimes, and yet our road network is designed to completely screw-over anyone who has the audacity to walk around their towns and neighbourhoods.

  3. Ah, but Pelican and other light operated crossings allow for timing lights in such a way that you have to wait for ages before you get the green man and then give you only seconds to cross.
    I think zebra crossing allow more natural movement.

    • Yes. A typical pelican crossing in Horsham has a sensor mounted on it, meaning pedestrians will not get a green signal while motor vehicles are approaching the signals. If the flow of motor vehicles is constant, then pedestrians will have to wait for a minute or more for a crossing phase.

  4. Joe Dunckley says:

    Of course, none of those European zebras, and none of Mr C’s suggestions would be legal in the UK — too close to junctions. The rules deliberately prohibit zebras in the places people want to walk — direct lines. So you get nonsense like the Brockley Cross plan, which fulfills residents’ demands for crossings by putting them in places where few will use them. The reason is probably that pedestrians already have greater priority at junctions — so long as they have already started crossing before the vehicle arrives — therefore zebra crossings wouldn’t be needed there. Never mind that drivers stopped giving way to pedestrians at junctions decades ago.

    • I’ve been trying to reclaim pedestrian priority at junctions whenever I’m out and about on foot. I find it amazing how much most of the people I walk with defer completely to motorists, as if they have forgotten that they have as much (if not more) right to go about their business on foot. I find it really depressing when people are nervous to step out onto zebra crossings, or run the last part of crossing the road because they feel like they have no right to hold up motorists.

      • Joe Dunckley says:

        As Lieut-Col JTC Moore-Brabazon MP, commenting on the 1934 traffic act (which introduced speed limits), said:

        “It is true that 7000 people are killed in motor accidents, but it is not always going on like that. People are getting used to the new conditions… No doubt many of the old Members of the House will recollect the number of chickens we killed in the old days. We used to come back with the radiator stuffed with feathers. It was the same with dogs. Dogs get out of the way of motor cars nowadays and you never kill one. There is education even in the lower animals. These things will right themselves.”

        So there you go.

  5. Joe Dunckley says:

    And there’s a zebra crossing outside St Paul’s on Ludgate Hill. Anywhere else and it would have been ripped out decades ago. It really does create long queues at rush hour because there are so many pedestrians (of course, the next junctions and the vans making deliveries contribute). But the City think that traffic lights would be ugly outside St Paul’s. Occupy LSX could get a great protest going just by getting constant lines of pedestrians using the zebra…

  6. You only have to watch road users behaviour at zebra crossings to see what an “inconvenience” it is to wait whilst a fellow human being crosses the road. I’ve seen plenty barely give the person crossing a chance to get off “their” half of the road before racing off. That’s assuming they stop at all of course.

    I’ve also had times where I’ve been stopping on my bike (annoyingly much to the amazement of the person waiting to cross…) only for motor vehicles to overtake me and carry on through!

    Signalled crossings aren’t much better either, as others have said the wait you have to put up with just to cross the road does border on excessive sometimes and all so those precious motorists don’t get held up…..

  7. We in the Bristol Traffic Project have a large dataset showing how much value Zebra Crossings retain in their undocumented role: the provisioning of short stay parking areas.
    As even double yellow lines are often blocked by long-stay vehicles, zebra crossings retain a role. it can’t be for pedestrian safety -as our videos show that it is generally viewed as a hint by all: driver, cyclist and bus alike.

    What is interesting about Zebra crossing though -and the AA have missed it- is that in any collision between pedestrian and car, the car is viewed as at fault. It is a hint of that euro-liability-leglisation that the daily mail would be complaining about, were it not busy at the time belisha beacon was rolled out actually advocating closer ties with europe -albeit with those who also liked wearing black uniforms and marching.

    Pelican and toucan crossings are far more amenable to disputes about “who stepped out”, and can be tuned to give important people in cars less time than pedestrians. A common complaint in our local papers is always about people taking too long to walk across the road

  8. Kim says:

    My favourite zebra crossing is the one I recently saw in Bozen/Bolzano it goes all the way around a roundabout, giving pedestrians priory over motor traffic…

  9. Paul M says:

    French zebra crossings aren’t actually much of an example to follow, if you have ever used one – if there is in fact any obligation for drivers to stop for them, they universally ignore it. They only stop if you actually step out, and you often see puzzled Brit tourists standing on the kerb waiting in vain for trafficto stop.

    France is in many ways a much more civilised placed to cycle than the UK although it is not immediately apparent why this is. There are certainly no more offroad cycle paths than there are here, and overall road accident stats are much higher than ours, although not, I understand, for people on the outside of motor vehicles. Their drivers are more aggressive (to other motorists at least), speeding is far more serous than here to the point that the government has explicitly decided to disguise speed cameras from now on.

    BUT, generally motorists steer a much wider berth of cyclists, and are more patient about waiting for enough room to pass. I assume this is about strict (civil) liability and a tougher criminal law approach to causing death or injury by careless/dangerous driving.

    • BeachedBum says:

      I think French law is that drivers only have to yield to pedestrians who are ON the crossing. I was once told that the secret is not to look at the traffic – they’ll then stop for you. Having also cycled in France, I think French drivers generally give cyclists more room because, unlike in the UK, the French public like cyclists. Mountain biking in France, I’ve had walkers step to the side and urge me to go faster, shouting “Allez allez allez” – not something I think the Ramblers tend to do in the UK!

      There’s an excellent history of “Crossing the Road in Britain 1931-1976”: by Joe Moran. It concludes “policy innovations seem to have been inspired not by casualty
      figures or public outcry about them, but by two main factors : popular hostility
      towards, confusion about, or lack of observance of previous pedestrian crossings
      or road safety campaigns ; and the desire not to impede traffic flow as congestion
      in town centres worsened.”

      Nothing much has changed then…

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