What?? How could that be?? Surely a controlled crossing point on a 50kph street where a pedestrian has priority is a good thing? Well it depends. According to The Traffic Signs Manual published by The Dept of Transport, Tourism and Sport:
Zebra Crossings, RPC 001, are pedestrian crossings marked by flashing amber beacons, alternate black and white stripes across the road, and other road markings. Vehicles must stop if there is a pedestrian on the crossing. They are not signalised crossings but are considered controlled crossings and are included here for completeness. Zebra crossings are not normally considered suitable for roads with a maximum speed limit greater than 50km/h, or where there is more than one lane in each direction (unless a refuge island is provided).
So according to The DTTAS guidelines, 2 flashing internally illuminated globes mounted on posts at either side of the crossing along with alternate black and white stripes, 2 transverse lines and 2 pedestrian lines road markings are all that’s needed to create a Zebra crossing. Additional elements can be added if deemed necessary and in Limerick, we have added every possible accessory to our Zebra crossings in what I can only assume is an attempt to increase pedestrian safety. But does this ‘all sirens blaring high alert’ approach really improve pedestrian safety? Or does it enable motorists to drive faster and be less attentive?
The first two illustrations above show 2 different layouts for a Zebra crossing. Leaving road markings aside, the first one (A) shows only the legally required elements – the flashing beacons at either side of the crossing. The second one (B) shows what we typically see on Limerick’s Zebra crossings – the flashing beacons, 4 additional flashing amber lights, 3 warning plates (2 at the crossing and one in advance of the crossing (C) to warn you of the approaching crossing) and 1 regulatory sign telling motorists not to hit the flashing beacon on the left by staying right. Better safe than sorry they might say. But this isn’t safe. This is designing our streets for speed, not safety. By using so many devices to highlight the potential presence of a pedestrian crossing in a particular location, we once again remove the responsibility from motorists to drive with care in an urban area. The indirect message is that only when you come across 6 flashing lights and 3 warning signs do you need to be careful look out for a pedestrian crossing the road. If you don’t see an amber light show – drive on. That’s one of the problems caused by these Zebra crossings. They contribute to street design that enables speed. Streets should be designed with safety for all street users in mind. If traffic engineers feel that a pedestrian crossing in an urban street requires this many flashing amber lights to make it safe then perhaps they need to look at the overall street design first.
The other problem can easily be solved if the political will is there to improve the lot of pedestrians in our towns and cities. As mentioned already, Zebra crossings by definition must have flashing beacons at either side of the crossing. This legal requirement adds a significant cost to the installation of a Zebra crossing – an average of around €30,000 per crossing is one figure I have been told by a senior traffic engineer. This high cost means this is not scalable – we cannot afford to put Zebras at every junction in Limerick. This is why we have the daft junction treatment at Catherine St and Glentworth St.. And who would want to if it meant installing 40 flashing amber lights and 28 signs at every junction?
If you’ve ever been to continental Europe (or even seen pictures), you might be familiar with the ubiquity of Zebra crossings everywhere and anywhere in towns and cities over there. While striped road markings are generally used for all pedestrian crossing types and locations, there is no obligation to add signal controls to the crossing. This means they can just paint white stripes across a junctions and hey presto, pedestrian priority granted. Of course, the Zebra crossings don’t offer magic protection from a motor vehicle so pedestrian priority is irrelevant if the motor vehicle is being driven too fast and/or fails to stop. The effectiveness and safety of Zebra crossings also depends on the surrounding street environment.
Warning lights and signs everywhere but parking bays allowed within 8m of crossing
By law in Ireland, pedestrians on the major road have priority over motor traffic entering and exiting side roads at uncontrolled junctions. Unfortunately due to car centric road design, this priority is rarely taken or granted. If we could change the legal definition of a Zebra crossing to make signals optional, we could easily paint stripes across every junction arm in the city at a relatively small cost. Everyone knows what Zebra markings mean already so everyone would quickly understand who has priority – even in this country. For mid-block Zebras, flashing beacons could still be used if necessary but it’s also important to consider the visual impact these flashing amber lights have on the streetscape so they should be used only when necessary, not by default. With painted Zebras alone being quick and cheap to roll-out, it would mean that in a relatively short period of time, motorists would soon come to expect a Zebra crossing at every junction and pedestrians would no longer be asked to run the gauntlet to simply cross the street.