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 risky operation
Being worried is almost a skill in government. In 1962, the Ministry of Transport was most worried that it wasn't doing enough to combat road casualty figures, which were hovering around the same level each year. The new Panda Crossings were a step in the right direction, but it was felt that more could be done.
The trend in traffic planning at the time was for segregation and control — motorways were the safest kind of road because they separated fast, long distance traffic from other road users, so surely the same principle should work everywhere. The idea behind the Controlled Traffic Area was to take the chaotic British street scene, where pedestrians roamed freely about among the traffic, and introduce segregation to rationalise it.
The Ministry's notes from the experiment's planning stage help to set the scene. Observers around London describe pedestrians as being, for the most part, undisciplined. Some would righteously step off the kerb and simply expect traffic to stop, others would simply be careless and forget to look for what was coming. The ancient rule of the road — that no particular road user took priority over any other — was being used as an excuse to inconvenience motorists and endanger lives for the sake of crossing where and when people pleased. Comparisons were made with New York, which came across as a utopian vision of pedestrian discipline. "Jaywalking" in New York was, they breathlessly recorded, an arrestable offence, and to cross the path of moving traffic at anything outside a marked crossing place was unheard-of. This was the idea to be tried at home. The resulting experiment was the Controlled Traffic Area.
Three sites were selected for the trial, all busy suburban shopping streets in London: Harrow Road in Paddington, Broadway in Ealing and Green Lanes in Tottenham near Harringay Park Station. Marples visited all three on 30 September 1963 to launch the scheme's year-long trial. Building the concept up to its full grandeur, he announced that "crossing the road in any busy town is a risky operation, and I am sure that the long term answer is segregation of the pedestrian from other traffic." He went on to describe how the pedestrian would lose his right to cross the road anywhere, in exchange for the right to cross the road in complete safety at certain crossing points. His speech coined the phrase "give and take for safety's sake".
For the government, the key aspect of the trial was the fact that it was "controlled" or, more specifically, that pedestrians were subject to rules for the first time ever. Regulations were brought in to say where they could and where they couldn't go — and a four-inch-thick red line was painted along the kerb and over the road at crossings. If a pedestrian crossed the red line between 7am and 7pm, they were liable for a £20 fine. It was a British jaywalking law.
For the press and the public, however, the thing exciting the most attention was the stick-man that symbolised the scheme, or the "pin man" as the press releases called him. He was quick to inspire the press right across the country. Most newspaper articles wrote animatedly about the stick man helping people cross the road in North London with only sketchy details about what was actually happening. The Yorkshire Post, covering what seemed to be a local news story from halfway across the country, joked that you could "cross with the Saint", adding a halo to the Ministry's sign. The Times carried detailed street maps of each trial site, bizarrely with a scale in furlongs. And they all carried pictures of the ominously worded sign itself: Controlled Area — Cross only at lights — Obey signals.
Few newspapers actually liked the scheme. In fact, most were carrying out a character assassination of either the pin man or Marples himself, despite the fact that Ministry research showed that public opinion was more positive about the idea. The Daily Mail was the most unlikely of them to stand up for the pedestrian, commenting:
It is time someone made a stand for the foot sloggers... ironically, symbolised by the matchstick men on the new road signs — pin figures, without force or substance."
Daily Mail editorial, 7 September 1963
It was, however, the Daily Mirror's editorial comment that stole the show. Everybody else just wrote in dreary old prose!
"Marples' plan is just a farce:
A sentence will outline it:
If it moves, then STOP it!
If it stops, then FINE it!
Brothers, shall we tell him
where he can consign it?
Stick it up an under-pass
And make them re-design it!
Daily Mirror editorial, 8 September 1963
The intention had always been, of course, that the pin man would be a way to get the media interested. Mr Ainley from the London Traffic division was interviewed by the BBC on the scheme's launch, and stated there and then that the pin man was unlikely to be used if the scheme was extended — it was, he said, "just a gimmick".
The Ministry's real interest was whether people really would stay off the road and if the street would be any safer if they did. The three trials were taken incredibly seriously, with signs at entrances to the area and every 120 feet along the street to remind people to stay on their side of the red line, and signalised pedestrian crossings studiously placed every hundred yards. Most incredible was the Metropolitan Police making one hundred constables available to police the schemes and "educate" the public on how to behave — with loudhailers, if necessary.
The pedestrian crossings themselves were something new all over again. Over the length of the trial areas, pedestrians were for the first time legally obliged to go only where they were allowed, and so the crossings could do something that had been considered a legal minefield before. They could tell people not to cross the road. Each crossing had a set of standard traffic signals for motor traffic, with push buttons to allow them to be operated by pedestrians. The lights were synchronised into a "green wave" arrangement so that if several crossings were activated traffic would not be stopped at each one in succession. Facing the pavement were signals in the form of large glass panels, inside which the pin man was picked out in white neon. When it was unsafe to cross, he stood still, but the gimmick was evident when it was safe to step off the kerb: he was animated walking along. As time ran out he began to run. People took an interest just for the novelty of seeing the neon man jogging along when it was time to cross.
The trial lasted only a year, though some reports suggest that the crossings and red lines stayed in place and in use for several years afterwards at the three sites. How many people were fined for daring to step from the pavement was not recorded. But as time went on, heavier traffic created a natural end to the era when pedestrians could step care-free from the pavement. Fast-moving cars, buses and lorries were a much more potent incentive to use pedestrian crossings than a hundred London bobbies, and without needing to harass innocent shoppers with megaphones. The Controlled Traffic Area was a bold experiment, but its lesson was that a better crossing was needed, not a better way to force people to use one.