Pedestrian Crossings

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In recent years, the introduction of new types of pedestrian crossing — particularly the Puffin, which detects the presence of people and vehicles to calculate the right crossing time and which has confused some users — has been the cause of some debate among highway engineers about the best way to help people cross. 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.

A lesson in patience

A lack of enthusiasm and a guarded attitude towards signalised pedestrian crossings brings us neatly to the 1950s, when — despite the fact that they had been in use in some places for twenty years or more — they were regarded as an unconventional last resort.

Communications within the Ministry suggest that timing was the problem: the idea that traffic might be needlessly stopped at a red light was unthinkable, and the general feeling was that a Zebra crossing would let pedestrians cross with minimal delay to other road users. Where it became too disruptive or too difficult to cross, it was better to just install a footbridge or underpass.

Few traffic signal crossings were installed and those that existed were closely analysed after approval from the Ministry of Transport. Outside the largest cities, they simply didn't exist at all. Glasgow's city engineer applied for several new crossings to be installed and all were ruled out because they offered a poor return on the initial outlay cost, which was put at £350-850. Two flashing orange lights and some painted stripes were, of course, much more economical in the parsimonious post-war years.

Pedestrian crossing on Briggate in Leeds
The controversial crossing on Briggate, Leeds. Click to enlarge.

The point is neatly illustrated by one city that was keen to experiment with these crossings. On 22 July 1953, a signalised crossing was inaugurated on Briggate in Leeds, the city's main shopping street and a major through route, halfway between Albion Place and the Headrow. It had no pedestrian controls and instead ran on a timer in synchronisation with the junctions either side, operating 7am to 7pm Monday to Saturday. The signals ran a 62-second cycle, with 17 seconds for pedestrians to cross and 39 seconds of green light time for traffic to pass. It was a big success as far as shoppers were concerned. It had been installed without approval from Westminster.

In 1954, the Ministry of Transport found out about this renegade crossing, apparently requested by West Yorkshire Police and installed by an obliging Council, and sent some indignant correspondence up north. The problem (apart from the rather sneaky way that Leeds had just not bothered asking about it) was a legal technicality. The Leeds crossing featured regular traffic lights complete with STOP across the red lens, Belisha Beacons on top, and white 'CROSS NOW' lights for pedestrians. But it had a second pedestrian signal — 'DON'T CROSS' — which was problematic. There was no legal basis on which pedestrians could be prevented from crossing a road and the instruction was therefore being given without due authority. This will not do, said the Ministry, and it must be removed.

Leeds argued that 'DON'T CROSS' had been authorised (recommended, even) in the 1933 Traffic Sign Regulations and General Directions for use at pedestrian crossings, and without it the crossing made no sense. The option of a 'DON'T CROSS' light had been removed since then because of the legal problem, said the Ministry, and it has to go. Leeds said that the public wouldn't like it if the hugely successful new facility was removed. The Ministry said they didn't care. And so it dragged on.

Another view of the Leeds crossing — click to enlargeAfter much debate, the signals were grudgingly authorised in August 1955 and the Ministry in London thought that was the end of it. Then a memo landed on the Minister's desk just one month later, regarding an urgent telephone call that had come in from the Leeds office:

"It has now come to [Mr. JG Taylor's] notice that a further set of pedestrian signals is proposed to be erected without approval in Abbey Road (Class I) Leeds where an application for a speed limit has recently been refused. This information comes from ATE Co. [Automatic Telephone and Electric] who have the order."

Quite understandably, Mr Taylor was said to be "very perturbed", and the memo went on to list the many reasons that he was now in such a state. Whether Leeds was rebelling on the grounds that it had just spent a year negotiating the Briggate crossing and wasn't prepared to do so again, or in a fit of pique over its refused speed limit application, or perhaps through sheer negligence, is unknown — but it's rather wonderful to think that the Ministry only found out about it because ATE had decided to tell tales to teacher. In any event, the conclusion of this saga isn't recorded, but there has been a Pelican crossing on the A65 Abbey Road at that location for many years now. It's nice to think that Leeds had just given up listening to the Ministry of Transport's endless fretting.

Among the new crossings that made it past the Ministry's watchful eye in this period were two across dual carriageways in Swansea, a town which had only had Zebra Crossings until then. The local newspaper ran a lengthy article about it, in which their "own correspondent" visited one and detailed his findings, under the headline "New Lights Give Lesson in Patience".

"I pressed the button on one of the pedestrian crossing standards today...and observed certain results. The traffic continued to pass for several seconds.

"Some people who apparently expected the 'Cross Now' signal to appear as though at the turn of a switch, made as though to dodge across the road until a waiting policeman gently chided: 'Now, wait for it.'

"Then the traffic stopped, the 'Cross Now' appeared for 10 seconds and we were all across the road."

Swansea Evening Post, 31 March 1955

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Swansea Evening Post article 31/03/55
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Croydon, which had been home to several crossings since the early 1930s, was no longer enthralled by this wonder of science, and was instead starting to learn about some of the downsides of signalised crossings. Just as in the Metropolitan Police report of the early 1930s, this technology was still just too advanced for some members of society to handle:

"A remarkably large number of (presumably) otherwise normal people appear to take great pleasure in pressing the button that operates the lights, even though it is quite unnecessary to do so.

"Women are the main offenders when it comes to pressing the button without checking whether it is necessary. A few seconds later the approaching traffic is brought to a sudden halt — but by that time the cause of the hold-up is safely across and is gazing into a shop window, blissfully unaware of the inconvenience she has caused."

The Croydon Advertiser, 1955

Who lets all these women out to roam the streets alone, anyway? This perceived inconvenience was, of course, the reasoning behind the Ministry's reluctance to allow many such crossings to be installed. As the decade wore on, that attitude developed, and by the beginning of the 1960s the government was looking for a completely new way to help people cross.