1. Built environment
  2. Architecture & design
March 16, 2020updated 29 Jul 2021 2:30pm

In Manchester, walking tsar Chris Boardman is trying to rethink the zebra crossing

By Laura Laker

Walk an hour in any direction across Paris and, no matter how many roads you cross, you’ll rarely pause for long. You’re safe to step out ahead of turning traffic at junctions and side roads because of one simple thing: those on foot have priority. Try that in any UK city and you’re taking your life in your hands. Please don’t try it. As the UK has among the longest pedestrian wait times in the world, you’ll also cover markedly less tarmac. 

What delicious pedestrian-friendly sauce have the French, and countless other nations around the world, poured on their streets, you ask? They simply take one pot of white paint, laws that prioritise walking in more than word, paint broad horizontal stripes on the asphalt at the entrance of side roads, and hey presto. 

The trouble is, those white stripes, although widely recognised, are illegal in the UK without accompanying white zig zag lines, and a flashing yellow light on a stripy pole, known as Belisha Beacons – costing £30,000-£40,000 each, compared with £300-400 each for just the paint. Multiply those costs by an entire city, or indeed a nation looking to increase walking rates, and you’ve soon eaten up an entire active travel budget.

The team behind Manchester’s ambitious 1800-mile, £1bn walking and cycling Bee Network embarked on a mission, eight months ago, to change this – because their entire pedestrian programme hinges on it. 

This was after the Department for Transport (DfT) told Manchester it couldn’t use the zebras alone without rigorous testing; and that the government wouldn’t fund the research needed to satisfy civil servants, after which Manchester coughed up the £250,000 itself. 

Step forward the Transport Research Laboratory, a high-tech bunker (it’s an office building) just outside of Bracknell. This is the organisation that brought you research on intelligent speed assistance, bus stop bypasses and safer HGV cabs. For this mission, it will test the stripes using, among other things, driver simulation computer programmes and digital flash cards. 

In the eight months since the DfT told Greater Manchester “no” on zebras, what has happened? Initial results from the TRL are positive: people recognised the non-standard zebra stripes 94 per cent of the time, against the next highest contender, painted footprints, at 66 per cent. A TRL review of the 100-odd non-standard zebras that have sneaked their way into supermarket and hospital car parks across the country illegally, indicate they are safe, too. 

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Last month, Greater Manchester’s walking and cycling commissioner, Chris Boardman, his advisors, national and local government representatives and commissioners visited the TRL to check progress. It didn’t escape attendees’ sense of irony there’s a Belisha-less zebra crossing smack bang outside the TRL’s front door, one of more than 100 such anomalies across the UK operating in a grey area of legislation. 

Describing himself as an “impatient person”, accustomed to working in the cutting edge of the professional cycling world where innovation “is only limited by our imaginations”, Boardman is chomping at the bit for change. For him it’s an equity issue. He puts it bluntly: it shouldn’t require bravery to cross a road. Ambiguous Highway Code rules mean it often does, though. 

As Boardman told the Times: “The law is this: that when you put a foot on the carriageway, you have the right of way. But people don’t do it, because there is no point being in the right, while at the same time being in hospital after getting run over.”

A report, sent to government last year, and signed by Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, sums it up: “Crossing side road junctions in the UK is stressful.  There is an assumption that turning traffic will not give way and will rarely indicate so people must either grit their teeth and accept whatever fate brings them, or move away from their desire line to a distance where they feel they could react quickly enough to avoid an approaching car. This issue is exacerbated for those with disabilities and those with small children.”

Brian Deegan, Boardman’s technical advisor, thinks the city could reduce collisions at side roads by 20 per cent with the zebras, based on London research conducted more than a decade ago, and on his own experiments. A maverick of transport planning, when Manchester installed temporary paint zebras at side roads, Deegan spent a couple of hours stepping out in front of drivers without looking. 

Thankfully all of them gave way. By contrast, attempting the same at regular side roads, where drivers should still have given way, or at least slowed down, he found himself having to run out of the way of various vehicles, including a hurtling HGV driver. 

Deegan says the current confusing wording of the Highway Code around giving way to pedestrians leaves “just enough of a grey area for people to get away with murder”. 

Zebra crossings, meanwhile, give “as close to strict liability as we have ever got [in the UK]: if you hit someone on a zebra you are assumed to be at fault. When it comes to pedestrians paint comes a long way,” he says. “Zebras are the most recognisable road marking on the planet, and they’re cheap.

“With them, we could have a walking network for everybody, but we need that change before we can open up even part of the network.” 

The other way Brits make crossing side roads safer, side raised entry treatments: tightening corners and raising the road to pavement level to slow turning traffic down, cost £40,000 to £150,000 a pop. After which, turning drivers still don’t generally give way. 

In London in 2008, around a third of the London Cycle Network Plus project, £1.5m, was spent on just 79 side road treatments. Across the 20,000 side streets Manchester planners have in their sights, the change could save hundreds of million pounds. 

Boardman accepts the processes in place “stop us doing stupid stuff” on the roads. “Checks and balances are in place for a reason, and we have to be led by evidence.” 

If the evidence shows they aren’t working, he says, he’ll drop it. While the full results won’t emerge until this summer, the issue has the attention of Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who mentioned protecting pedestrians at side roads in a speech to Parliament last month.

Boardman notes that, to get people out of their cars, something needs to change. Half of daily trips in Greater Manchester are less than 2km, and 62 per cent of those trips are made by car. 

“We make decisions that aren’t necessarily good for us in the long term,” he says. “People want to do the easiest thing. And we ignore that at our peril.” 

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