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.
Green man at last
Any brief account of Britain's pedestrian crossings will tell you that the Panda Crossing was a failure that was ditched in favour of the Pelican Crossing. But things are never quite so simple. Created in 1962, Panda Crossings might not have been popular or intuitive, but they flashed and pulsated their way across much of England before they were supplanted by something new. It wasn't until 1967 that the Ministry of Transport unveiled the Panda's successor. It was called the X-way.
By the mid-1960s even the Ministry's own internal communications described the Panda Crossing as a failed experiment. Its replacement was long overdue, and by necessity, had to be simpler for both motorists and pedestrians to understand. The design brief this time was for something much more conventional. At the same time, it was decided that a crossing was needed that couldn't be mistaken for a regular set of traffic signals, in order to avoid confusion if one was placed close to a junction.
The solution was designed to be a fresh start, a phoenix from the ashes of the Panda. In actual fact it owed more to the Controlled Traffic Area pin-man crossing than its hybrid predecessor. The push button retained the "WAIT" light introduced with the Panda, but a conventional set of traffic signals replaced the flashing and pulsating disco lights for motorists. Metal studs across the road marked the crossing place were also used across the approaching traffic lane 42 to 48 feet from the stop line to indicate restrictions on stopping and overtaking, where we would now use zig-zag lines.
Facing pedestrians were two coloured lights. One was a red man standing still, for the instruction to wait, and the other a green man pictured walking, to show when it was safe to cross. The long-standing concern that there was no legal basis for a 'wait' signal had been quietly dropped, on the understanding that the red man was a recommendation to wait, and was not actually mandatory. The Panda had shown that it was safer to give pedestrians a signal of some kind than none at all.
For the first time, an audible "whine" was used to inform blind people that it was safe to cross. A steady red light stopped traffic. Just like the Panda, the intention was still for a souped-up Zebra crossing, so the traffic light was used only to establish the fact that pedestrians could cross, and it only stayed lit for three to seven seconds. For anything up to 17 seconds afterwards, the green man and the amber traffic light flashed to indicate that pedestrians had priority, so that the cars could get moving again as soon as the way was clear. It was all quite sensible, except for one thing. To prevent the traffic signals being mistaken for a junction, the green light had been replaced with a white cross. Oh dear.
The name "X-way" was a direct reference to its distinctive white cross for drivers, which the Ministry referred to either as the St Andrew's Cross or the Saltire. The name was meant to be pronounced "crossway", to go with "motorway", "subway" and other road-related ways. The choice of a white cross symbol was, of course, simply because it marked a place to cross. But the connection between a "crossing" and the "X" seems to have passed most journalists by, and it was usually taken as being an X for the sake of an X. Most referred to it as "the new 'X' crossing", or something similar, which was of course quite meaningless.
The new X-way was launched in, of all places, Lincoln High Street, on 7 March 1967, nearly five years after the Panda. The Mayor of Lincoln, Councillor F.R. Eccleshare, was the first to use it, an honour that his family probably recall with fondness to this day.
The Sheffield Morning Telegraph reported that Lincoln's coroner was not quite so pleased. "They are over-complicated and there has been a lack of explanatory literature," he thundered. "In time local motorists will understand them, but strangers from places where they are not in operation will be utterly confused." This was a local crossing for local people, evidently. Luckily, the City Engineer stepped in to save some face, claiming that "they are going to be successful and one day they may replace zebra crossings everywhere."
Unlike previous types of crossing, which had just been replaced as their useful life ran out, the Panda Crossing had been enough of a disaster to warrant complete and immediate removal. All of England's Pandas were replaced very quickly with new X-ways — effectively exchanging one experiment for another. The X-way was received with much more enthusiasm however; as early as February 1967 Glasgow had registered its interest in installing them by the wheelbarrow-load, and Leeds (ever the pioneer) had declared that it was going to install them on enormous gantries on two of its main city centre streets, Briggate and Vicar Lane*. It's hard to ignore the possibility that local authorities didn't like the Panda and were waiting for the government to let them use something more like the old signalised crossings of the 1930s and 1950s, which might not have had an exciting name like "Panda" or "X-way", but were at least successful.
Government information leaflet for the X-ways
PDF document (384Kb) x-ways.pdf
Part of the X-way trial involved getting feedback from a range of interested parties before making the Pedestrian Crossing Push Button Regulations 1966 a permanent piece of legislation. For the first time in a long time, the responses were overwhelmingly positive, and the Ministry hoped its only alteration would be to remove "STOP" from the red traffic signal lens in line with its plans for all traffic lights.
So far so good, except for one rather obvious feature. The AA mentioned that they thought a green light would be easier to understand than a white X. RoSPA agreed. The RAC and the Institute of Advanced Motorists mentioned that they weren't sure about using a white cross, and the London Ratepayers' Alliance suggested that it might be nice to have a more conventional signal for "go". The Ministry of Home Affairs in Northern Ireland and the Metropolitan Police had a moment of diplomatic accord in thinking a green light for traffic might be an improvement. The Scottish Development Department loved the X-way but just weren't keen on that white cross. You can probably guess what was the most common theme in the letters received from the public.
In taking the X-way Crossing from experiment to permanent feature, a relaunch was required to accommodate one major change in the design — and for a completely clean break from the lengthy period of experimentation, a new name was also chosen. 1969 saw the end of the experiments. Well, almost.
* The gantries survived until the mid-1990s, a series of battleship-grey eyesores on the city's main shopping streets, though by that time they had long since been converted to outsized Pelican crossings.