Exempting people cycling from signals, and how that can benefit people walking

By way of a follow-up to last week’s post about reducing the need to stop at traffic lights while cycling, I thought I’d take a look at exemptions to signals – how they work in the Netherlands, and how they could be transferred to the UK.

This is a bit of a hot topic (as far as hot topics go) in cycle infrastructure design, and also something that could offer benefits for pedestrians – pertinent, as we’ll see, to aspects of the Superhighway plans. just announced by Transport for London.

The basic Dutch principle is that if someone is making a right turn by bike (our left turn, obviously) at a signalised junction, they shouldn’t have to stop. Not only is this convenient, it’s also safer – people cycling, turning right, don’t need to go anywhere near the junction itself.

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 16.10.09

No need to worry about that HGV.

Amazingly the Dutch have been doing this for a very long time. Mark Wagenbuur (BicycleDutch) showed me this example dating from the 1960s, in the Overvecht area of Utrecht –

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 17.58.15This signalised junction is completely bypassed if you wish to turn right by bike (much as it is if you were walking). Good design, even if it is clearly in need of renovation, being about fifty years old!

Here’s a more modern example of the same design, in Amsterdam –

DSCN9957Again, turning right here is easy, and doesn’t involve signals at all.

In fact, we actually do this already in Britain – but badly. We simply allow cycling on the footway. Either this is a simple footway conversion – ‘you can now cycle here, off you go’ – or it’s deliberate design, like (for instance) on Old Shoreham Road in Brighton, where you are allowed to cycle onto the pavement to make left turns.

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 18.08.15

It’s a nice idea, but it’s far from ideal, not just because it creates conflict and uncertainly between people walking and cycling, but also because there’s no continuity through the junction.

Happily it seems that moves are afoot to try and bring Dutch-style design to the UK, with cycle tracks, clearly separated from both footways and the carriageway, extending around the corners of signalised junctions, and remaining outside of signal control.

Here’s a detail from a presentation made at the latest LCC policy forum, by Transport for London’s Brian Deegan –

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 18.20.44

The full presentation is here.

It’s not quite perfect, but the principle are exactly right. Turning left is possible at any time, regardless of what the signals are doing. Likewise, the interactions with pedestrians are managed correctly, with pedestrians having priority across the track on zebras, on both arms of the junction – reaching a waiting island, and then crossing the carriageway with signals.

So this is how someone walking might move across this junction –

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 18.25.22

In more detail!

They can, of course, cross the ‘signalised’ bit whenever they want to, if the road is clear, because UK pedestrians don’t have to obey the red man.

Flipping a picture of a junction in Amsterdam, we can see how this might look in Britain.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 21.21.09
The woman with the dog has crossed the ‘zebra’ bit over the cycle track, and is waiting for a green signal at the carriageway. Slightly confusingly, the Dutch use zebra markings across signalised pedestrian crossings too. (This is so that they can function with pedestrian priority at night, when traffic signals are turned off). But Brian’s example is how it might look in the UK.

Brian himself is pushing hard for an implementation of this kind of junction somewhere in London. His actual intention is for it to operate as a form of ‘simultaneous green’, with people able to cycle across the junction in any direction, at the same time, while all motor traffic is held – and pedestrians also able to cross at the same time, because the ‘signalled’ bit of the crossing doesn’t involve anyone cycling.

But it seems that some people in TfL are quite sniffy and sceptical about how this would actually work – Brian related how he had been told that the ‘zebra’ and the ‘signalised’ parts of the pedestrian crossing should be staggered, or offset, so that pedestrians don’t get confused into thinking that the whole crossing is a zebra. (Yes, seriously).

Funnily enough, I was in Bristol the other weekend, and, well, they are actually building something like this already.

This is the new cycle track along Baldwin Street, still under construction –

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 18.39.41

It will be bi-directional, which is less than ideal, but I think Bristol have actually pretty much nailed how this design approach should work. The cycle track passes behind the traffic signals, meaning there’s no need to stop. There’s even a hint at a Dutch protecting island on the corner, and the pedestrian and cyclist parts of the crossing (heading to the left) are clearly separated. Pedestrians cross the track on a hinted ‘zebra’, and then wait on an island, if they have to, for the signalled part of the crossing.

The ‘zebra’ has to be unofficial like this, because doing it officially would currently require Belisha beacons, and zig-zag markings – rendering something that should be quite simple very messy. So I think Bristol have taken the right approach – it’s quite obvious that it’s a crossing, even if it isn’t done by the letter.

Are people confused by this design? It would seem not.

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 18.46.39

I stood here for a while, and nobody appeared to feel the urge to march across the road, convinced that they had priority on a zebra, all the way across it. It’s really quite obvious what’s going on.

The rest of the track will, it seems, have this same kind of treatment at straightforward signalised pedestrian crossings.

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 18.51.01

A little hard to see, because it’s obviously still under construction, but pedestrians can cross the cycle track on this ‘zebra’, before waiting on an island at a signalised pedestrian crossing. Simple, and it means that people cycling along the road don’t have to worry about stopping for the signals; they just have to yield to pedestrians at the ‘zebra’.

The original plans marked this arrangement much like a ‘give way a footway’ –

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 18.54.08

From here.

This would not have been a bit messy, I think, and I’m pleased to see Bristol using the best approximation of a Dutch approach that they can manage.

So, can this be copied in London, and elsewhere in the UK? Definitely. Here’s a pedestrian crossing, from the new Superhighway proposals on Lower Thames Street.

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 18.58.08

The whole crossing is signalised. But why not do what Bristol are doing, and only signalise the bit across the road, with a zebra (or ‘zebra’) across the cycle track, at the top? (Note – this would have the added benefit of shorter pedestrian stages).

Likewise, just to the west of Blackfriars Bridge –

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 19.02.33

Do we really need to make people walking go out of their way, on a two-stage staggered crossing, just to get across a cycle track? Surely a simple ‘zebra’ marking would suffice. Why make our lives more difficult with all this staggering, when the cycle track could be crossed directly on zebras?

A whole swathe of ungainly pedestrian crossings

An array of ungainly, indirect pedestrian crossings

So I’d love to see all this unnecessary signalisation removed from these (very promising) plans, and replaced with zebra markings. It would make everyone’s lives much better. These plans would make a substantial improvement to the pedestrian environment as they stand, but i think they be even better.

It would also provide firm support for Brian Deegan’s attempts to implement his simultaneous green junction plans elsewhere in London, – as well as support for the sound principle of exempting people cycling left at junctions from signalisation.

Bristol are showing us how it can be done. Why over-complicate things?

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19 Responses to Exempting people cycling from signals, and how that can benefit people walking

  1. Another key benefit for pedestrians in Baldwin Street is the junction with Queen Charlotte’s street. The road is being significantly tightened, meaning vehicle speeds will be lower, and of course the distance to cross is much less. I also think that the crossing will be level, so there’s no ramps or kerbs for people walking, cycling, or wheelchairing to navigate.

  2. Dan B says:

    I think the main problem with the ‘argument’ as it is at the moment is that people think bikes should be on the road with other traffic, and as such should stop at lights. The ‘turn left on red’ argument is very rarely (if ever) accompanied by ‘in protected lanes physically separate from both motor traffic and pedestrians’. There’s SO little good infrastructure in this country it’s almost impossible to find examples of what you’re talking about that both (or either!) parties would be familiar with.

    As to the ‘people will be confused’ argument – are people confused by the Dutch layout? I’d personally find a continuation of zebra more confusing if it’s sometimes signalled. Is this ever an issue in the Netherlands?

    • Jan says:

      No, this is not an issue in the Netherlands, since everybody grew up with it. A zebra just means that it’s a place where you can cross the road, you only have priority when there are either no traffic lights, or when they are green. You don’t assume that there are no lights, just by the fact that it is a zebra.

      In touristy areas, it might cause a bit of confusion, but tourists are usually confused anyway. Walking on bike paths is a major nuisance in Amsterdam.

      When abroad, i always find myself struggling to find pedestrian crossings, since I look for zebra stripes.

  3. I think you could make a strong argument to go even further: make red lights the equivalent of give way for cyclists.

    • Dan B says:

      You could, but that in itself doesn’t provide a safe riding environment. It gives the opportunity for those in charge to make a minimal change and say “well, we’ve done what you asked for” without actually doing anything at all.

      • AJ says:

        Agreed. The whole point is that they BYPASS the lights, not get an exemption from them.

        This would be a dramatic change in UK infrastructure. I often wonder why I have to stop when crossing the top of a “T” junction when really I could just cruise past on the LEFT of the traffic signals and not even be bothered by them. Would give a clear advantage to cycling.

        • Hello from France.

          Here in Paris, the exemption approach for cyclists going right is what is being used. More and more. One should take into account some streets are very narrow though, in many cases there’s no room for a bypass path at the right of the street.

          Here is a photo of such a sign :

          Here you can even see such a sign for an exemption in order to go right, in a street that is one-way for cars (hence the no-righ-turn sign), but that bikes can use in both ways :


          You can also have “go ahead” signs for traffic lights that are on a straight line (ie : that are there to regulate the cars, and allow the pedestrians to cross the street safely).

          Here the joke goes like this : some cyclists would turn right anyway before they put the sign. But it is a sign that gives some security, because now you can focus on what you’re doing, you don’t have to check whether or not there is a police car near you 🙂

  4. Mihai says:

    The thing about the zebra being used also as a signalised pedestrian crossing being confusing, is only confusing from a British perspective. Everywhere in the rest of Europe the only marking for a pedestrian crossing is the zebra. What is confusing is the bewildering array of pedestrian crossing markings you can find in the UK (zebras with or without ugly posts, with wriggly things before and after, toucans, pelicans – i.e. the small squares drawn on the road (that one cannot see from a vehicle) with or without signals, etc.). The zebra marking is much simpler, it’s difficult to ignore it, it is rather robust with regard to wear.

    • Sarah Swift says:

      This is not quite true. As a pedestrian in Salzburg, I was almost taken out by a driver who didn’t understand why I was crossing on red. I didn’t understand why he was driving on a zebra crossing. I simply didn’t process the pedestrian signals at all because my mind was not programmed to look for them (or even to look forward at all) once I had seen the zebra stripes. The scenario isn’t just confusing from a British perspective: it most certainly also confused me as somebody who who grew up in Ireland, where zebra means zebra at all hours of the day or night, and is habitually resident in Germany, where zebra also means zebra.

      In general, I think there is a need for caution in deploying sweeping phrases like “everywhere in the rest of Europe” when describing pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure – they can evoke a false sense of European homogeneity. Legislation and design guidance differs only from country to country (as in the zebra example above) and as it evolves over time. But actual built infrastructure can differ considerably even between villages barely a few miles apart, and sometimes the oddest things are constructed even by otherwise enlightened and well-intentioned local authority engineers. Kevin Mayne had a lovely Belgian example for this the other day: http://idonotdespair.com/2014/09/12/yet-another-what-were-they-thinking-moment-a-beautiful-belgian-cycle-route-with-a-terrifying-twist.

      • Aron says:

        He/she said “is only confusing from a British perspective.” Then you said “This is not quite true. As a pedestrian in Salzburg, I..”. But your name is Sarah Swift. And your post tells about how you were not programmed (as a British person I’m assuming) to look for signals. Well the Salzburgians, and other continental Europeans are. So he was right. It’s a British problem.

    • reaperexpress says:

      I’m from Toronto, Ontario, Canada and I’d agree that this confusion about zebras is a uniquely British problem. We use zebra markings for pedestrian crossings at both signalized and unsignalized locations, as does pretty much the entire world. A key difference is that pedestrians don’t pay any attention to road markings here in Ontario, because pedestrians always legally have priority at crosswalks, even if there are no markings at all.

      There is no legal distinction between crosswalk types, and a crosswalk is merely:
      “The connections of the lateral lines of the sidewalks on opposite sides of the road; or
      Any portion of a roadway at an intersection or elsewhere distinctly indicated for pedestrian crossing by signs or by lines or other markings on the surface”.

      Of course, despite the legal priority, in practice pedestrians do not get priority at unmarked crossings because motorists do not drive along scanning the edges of the road for sidewalk continuity. The existence of marked crosswalks is merely to improve adherence to the already-existing priority rules, or to introduce priority where there is no sidewalk continuity across the street (i.e. mid-block). Municipalities are welcome to draw whatever they like on the crosswalk, whether it be zebra stripes, continuity lines, piano keys, or colourful flowers (I’ve seen all of the above), and they are certainly not required to install hi-viz poles and lights irrespective of context.

      It is probably worth reconsidering antiquated regulations such as mandatory Belisha Beacons, as they can make some pedestrian- and bicycle-oriented designs quite cumbersome, and give motorists an excessive amount of entitlement to drive around without paying attention.

  5. Tim says:

    Do the cyclists always stop for pedestrians (at the cycle-path zebras)? I guess if they are well marked and raised it would help, but I know on this cycle path cyclists generally don’t give way (not wanting to lose momentum) and most pedestrians have come to tolerate waiting for the cyclists to clear before crossing (although they often walk in the cycle path elsewhere). The markings are very unclear though.

    • Dan B says:

      I think much of it has to do with continuity of surface. In your example the cycle track is continuous and the crossing isn’t obvious, or even really marked. In the Bristol example the cycle track is crossed by the footway. They are very clearly paved differently, and obviously for different purposes. The continuity of one shows its priority over the other.

      Whether individuals (using any mode of transport) stop or not is variable, just like it is with zebra crossings on roads currently!

    • Ben Harris says:

      Note that in your example, the meaning of the markings is that cyclists must give way to crossing vehicles, not to pedestrians. I’d expect a pseudo-zebra, which at least looks like a pedestrian crossing, to work a little better.

  6. Regarding your second London example, the one which is circled in red:

    It’s likely that people on foot wanting to cross the road here will ignore the signalled crossing of the cycleway, and simply walk across it along the line of the main road crossing anyway.

    This is where the current design has added danger – people on bikes will have their eyes on the traffic lights, they won’t be looking for someone stepping out from behind a tree. (Collisions like this, due to mistakes in design, will be used by the likes of Vincent Stops to denigrate the entire concept!)

    So TfL should just design for how people are going to behave anyway, and put in a pseudo-zebra in line with the signalled crossing. That way people on bikes will be looking out for people walking across the cycleway here, rather than having the tunnel-vision that travelling towards traffic lights can often bring.

    Of course, the most important thing here is to choose a name for these pseudo-zebra crossings – how about “lemur crossing”? They have stripes on the tail, but the body is grey – just like our new design. Seems to fit well!

  7. Jitensha Oni says:

    I wonder if Mark expected the discussion would evolve into how many stripes make a zebra? Could it be an okapi?

    Heaven knows I’m not a fan, but I have to admit that there is virtually no conflict at the recent demotion from segregated cycle path/footway to shared use, minimal stripage crossings in Kingston-upon-Thames. Granted the cycling mode share is small, there are virtually no roadies, and K-u-T doesn’t have as many foreign visitors as Central London, but for the “ordinary” people I think we want to see more of cycling, the exact pattern is not really an issue. They, and the pedestrians, don’t get confused, at least for long. This of course contradicts TfLs implication that people are too stupid to react to traffic and will instead blindly follow “the rules” they (TfL/DfT) dictate (even if, as in Central London, a lot of visitors won’t know them – or ignore them, like the schoolkids that ultimately would be the beneficiaries).

    However, I can’t think of anywhere else in the world that uses a lemur or okapi, with stripes on on the bike path but not on the carriageway crossing. Really, why bother when better solutions exist, or so they say?

    On the other hand, having a general principle of allowing bicycle movement through left turn or T-junction bypasses where possible, seems perfectly sensible, as long as those pesky roadie types who reportedly give the rest of us a bad name by bullying pedestrians stay away and stick to the road and obey the red lights as the rest of us sail through the bypasses. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    • Jan says:

      As mentioned, in the Netherlands, both crossings with and without traffic lights use the zebra stripes.

      However, this means that there are a lot of different solutions in place. In Amsterdam, I can find examples for each of them:

      – Zebra stripes on bike path and carriageway, no traffic lights. Easy, all traffic should stop for pedestrians.
      – Zebra stripes on bike path and carriageway, with traffic lights. Easy, everybody should stop for a red light.
      – Zebra stripes on bike path and carriageway, with traffic lights only on carriageway. Cars should stop for red, cyclists should stop for pedestrians.
      – Zebra stripes only on carriageway, with traffic lights on carriageway. Cars should stop for red, pedestrians should wait for cyclists to reach the waiting area.

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