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How did the Briton cross the road?

Published by Matt Polaine | Filed under Cycling, Cycling infrastructure

credit: stephen dowling, bbc news

The green man, an icon for pedestrians across the UK, could be joined by a countdown clock as part of London’s plans to ease traffic flow. But from Cairo to Chicago, how people cross the road speaks volumes about a country’s cultural values.

You only need to step outside your hotel when staying in a foreign city to know that when it comes to crossing the road, there’s no such thing as an international standard. Every country does it differently. In Cairo, pedestrians seemingly take their lives in their hands, striding out into oncoming traffic in the Middle East’s most chaotic roads .

In Bangkok, crossing the street means playing chicken with armadas of scooters and cars that see pedestrian crossings as an obstacle course.

In affluent Berlin, bankers and punks alike will wait patiently at the kerbside on streets deserted of traffic until the green man appears - they would no sooner jaywalk than set themselves on fire. And in teeming cities like New York and Tokyo traffic flows are negotiated around the need for pedestrians to walk safely amid the business district skyscrapers.

Matt Page, a lecturer at the Institute for Transport Studies at Leeds University, says the UK’s roads are often designed with vehicles first.

“If you look around at pedestrian crossings here and in other cities in the UK, crossing times are not generous. Often where those pedestrian crossings are is where there’s the greatest amount of vehicle traffic.”


Denied time to dawdle, if London mayor Boris Johnson gets his way, pedestrians striding from one kerb to another will be doing so against the clock. Critics say a countdown system like the proposed by Johnson might also make pedestrians feel inferior to drivers. Subconsciously, the ticking clock is telling them that they have to get off the road so that the important people - those behind the wheels of their cars - can get on with their business.

The countdown approach is already used in parts of the US and Denmark. But, Mr Page says, countries such as the Netherlands and Germany see streets as “public realms to be enjoyed as a pedestrian rather than roads as a conduit for traffic”.

“Streets have a multitude of different uses… they are places where people talk and meet.”

Tony Armstrong, the head of the Living Streets campaign group, says segregation doesn’t work - nor does anything that makes pedestrians feel less valued. He looks at decades of town planning so far and says “the net result is we’ve designed people out of the environment”.

In countries, like Denmark, however, a consensus has been found. “The classic example is Copenhagen,” Mr Armstrong says. “It’s a fantastic place to be in and hang around. There’s a massive rate of cycling among people who live there.”

City planners blocked off some roads to traffic, and pedestrianised them. “They brought in public art, had entertainment, and turned car parks into public squares.” People were encouraged to walk or cycle to them - in keeping with the environmentally-friendly Scandinavian archetype. Yet the motorist was simply elbowed out of the picture. A previously car-centric city became one where people, cars and cyclists were treated equally.

So this is how it works in northern Europe - a system most Brits will be able to adapt to fairly quickly.

Local knowledge

But several hundred miles south, in Rome, the streets start to look more like a deathtrap, as Fiats and Piaggio scooters zoom past in an “every man for himself” style of transport. Roman residents, however, are confident in their ability to share the streets with the car. They know that vehicles only stop when you walk out in front of them.

This local knowledge in a tourist-dependent city like Rome isn’t much use to its many millions of visitors.

The European consumer testing agency EuroTest, based in Brussels, did a survey of more than 200 pedestrian crossings in 17 different cities last year partly because of this issue, with the help of local motoring organisations

“If you’re going to another city as a foreigner what are your chances of crossing the road?” says Caroline Ofoegbu of the Federation Internationale de L’Automobile, a European driving organisation. “You don’t think ‘do I need to know the differences about crossing roads?’

“In Belgium for instance, if you cross the street anywhere other than a crossing and a police officer sees you, it’s a 70-80 euro fine - and he’ll take it as an insult that you saw him and still crossed!”


As motoring has developed, so has the design of systems to stop people and vehicles running into each other.

For the past four decades British roads have been built to keep pedestrian and driver separate - ostensibly to improve the safety of the lowly foot soldier; a patrician guiding hand preventing the unsophisticated, perhaps, from wandering into the grille of a juggernaut.

Yet Britain led the way in the development of pedestrian crossings. Most people use them without realising the wealth of systems they use to help drivers and pedestrians - including the deaf and hearing impaired - interact safely.

There are linked lights to make sure people aren’t crossing in front of moving traffic, sloped kerbs, different textured pavement to help the blind, more visible signs showing when to walk, flashing graphics, tones and ticks and buzzes to tell us when we should be crossing, barriers to channel us into safe crossing zones.

For drivers, there are warning signs, lights, zigzagged lines and colour codes, all telling drivers to be careful, that people may be crossing ahead.

But sometimes drivers become so inured to this street “furniture” they forget to look for people crossing - they forget what it’s there for. And a 1970 study by the Institute of Transportation Engineers Journal looking at San Diego accidents found incidents were twice as likely at “marked crossings” as unmarked crossings.

Why? Pedestrians lose a sense of personal responsibility - they think that because they are at an official crossing, they don’t need to look where they are going. And then they step out into oncoming traffic.

The best-designed crossing, according to EuroTest’s research, was to be found in London, in the middle of Westminster between Tothill Street and Storey’s Gate.

It has some well-designed features that make it visible to drivers (and a traffic island in the middle), but essentially it’s a zebra crossing like those first designed in the 1940s - where pedestrians and drivers have to make eye contact.

This, Mr Page says, is often the answer. “If you encourage them [drivers and pedestrians] to mix you are asking them to take more notice of each other.”

March 12th, 2009

One Response to “How did the Briton cross the road?”

  1. David Hembrow Says:

    What are they thinking of ? We have some crossings with count downs here, however the intention is to demonstrate to cyclists that they won’t have to wait very long before they have to cross, not to make pedestrians speed up in order to “improve traffic flow”.

    Crossings here are quite generous in the time they give pedestrians. There is a pedestrian crossing of a six lane road near our home on which the green pedestrian phase gives time to saunter across in no hurry at all from one side to the other. It does also have a central stopping area which can be used by people who are extra slow, but that’s not used often.

    Why is it always about drivers in the UK ?

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