The problem with Puffin crossings

The death of a woman in Reading earlier this year – and the inquest into her death – has prompted me to write something about Puffin crossings, which to me at least seem to have been a factor in that collision.

Lauren Heath was killed on a Puffin crossing as an HGV driver advanced through the crossing. It still isn’t clear whether he moved while the signals were still red, or whether the green signal had appeared while Lauren Heath was still on the crossing. She was in the driver’s ‘blind spot’ – allegedly, because the driver had failed to properly adjust his mirror.

But one of the factors in her death appears to have been the lack of far side signal at the Puffin crossing. As she walked up the road to cross, she saw motor traffic waiting at a red signal, and started to cross in front of it, without the far side indication of whether or not it is safe to do so, as is the case with more traditional, and familiar, Pelican crossings.

Here is a similar example of a Puffin crossing in Horsham. Walking in this direction, towards the lights, as Lauren Heath would have done, I can see that they are red. But there is no far side signal – the only indication of whether or not it is safe to cross is the small yellow box on the signal post itself.

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-12-37-36

To look at this box involves rotating through 180°, looking back the way I’ve come. The signal for whether or not it is safe to cross is not in line with my direction of travel.

Standing at the crossing, looking back the way i have come from

Standing at the crossing, looking back the way i have come from

This is what Lauren Heath would have had to have done, but failed to do – she just assumed that the lights would stay red, and without the far side signal, she had no indication that motor traffic might be about to set off as she walked across the crossing.

We know that humans will make mistakes like this, and I don’t think Puffin crossings are designed to mitigate human fallibility. The lack of the far side signal is a big problem; it means people have to look at a small box in an unnatural position, rather than relying on line of sight in the direction they are travelling.

To be clear, Puffin crossings do have some advantages over Pelicans. For one thing, I like the way that, thanks to detectors, the signals will stay red for motor traffic while people are still on the crossing – it means people who are slower do not have to hurry, warned by a flashing red man. Puffins, again thanks to detectors, also ‘reset’ if people push the button, and then cross before they get a green man – it means motor traffic isn’t held unnecessarily at a crossing when nobody is waiting to cross.

But there are other problems with them, not just the lack of far side signal. They can be deeply ambiguous. Walking up to this crossing, it is easy to assume that the green man applies to the crossing ahead, in the background. Right?

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-12-52-02

Well, no. That would be wrong. This green man applies to the crossing 90° to the left of my field of view. This crossing, with the same box in the foreground –

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-12-53-22

Walking across the crossing in the first photo on the assumption you have a green man would actually bring you into conflict with motor traffic.

Here’s a similar (and much worse) example from Sheffield.

The counter argument is, of course, that far side signals can themselves be ambiguous if there are multiple crossings in the line of sight, signalled differently. For instance, people might interpret a green for the section of carriageway on the far side of the road as an indication that it is safe cross the near side section of carriageway, which may have a red. I nearly got caught out in precisely the same way at this dreadful crossing outside the Gare du Lyon in Paris, which had a green on the station side, but a red to prevent people crossing the other half of the carriageway.

Amazingly, this crossing has two different sets of lights for each part of the crossing

Amazingly, this crossing has two different sets of lights for each part of the crossing. I nearly got hit stepping into the road with a green at the far side, without realising there was a red for the nearside section of road.

But the answer to this is really don’t build ambiguous, staggered crossings! Mitigating them with Puffins – which might still be open to ambiguous interpretation – isn’t really the long-term answer. Pedestrian and cycle crossings should be straightforward, without stopping and starting halfway – design them so people can cross the road, in one go. Puffins are really just polishing a turd.

A very wide crossing of multiple lanes in Rotterdam, crossed by both people walking and cycling in one go.

A very wide crossing of multiple lanes in Rotterdam, crossed by both people walking and cycling in one go. No need for Puffin boxes to remove ambiguity.

Another problem with Puffins is that the signal box is easily obscured, because (with good reason) people stand right next to it.

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-13-07-36

This is often mitigated by adding another signal box on to the same pole – but again this problem wouldn’t arise at all with high, far side signals.

And one final annoyance with Puffins is that if you are approaching them on a bike (at a Toucan crossing with Puffin signalling) the lack of far side signal means you have to stop, and look at the box, in a way you wouldn’t have to with conventional signals. They interrupt progress.

So I’m really not a fan of Puffins, at all. One silver lining is that Transport for London don’t like them either, because they prevent the use of pedestrian countdown. While Puffins do have some good features, I would really like to see them integrated into the more traditional, conventional and intuitive far-side signal design.

The Ranty Highwayman has covered similar ground to this post here – do have a read!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to The problem with Puffin crossings

  1. Matthew Phillips says:

    Would we put traffic lights side-on to the carriageway they are controlling, and expect drivers to slow down or stop to check them before proceeding?

  2. Edward Leigh says:

    My understanding of why DfT advocates near-side pedestrian signals is that pedestrians tend to affix their gaze on a far-side signal and start crossing as soon as it turns green, without checking that approaching traffic is indeed stopping. Having the signal on the near-side forces pedestrians to look towards oncoming traffic before crossing.

    It’s unlikely that any design will prevent all collisions because people will take risks, deliberately or absent-mindedly, when walking, cycling or driving. But perhaps a refinement of the current design would be to have the pedestrian lights show as 120 degree bands around the post (at two heights: approx 1m and 2m), visible from all directions of approach, but not from the other side of the crossing.

    • For the crossing in AsEasy’s example, looking down at the yellow box actually reduces your view of the oncoming traffic -you need to look up to see it as it comes straight on from the far side of the junction or from round the corner. It makes me feel quite vulnerable when I use it because looking at the box makes me lose touch with what the traffic is doing. If I look up to keep an eye on the traffic, I can easily miss the green man phase as it only lasts 6 or 7 seconds.

      In this case, I believe that far side signals would be much more attractive to pedestrians. I think they would be safer too because on this crossing is that about 3/4 of pedestrians now start to cross on the red man -some of them after waiting, missing the green phase and then darting out in confusion and embarrassment.

      On the positive side, the high level of non-compliance means that the average pedestrian wait time has dropped since the new signals were installed; I just hope it doesn’t come at the price of more collisions.

  3. Matt Barker says:

    I have noticed in south-east London, that puffins are being replaced by far sided countdown signals, some with bike symbols as you would have on a toucan. It is easier when walking and riding to see far-sighted signals, and whether using a countdown is good or bad, the way I see it at the moment is, upon countdown, do not start to cross unless you can walk or ride quickly enough to the other side before the light turns red.

    Parallel crossings would be better, though, along with none of this shared space nonsense but separate space for walking and cycling, and better route unravelling, but that’s another topic!

  4. canamsteve says:

    I’ve lived in the UK for almost 20 years, and I still do not understand why pedestrian crossings are so confusing. Not only are the variations dangerous for pedestrians, they also confuse drivers. And keep in mind most road junctions will have additional pedestrian signals, and these too will have variations – some have a separate pedestrian-only phase (like the Oxford Street “X” we used in Toronto 40 years ago) while others will have a “timed phase” (holding pedestrians while some traffic has a turning phase) and also the bog-standard crossing-with-traffic-flow phase. There is usually no way to know what to expect, and it is probably safer just to watch the traffic rather than rely on signals entirely.

    For example, surely it is obvious from this that it is impossible to even use a zebra crossing on a busy street?

    “Zebra crossings. Give traffic plenty of time to see you and to stop before you start to cross. Vehicles will need more time when the road is slippery. Wait until traffic has stopped from both directions or the road is clear before crossing. Remember that traffic does not have to stop until someone has moved onto the crossing”

    Got that? I paraphrase but it says “Don’t start crossing until the vehicles stop” AND “Traffic doesn’t have to stop until you are IN the crossing”. So – you’d wait forever…

    The rules for zebra crossings state that if there is an island, then the crossing should be treated as two crossings, but in general, regular traffic/pedestrian signals don’t reproduce this (at least not in London). In other words, a central island/reservation means one thing in a zebra crossing and another at a signalised road junction. In general pedestrians realise this, so they cross against the “unnecessary” red signal to the island. That gets people killed at Holborn (for example).

    You can tell by the amount of ironmongery at junctions just how bad things are likely to be – the Car People trying to herd the pedestrians into their allowed space – often requiring them to wait or go well off a direct route in order to facilitate traffic flow.

    BTW – I don’t see why variable crossings can’t still have a countdown. It ain’t rocket science. Let’s say you have 15 seconds to cross. The countdown timer shows 15 to start. At 01 seconds left, someone else steps on the crossing or pushes the button – it resets to 15 seconds. Is this any different to what actually happens (just not displayed)? Would it confuse anyone? Does my £5 kitchen timer have this facility? (yes)

    • Andy R says:

      The microwave detectors cover the waiting area, and the crossing area. They only detect if a warm body is present – not the distance left to cross or their crossing speed. If someone is on the crossing and walking slowly (that old woman at 0.7m/s) then what does the countdown do? Stop, sloooow doooown, throw a hissy fit and flash “HURRY UP SLOWCOACH!”? If it continually goes back to ’15 seconds’ then at some point (probably Audi) drivers are going to say sod this and drive straight through the crossing, their very clever excuses can come later when/if they get to court.

  5. I like the sensors actually, I think they’re quite clever, and combined with the high side signals and a completely different system for cyclists and sensible cycle times, I think they’d work quite well.

    • Matt Barker says:

      The toucan on Lewisham Road, near to where I live, has sensors that delay the start of the red and amber phase for motorists. I also remember next to Waterloo station, a toucan that had them but that the blackout or pedestrian red and motorist red would be on for ages because pedestrians were disobeying the signal. It now uses a toucan plus countdown configuration

  6. John Stevenson says:

    There’s a simple solution to all these problems: rising bollards.

    I said simple, didn’t say it’d be cheap😉

  7. Andrew Knight says:

    There are problems with far-sided signals, outlined in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8Vl1Nwem84 . The video focuses on the problems with Pelican crossings.

    The issue with far sided signals is what to do when the green man stage ends. There must be a delay between the green man and green for the road, to allow people walking to finish crossing – flash the green man (Pelican) or “blackout” – no green man or red man (PEDX)? Both of these are ambigious and unsafe as someone might intuitively interpret the lack of red man as an instruction to start crossing. The Pelican’s configuration with flashing green man is especially dangerous.

    Near sided signals solve this problem as someone who is already crossing cannot see them any longer – they display a red man during the delay period between green man and green signal for vehicles.

    The PEDX configuration (far sided signal, blackout) with pedestrian countdown timer (seconds until red man) seems to be the best solution.

  8. adoapplemac says:

    In my area (Cambridgeshire) most pedestrian and toucan crossings are now nearside, so I’m used to them and they don’t bother me.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that, just like with the flashing amber stage at Pelican crossings, Puffin crossing sensors are actually more about traffic flow than pedestrian comfort. If I remember correctly, the design guidance says that the maximum clearance time once the green man has gone out should be enough time for someone to cross the whole road at 1.2m/s. If pedestrians finish crossing before this time is up, then the traffic can be released sooner to reduce delays to motorists. On TfL’s countdown crossings, pedestrians get the full clearance period based on walking at 1.2m/s whether anyone is still actually on the crossing or not. Pedestrians know exactly how much time they have left and there’s no ambiguity, so I think countdown crossings are by far the best and simplest solution. Emphasis on keeping it SIMPLE!

    Although I found I could always cross in one go in Amsterdam (the waiting times were so short – it was fantastic), sometimes the signal for the second part of the crossing would go green a few seconds before the first part of the crossing. It’s not really a problem but can catch you out at first.

    • Andy R says:

      Surely it’s the other way around. For Pelicans the clearance time is the crossing distance divided by the 1.2m/s ‘average’ walking speed. For Puffins the on-crossing detector holds motor vehicles until the crossing is clear no matter how slow you’re walking. London countdown signals might be good, but not if you’re an old man or old woman with walking speeds more like 0.9m/s and 0.7m/s respectively.

      • adoapplemac says:

        I looked up some of the government guidance on this, it seems that the recommended maximum time on a Puffin crossing should allow someone to cross at 0.7 – 0.8m/s. If the maximum clearance time is reached when a pedestrian is still on the crossing, the traffic lights will change to green anyway.

  9. Tim says:

    They’ve recently started installing countdowns on crossing in Manchester. I was shocked to discover the countdowns were telling pedestrians how much longer they had to cross.

    I assumed they would indicate how long peds had to wait before they could cross (for the red man to turn green). At our nearby crossing you regularly have to wait about three minutes after you press the button. It feels like forever when you’re late for school with the kids. As it is, it feels like “run little pedestrian, your time is running out”.

    • Paul Luton says:

      Fully agree – only a car centred society would have come up with the system.

      • Mark Williams says:

        The `clackers’ in NL speed up to tell cyclists (and presumably walkists) to hurry up—sort of like an auditory-only amber light. The difference is that they might well do this indefinitely and hold conflicting [motor] traffic at red if you were to stop in a crossing with sensors.

        • adoapplemac says:

          The clickers in NL are only for pedestrians, not cyclists. For the last 3 seconds of the green man phase, the green man flashes and the clickers turn on and off in time with the flashing. This flashing means the green man phase is about to end, but you can still start to cross (the complete opposite meaning to a flashing green man on a UK pelican crossing). The ‘clearance’ phase is just a red man in NL.

          • Mark Williams says:

            Yes, other complete opposites in design philosophy are evident, too. In NL, it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that motorists are largely unable to hear the clickers—in UK the piercing waveform of the `bleepers’ couldn’t be more optimally chosen to be nearly as audible to them as to users of the crossing. In NL, the crossing lights are not necessarily visible to motorists—in UK, walking lights are positioned to be clearly visible to the first waiting carriageway user(s). This latter can be seen from the pictures in the body of this post, although neither the author nor childbacktandem make the connection that this is because they are not there chiefly for the benefit of walkists. As Paul Luton intimates: totally motor-centric throughout. The main consideration is always empowering motorists to bully vulnerable users `out of the way’ as quickly as possible.

  10. boy+bike says:

    Mam’s a wheelchair user and she particularly dislikes puffins because if someone’s in the way she can’t see what colour the light is.

    On another note, how come you never seem to see pelican crossings with puffin-style detectors? (Actually, flashing ambers aren’t ideal – properly better worded as puffin crossings with pelican-style lights.)

    • meltdblog says:

      This seems to be a side effect of the british design guides, in Australia the pedestrian crossings are uniformly shown with far side (and sometimes additionally on the nearside) signal style. The same “Pelican” name is described in the Australian guides as “Pedestrian User Friendly Intelligent” and simply add the pedestrian sensors to the standard controlled crossing design.

      They are so attractive because:
      “the clearance phase is shortened when the crossing detectors sense that a pedestrian has crossed quickly, reducing delays to vehicles”
      Despite also having sensors in the roadway to detect vehicles, the vehicle phase is never shortened to allow pedestrians to proceed earlier. We’ve all waited patiently at the pedestrian lights while there is no traffic only for the traffic to arrive to a red light as the crossing changes. Its all very inefficient for pedestrians and furthering the priority and dominance of motor transport.

      Also noting that the Australian guides describe why a controlled crossing would be used instead of zebra (uncontrolled) crossings:
      “A pedestrian crossing (zebra) would normally be justified but the operation of the crossing would interfere with the progression of vehicles”
      Again the main justification for holding pedestrians back is to reduce their impact on motor traffic flows, nothing to do with safety.

      • “A pedestrian crossing (zebra) would normally be justified but the operation of the crossing would interfere with the progression of vehicles”

        I’ve never understood this. Unless you are talking about very high pedestrian flows preventing drivers getting though at all in a timely manner, zebras are more efficient, because people can respond to a crossing being clear faster than the lights can. Also light controlled crossings have a timed delay between vehicles stopping and peds getting green, to allow for drivers pushing their luck/breaking the law on the lights. There is so much buffer put into the system to cope with the fact that they expect people to disobey it, that the whole thing wastes a lot of time.

        • meltdblog says:

          It takes a surprisingly small flow of pedestrians to reduce the throughput of a road substantially, a single person crossing will require all the traffic lanes to stop at some point and once traffic is queued they are inefficient to start moving again. As you note the inter green clearances are eliminated in zebra crossings, but bundling together several pedestrians quickly eliminates that advantage (1 minute wait times for pedestrian requests are not uncommon here). Sounds like its worthy of some simulations to share publicly.

  11. D. says:

    I just read the news story about the death, referred to at the head of this post.

    There’s a quote: “According to the experienced driver an area of around seven metres directly in front of the cabin is a blind spot, which he called “no man’s land”.”

    This professional driver is saying that he cannot see for seven metres in front of his cab. So, *anyone* crossing in front of him is completely invisible to him?!?

    Insane.

    • HivemindX says:

      It is completely insane. Various ‘safety’ videos would lead you to believe that a truck has a three lane wide death zone all around it. Yet when you question how are such dangerous vehicles are allowed to exist alongside pedestrians and cyclists nobody seems willing to support legislation to eliminate them using cyclops mirrors or sensors.

      The infamous blind spot is used as an excuse for an enormous range of incidents, a lot of which are simply driver inattention. I had a guy in a car pull out of a side road as I was passing in front of him. Despite me being directly in front of him and me having seen his face clearly as I approached he still claimed that I must have been in his blind spot. Note the language indicating that the blame was mine for being in the wrong place.

      This attitude essentially means that anyone hit by a truck must have been in the wrong. After all if they weren’t in the next lane alongside, or in front of, or behind the truck they wouldn’t have been hit. Of course truck drivers have no obligation to avoid putting you into their blind spot by pulling up alongside you.

      • tfoxglove says:

        “This attitude essentially means that anyone hit by a truck must have been in the wrong. After all if they weren’t in the next lane alongside, or in front of, or behind the truck they wouldn’t have been hit.”

        I would’ve thought that was hyperbole until I saw this video and a large proportion of the comments under it:

    • tfoxglove says:

      “an area of around seven metres directly in front of the cabin is a blind spot”
      It would make sense then to move the stop line back, so that it was 7m from the pedestrian crossing. Then no one on the crossing would be in the blind spot.

      Sure it’d be a fag for every other driver of a vehicle that didn’t have a ridiculous blind spot but if it saves one life…

      • MJ Ray says:

        Wouldn’t help. Motorists already drive over the stop line and block the crossing, especially truckers. It’s a side effect of the current attitude to lights: you keep going, even if they’ve just gone red, and only stop if you think the cross traffic is about to move. Stop lines are meaningless unless enforced and red light cameras are very rare now.

        • Mark Williams says:

          This is encouraged by design in the UK where far-side [secondary] signals for carriageway users are provided in abundance and even the primary signals are beyond the stop line—and well beyond any advance stop line. In countries where this is not the case, it seems less of a problem—and clutter is considerably reduced, too.

          Nevertheless, DFT still regularly trot out untruths like `Great Britain is widely acknowledged to have one of the best traffic signing systems in the world’…

  12. Bmblbzzz says:

    I think with both nearside and farside signals, positioning of the signals is crucial. The problem of ambiguity in both systems is well shown by Ranty Highwayman’s video and the Paris example. An additional problem with some nearside signals is that their positioning can obscure the waiting pedestrian’s view of approaching traffic. A problem with farside signals is that they are also visible to road traffic and some drivers will use the red man, or even the flashing green man, to anticipate their green light. Neither system is ideal, which is most appropriate will probably depend on circumstances, but both would usually be improved by straight-through rather than staggered crossings.

  13. kevjs1982 says:

    Nottingham has an “interesting” way of dealing with the lack of visibility afforded to cyclists with nearside indicators – on crossings where the cycle/foot path is 90′ to the road crossing and there are no other crossings nearby a second nearside indicator is added at 90′ to the usual one – looking rather like the Ranty Highwayman’s Sheffield one but by design ( http://kjs.me.uk/3rdparty/cycle/interesting.jpg ), bizarrely this is also one of the few Toucan’s in the city with a call button to the left (i.e. no swapping lanes at the junction to press the call button)

    Alas they very next (light controlled) junction is this mess where you approach it with a sea of green in your eyeline and the nearside lights positioned such that only an owl would be able to see them ( http://kjs.me.uk/3rdparty/cycle/next.jpg )

  14. Iain says:

    Here’s an example I saw in Assen last week. https://goo.gl/maps/KcQhj5sLjs12
    It has far side ped crossings in two stages. The bike phases are entirely independent (with nearside signals).
    Pros:
    – the traffic control junction system is sensor based and intelligently allocates multiple phases at once if they don’t conflict, which makes walking the two stage crossing more convenient in many cases. It can give you green for the 1st stage when it can’t for the second then by the time you get there it can give you your second green. The sensor based signalling is quite sophisticated and it works well for cars, bikes and peds.
    – simple straight line, its clear it refers to the crossing straight ahead.
    – smaller signal size and hood means its hard for drivers to see what’s happening
    Cons:
    – Potentially you could look at the wrong stage, its doesn’t have the wriggle (often with pig-pen) that two-stage crossings in the UK have.
    – Not great for visually impaired users.

    I like what RantyHighwayMan says, “it is all about using the right tool for the job”.

    • adoapplemac says:

      I noticed that traffic lights in NL work much more flexibly than in the UK. For example, as we were driving towards a right turn traffic light, it turned red. We stopped, but a few seconds later it turned green again and didn’t make us wait a whole signal cycle. In the U.K., if you miss e.g. your right turn light, you’ll have to wait for the lights to go through the whole signal cycle again, even if there’s no incoming traffic, so UK traffic lights can be frustratingly slow and unresponsive.

      Bicycle Dutch has a recent video on Dutch traffic lights. In this particular city at least, when a bus approaches the lights, the lights check the bus’s timetable to see if the bus is late, on time or early. If it’s late, it’ll give the bus priority through the junction. If it’s early, the bus waits longer for its turn. The lights know how many cars are in each lane etc. The technology there is far beyond anything else I’ve come across.

    • Bmblbzzz says:

      – Not great for visually impaired users.

      Good point you’ve raised there. Actually rather embarrassing that no one else had thought of it. Nearside signals allow the lights to be accompanied by tactile signals for the visually impaired (in the UK this is the little black knob underneath the yellow box – it rotates and pulses). Obviously, both near and farside can use audible signals, but these are easily confused when there is more than one crossing in close proximity. Equally obviously, tactile signals – at least in their UK implementation – can only be used by one person at a time.

  15. MJ Ray says:

    “people have to look at a small box in an unnatural position, rather than relying on line of sight in the direction they are travelling”

    Well yes, but I’m rarely travelling three or four metres up in the air where far side signals tend to be positioned either. Both signal types require you to look away from cross traffic, where you need to be looking before crossing, so I have to slow but I can keep rolling through both types.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s