The Humble Zebra

In the late 1940’s, the UK Ministry of Transport commissioned research (undertaken by the Transport Research Laboratory in Wokingham) involving experiments with different road markings at pedestrian crossings to improve visibility. They tested blue and yellow stripes and even red and white stripes. Ultimately the combination of black and white stripes was found to have the greatest visual impact. Pedestrians were found to be much clearer to drivers when set against the black and white background. In 1951 the zebra crossing was given legal status. The first zebra crossing, of the form that we would now recognise (see below), was officially opened in Slough, Berkshire, on October 31, 1951.

ZebraIn the UK zebra crossings are marked with Belisha beacons. These are the familiar flashing amber globes on black and white posts placed on each side of the road. The beacons were named after Leslie Hore-Belisha, the Minister of Transport, who first introduced them in 1934. The early Belisha beacons did not flash. This was an innovation brought in to make zebra crossings more visible to drivers operating in bad weather and at night.

Pedestrian crossings were originally marked by beacons and parallel rows of studs. The all important stripes were added for visibility some 15 years later. Jim Callaghan, later to become Prime Minister, is said to have been the first person to comment on the crossing’s resemblance to a zebra.

Despite the initial success of zebra crossings, by 1960 more than 500 people died on them in the UK in just six months. This led to the introduction of the Panda crossing – a signal controlled pedestrian crossing with traffic lights – in 1962.

On November 1st 2011 The Economist reported on “The curious demise of the zebra crossing.”

The black-and-white striped road crossings turned 60 this week, and the daily press duly wheeled out the expected shots of the Abbey Road crossing made famous by the Beatles, but also the unexpected statistic that 1,000 of the crossings have vanished in the last five years.”

It is said that, without other measures to force drivers to reduce speeds, the humble zebra provides insufficient protection for pedestrians. With more than 100 injuries a year on zebra crossings, local authorities are installing pedestrian crossings with traffic lights instead.

In the Mail Online on 30 October 2011 there was an article by Kerry McQueeney. The headline read:

Extinction of the zebra: 1,000 crossings disappear as hi-tech replacements and increased death toll signal end of an era

This article points out that zebra crossings were introduced to tackle mounting road deaths in the late-1940s and early 1950’s. But apparently the death toll on such crossings has doubled in the last four years.  According to the Mail, five people were killed on zebra crossings in the year prior to the publication of their article and 144 people were seriously injured. This compared to just three people who died in 2006. Some people have argued that one reason for the decline in safety is that in Britain fines for a motorist prosecuted for not stopping at a crossing are relatively modest when compared with many other countries.

The selection of appropriate forms of pedestrian crossing for each situation is no trivial matter. Zebra crossings  are relatively low in cost and pedestrians do not have to wait for the traffic lights to change in their favour before crossing. The disadvantage of zebras is that some drivers are reluctant to stop for pedestrians. In particular,  if a zebra crossing is not used frequently by pedestrians, drivers tend to forget it is there, which can lead to accidents. Furthermore, it is hard for pedestrians with visual impairments to use zebras and they can cause significant delays to vehicles when pedestrian flows are high.

PelicanThere are several alternatives to the zebra which are available. Pelican crossings (see image left) with signal control tend to be used on roads which have high traffic volumes, high traffic approach speeds or very high pedestrian flows (e.g. near stations and schools). The advantage to this type of crossing is that drivers have a clear instruction – via the red signal – to stop. Visually impaired people benefit from the ‘beep’ that sounds when the green man is showing. The pelican supposedly minimises vehicle delays by making pedestrians wait and cross in a group, rather than one by one. One of the disadvantages of pelicans is that the traffic lights and railings may be considered visually intrusive in certain contexts. Generally, residents do not want a crossing directly outside their home which causes planners problems in finding suitable locations. Also, at pelicans pedestrians will often push the button and then either cross in a gap in traffic, or continue walking down the road. The sequence of lights will continue, causing unnecessary delay to traffic, when nobody is crossing.

Puffin crossings are a variation on a Pelican crossing. The lights controlling the pedestrians are on the near side of the road, rather than on the opposite side. This allows the pedestrian to monitor passing traffic, while waiting for the signal to cross. Having the lights closer to the user assists people with visual impairments and the elderly. Some push-button units are also fitted with a tactile knob under the unit which rotates when the user may cross. This feature is to assist visually impaired people. Puffins also utilise infra-red sensors which detect the presence of pedestrians waiting at the crossing, and as they are crossing the road. The sensors detect that there is a pedestrian waiting, once the the button is pressed. But, if the pedestrian moves off, the sequence is cancelled, and traffic continues unhindered. Puffins are also able to detect pedestrian movement in the centre of the road. If there are slow moving pedestrians still crossing, the pedestrian time is increased and the traffic signal remains on red. The Toucan crossing is basically the same as a Puffin crossing, but is wider to allow cyclists and pedestrians to cross together. They are used on designated cycle routes which cross main roads.

Another low cost option available to highway authorities is to introduce a traffic island and pedestrian refuge. A traffic island situated in the centre of a road (see below) helps reduce vehicle speeds and may prevent over-taking. A gap in the middle of the island is called a refuge. The refuge/island allows pedestrians to cross half the road at a time. One disadvantage is that the islands are generally not suitable for large groups of pedestrians (e.g. school children). The islands can also cause problems for cyclists and wide vehicles. In addition they reduce space available for on-street parking and may be considered visually intrusive in some contexts.

Island & Refuge

The British zebra crossing acquired international fame when The Beatles used one on the cover of their 1969 album Abbey Road. Believe it or not this iconic crossing in St John’s Wood, London, was recently granted a Grade II listing to preserve the site. Long live the humble zebra !

Posted in Pedestrian Planning, Transport Planning, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Car Sharing – the Commerical Aspects

TED Talks

Robin Chase, founder of ZipCar and BuzzCar, talks about peer-to-peer solutions and their relevance to transport.

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Olympic Visitors to Great Britain in 2012

Olympic TorchAccording to City AM (Friday 11 January 2013), official statistics (Office of National Statistics) indicate that 685,000 people came to Britain to watch the 2012 Olympics. On average these visitors spent approximately double what would be expected of the average visitor during their stay. However, overall tourist numbers were 3% lower than usual in the 3rd Quarter of 2012. It seems that other categories of tourists stayed away. Could this be due to inflated prices for flights and hotel rooms ?

These statistics highlight the difficulty for economists who are tasked with estimating whether the Olympics and Paralympics were good for the economy (in terms of value for money) or not.

It would appear that forecasts of visitor numbers for the Olympics have proved to be conservative. In the Mail On-Line, 27 July 2011, Catherine Eade quotes from an independent report by Oxford Economics which estimated the number of visitors to London for the 2012 Games at 450,000. However Ms Eade did point out that “some organisations expect higher numbers than this.”

To put all of these numbers in context, the total number of visitors to Great Britain in a year would be around 30 million.

[Note: the author is still checking some of these statistics]

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Of Talking Heads And Cycle Racks

Full marks to the visionary New York transport authorities who approached former-Talking Head band-leader David Byrne in 2008 to help them lift the profile of cycling in New York.  The New York City Department of Transportation, invited Mr Byrne to join a panel selected to judge a design competition for outdoor and indoor bicycle racks. Byrne was inspired by the city’s initiative and submitted some of his own original design ideas, named after specific locations and neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn. One of his sketches (intended for The Olde Times Square) is shown below:

David Byrne

Mr Byrne asked the Pace Gallery to cover the costs of fabrication. In return they would be given the right to sell these items as original art works later on (the original intention was to display the racks for one year only). According to the New York Times, PaceWildenstein, guessed that the racks might sell for $10,000 to $20,000. However, it was considered very important that they be practical bike racks and not modern art.

The city authorities enthusiastically agreed to install the racks. They are now on permanent loan to the city, and will remain in their locations. The agency agreed to Byrne’s designs and to all the proposed locations. Later, shadows were added to the pavement by a local artist, emphasising the visual impact.

Byrne recalls “I said: ‘Oh, that’s right, the city owns the sidewalks. They don’t have to get permission to move a stop sign.’

david-byrne-bike-racks-nyc-2David Byrne is an enthusiastic cyclist with a strong interest in transport policy. Just a few years ago he wrote “The Bicycle Diaries”. Apparently Mr Byrne rides a folding Montague hybrid bike.

Regarding the wider transport policy perspective, according to the New York Times journalist Ariel Kaminer (8 August 2008)

“Since his congestion pricing plan was killed, Mayor Michael Bloomberg seems to have transferred his bets to cycling as the next best way to reduce automobile traffic. Green bike lanes are appearing all around the city. Serious people are discussing a bike-sharing program. And the Department of Transportation is making way for thousands of new bike racks around the city.”david-byrne-bike-racks-nyc-3

Regarding David Byrne’s contribution, Ms. Janette Sadik-Khan of the New York City Department of Transportation commented “The idea that it’s cool to bike really helps…..the New York City Department of Transportation is not necessarily known for its cool reputation.”

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How to Solve Traffic Jams – Jonas Eliasson

TED Talks

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UK’s First Urban Cable Car

On Thursday 4 October I had the pleasure of travelling on the Emirates Air Line for the first time. Passengers cross the River Thames at heights of 90 metres between two brand new terminals (Emirates Greenwich Peninsula and Emirates Royal Docks), improving connections between the O2 and ExCeL, whilst in close proximity to existing Tube and DLR systems.

Opened on 28 June 2012 by the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, it is the UK’s first ever urban cable car with a cable span of 1,100 metres connecting three helix towers. The crossing is intended to encourage regeneration in the area, assist people to access attractions, and bring tourists to the Greenwich Peninsula and Royal Victoria Dock. It could also help to relieve pressure on the Jubilee Line. It will open up access to the Royal Docks Enterprise Zone and play a key part in attracting businesses and investors to the area.  More than 60 people are employed by Mace Macro to operate the Emirates Air Line.

There are 34 gondolas, each with a maximum capacity of 10 passengers. The service is accessible for pedestrians, wheelchair users and cyclists. They can board one of the cabins every 30 seconds. The Air Line has the capacity to carry up to 2,500 people per hour.

The scheme provides an interchange with the Jubilee line and Docklands Light Railway. The cable cars will operate seven days a week. During the summer passengers can board from 07:00 to 21:00 on weekdays; 08:00 to 21:00 on Saturday; and 09:00 to 21:00 on Sundays. Winter closing time is 20:00. Extended operating hours for major events will see the cable cars operating until midnight Monday to Saturday and 23:30 on Sunday.

The cable car is not fully integrated into TfL’s ticketing system, but discounts are offered to Oyster and Travelcard users, as with London River Services. Boarding passes are purchased from vending machines and ticket offices at both terminals. A standard adult single ticket is £4.30. A single fare using Oyster will cost £3.20 (child fare £1.60). There is also the option to take a non-stop return journey. There is a ‘frequent flyer’ pass for regular users, which allows passengers to make 10 single journeys for £16.

Journey times during commuter hours (07:00 to 10:00 and 15:00 to 21:00 during the summer) are approximately five minutes. In recognition that some visitors will want to experience the journey for as long as possible, the scheme operates at slower speeds during non-commuter periods meaning a single journey could last up to 10 minutes.

The cable car system is designed in most weather conditions. For safety reasons, the service may close for a short time (less than 20 minutes) due to the threat of lightning and thunder, before the storm passes and service resumes. Very strong winds are likely to lead to a longer interruption as wind speed tends to reduce at a gradual rate.

On 4 July 2010, TfL first announced plans to develop a cable car crossing over the River Thames. A planning application was submitted to the London Borough of Newham in October 2010. In October 2011, it was announced that Emirates would provide £36 million in a 10-year sponsorship deal which included branding of the cable car service with the airline’s name. Construction began in August 2011. The main construction involved more than 1,500 people.

In May 2012, TfL said that the cable car would be operational by the summer of 2012. They stated that, originally, there were no plans to open the crossing before the 2012 Olympic Games. However, there were contingency plans in place in case it was possible to open in time. In fact, the scheme was operational during the Olympics.

The cable car is based on Monocable Detachable Gondola (MDG) technology. This system uses a single cable for both propulsion and support, and is also used on the Metrocable in Medellin, Colombia (see an earlier post on this Blog). The MDG system is reportedly cheaper and quicker to install than a more complex three-cable system which would allow for larger-capacity cars.

The cable car provides a crossing every 15 seconds, providing theoretical capacity for up to 2,500 passengers per hour in each direction.

TfL initially budgeted for a scheme costing £25 million and announced that this would be entirely funded by private finance. This figure was subsequently revised to £45 million, and by September 2011 the budget had more than doubled to £60 million. The cable car is the most expensive cable system ever built. There have been reports that this cost escalation occurred because TfL had not taken full account of the costs of legal advice, project management, land acquisition and other costs. TfL planned to make up the shortfall by paying for the project out of the London Rail budget, applying for funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and seeking commercial sponsorship.

Critics have dismissed the Cable car as an impractical solution, which may appeal to tourists, but is unlikely to attract a large number of cross-river trips by local residents and workers due to its location and costs. Further criticisms surround the project’s £24 million-plus cost to taxpayers, caused by the budget overrun. The Mayor of London originally said that the cost of the scheme would not be underwritten by taxpayers.

On 19 April The Guardian ran a story in which it was reported that

“A project that was supposed to be delivered by private sponsorship has ended up being largely funded by the public purse after costs ballooned from an early estimate of £25m to more than £60m. Sponsors, Emirates, have made their way on to London’s tube map – breaking, opponents say, pledges to keep the capital’s transport infrastructure free from such indignity – while footing barely half the bill.

Official projections are that 2 million people will use the cable car each year. According to TfL the O2 is the most popular entertainment centre in the UK and Excel is the busiest conference centre venue in Europe.”

It is interesting to note that Emirates is the first sponsor to feature a company logo on the London tube map.

TfL has made an application for a further £8m of European Regional Development Funding (ERDF) which will cover  part of the capital cost of the project and minimise costs to the taxpayer. Apparently it is envisaged that the revenue generated will, over time, cover all costs.

According to Mayorwatch, the cable car is currently running significantly below capacity despite the capital enjoying a tourism boost from the Olympics. TfL says around half a million passengers have used the cable car since it launched in June, and that “more than 20,000” journeys have been taken each day. It is estimated that the maximum daily capacity is 35,000 passengers during its 14 hours of weekday operation. According to Mayorwatch 10,000 of the first 0.5 million were free trips offered to local residents who were each given two complimentary return journeys to “thank them for their patience during the building phase.”

The Mayor has previously confirmed that receipt of the full sponsorship sum by Emirates is dependent on the cable car’s performance.



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Brussels Car Free Day

I happened to be in Brussels on Sunday 16 September for their 11th annual car-free day, marking a week when cities across Europe promote cycling and other green transport.

This is intended to encourage efforts to cut vehicle emissions — and get citizens out on their feet. Planners recognise that one day will not make much difference to the environment’s bill of health. The event is supposed to create awareness that leads to change in the future.

According to Tom Tom, Brussels is the most congested European city. Brussels wants cycling to make up 20 percent of transportation by 2020.

World Car Free Day is held on 22 September every year. According to press reports, there appears to be a collapse in the number of British towns supporting World Car Free Day. This can be blamed on slashed budgets for local government and dwindling interest in the environment, according to the Environmental Transport Association (ETA), the organisation that first coordinated the event in Britain.

Over the last decade, an average of over 50 British towns each year have staged events to highlight alternatives to car travel, but this year the number has plummeted to fewer than ten. The ETA earlier this year wrote to over 400 local authorities around Britain to ask if they were planning to support World Car Free Day 2012; only two councils replied.

World Car Free Day continues to draw support from elsewhere; with over 550 events organised; Spain tops a league table of countries taking part, while Britain languishes near the bottom behind Croatia and Slovenia.

European Car Free Day (or In Town Without My Car!) is an international festival of environmentally sensitive transport.

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