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.


This account of the history of pedestrian crossings has taken us (aside from the Flashing Amber Arrow experiment) only as far as 1969. The Pelican crossing, in many ways, marks the end of the story: that was when Britain got the hang of pedestrian crossings, with a basic set-up of traffic lights and red-and-green-man signal.

Man on crossing, looking rather chipperThe clear moral of the story is that when it comes to pedestrian safety, simplicity is the way forward. The Zebra crossing works so well because it is so basic: stripes across the road and a pair of flashing lights, and a rule that if somebody wants to cross the motorist must stop and let them. What is most astounding is the Ministry of Transport's almost dogmatic insistence throughout most of the 1960s that it couldn't be as basic as red, amber and green lights. Always there was a complex system of flashing lights or painted lines or unusual signals; always there was a poor response because it was just too confusing. Sometimes the simplest answer is the most elusive.

The last word, however, must go to a Daily Telegraph columnist. By 1967 the British public had been subjected to Zebras, Pandas, Controlled Areas, and 'traditional' signalised crossings. It seemed that every couple of years a new way to cross was being trialled, and the X-way had just been announced. In his satirical "Way of the World" column, Peter Simple made his feelings abundantly clear.

"Nerdley, long a pioneer in urban traffic control, is to install a new experimental system of push-button-controlled pedestrian crossings. This will be combined with the beacons and stop-go signals at the present zebra, panda, wallaby and hippopotamus crossings, with a different coloured flashing light — purple, acid green, pink or beige — to indicate which type of crossing is concerned.

"When a pedestrian wishes to cross the road, he pushes a convenient button-shaped push-button, inserts coin in slot (change machines are provided), and adjusts dials on a convenient panel to indicate the time he expects to take in crossing, reasons for wishing to cross, nature of business on the other side, &c., &c.

"The data are fed into a central computer and correlated with factors of traffic density, actuarial expectation of life, social relevance of pedestrian and so on. Finally, illuminated figures of standing, walking, running and falling men, women and children in various colours and combinations appear on the signal equipment, indicating whether, at what speed and how soon the pedestrian may expect to cross, if ever."
The Daily Telegraph, 1 March 1967.