Pedestrian Crossings

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In recent years, the introduction of new types of pedestrian crossing - particularly the controversial puffin, which detects the presence of people and vehicles to calculate the right crossing time - has been the cause of much public debate. But concern over how to get people over the road has been a source of discussion since the motor car first started to jostle Britain's pedestrians for roadspace. Has anything really changed?

This feature looks into the development of British pedestrian facilities - from the humble zebra crossing through to the trusty pelican. It's a more interesting story than you might think - and there's a chance to have a go at some of the different types of crossing along the way.

Modern pedestrian crossing lightsIntroduction

The humble pedestrian crossing might seem a bit dull for eight full pages of history - in fact I'd have been inclined to agree at one time. It certainly wasn't an area that had ever interested me much before. But a message from a visitor to CBRD in late 2006, enquiring about a "Controlled Traffic Area" experiment somewhere in London in the 1960s, set me off on a research trail. One thing led to another and it turns out that the development of the crossings we use today is quite a fascinating story.

The day-to-day grumblings of the people who had to use them and the people who had to design them are amusing enough on their own, but the biggest joke is that, for whatever reason, the Men from the Ministry just couldn't come to terms with the idea that it could all be as simple as red, amber and green traffic lights.

The story also contains its fair share of surprises - which I don't intend to reveal here - but suffice to say it begins with the creation of the Zebra Crossing in the 1950s and jumps back and forth in time thereafter. I've stopped at the launch of the familiar Pelican crossing in 1969 because that, arguably, was the end of real development work, save for one excursion into lunacy in the early 1980s that it would be criminal to leave out. More recent ideas like the puffin, toucan and pegasus aren't really part of the same story.

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Researched at the National Archives, Kew. Reference material is at catalogue numbers MT 26/2 (Early signal crossings), MT 34/221 (Very early signal crossings), MT 92/92 (Controlled Traffic Areas), MT 95/197 (Belisha Beacons), MT 112/215 (X-ways), and MT 112/428 (Flashing Amber experiment).

With thanks to Stephen Hartley for suggesting the 'Controlled Traffic Areas' as a topic for research. Thanks also to Martin for corrections to this section.