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How did the Briton cross the road?

Montage of Parisian traffic signs by Crystian Cruz

Stephen Dowling
BBC News

The green man, an icon for pedestrians across the UK, could be joined by a countdown clock as part of London's plans to ease traffic flow. But from Cairo to Chicago, how people cross the road speaks volumes about a country's cultural values.

You only need to step outside your hotel when staying in a foreign city to know that when it comes to crossing the road, there's no such thing as an international standard. Every country does it differently.

In Cairo, pedestrians seemingly take their lives in their hands, striding out into oncoming traffic in the Middle East's most chaotic roads.

In Bangkok, crossing the street means playing chicken with armadas of scooters and cars that see pedestrian crossings as an obstacle course.

In affluent Berlin, bankers and punks alike will wait patiently at the kerbside on streets deserted of traffic until the green man appears - they would sooner set themselves on fire than jaywalk. And in teeming cities such as New York and Tokyo traffic flows are negotiated around the need for pedestrians to walk safely amid the business district skyscrapers.

Matt Page, a lecturer at the Institute for Transport Studies at Leeds University, says the UK's roads are often designed with vehicles first.

"If you look around at pedestrian crossings here and in other cities in the UK, crossing times are not generous. Often where those pedestrian crossings are is where there's the greatest amount of vehicle traffic."

Unfair?

Denied time to dawdle, if London mayor Boris Johnson gets his way, pedestrians striding from one kerb to another will be doing so against the clock. Critics say a countdown system like the proposed by Johnson might also make pedestrians feel inferior to drivers. Subconsciously, the ticking clock is telling them that they have to get off the road so that the important people - those behind the wheels of their cars - can get on with their business.

Streets have a multitude of different uses… they are places where people talk and meet
Matt Page, Institute for Transport Studies

The countdown approach is already used in parts of the US and Denmark. But, Mr Page says, countries such as the Netherlands and Germany see streets as "public realms to be enjoyed as a pedestrian rather than roads as a conduit for traffic".

"Streets have a multitude of different uses… they are places where people talk and meet."

Tony Armstrong, the head of the Living Streets campaign group, says segregation doesn't work - nor does anything that makes pedestrians feel less valued. He looks at decades of town planning so far and says "the net result is we've designed people out of the environment".

German traffic sign
The green man - an international avatar

In countries like Denmark, however, a consensus has been found. "The classic example is Copenhagen," Mr Armstrong says. "It's a fantastic place to be in and hang around. There's a massive rate of cycling among people who live there."

City planners blocked off some roads to traffic, and pedestrianised them. "They brought in public art, had entertainment, and turned car parks into public squares." People were encouraged to walk or cycle to them - in keeping with the environmentally-friendly Scandinavian archetype. Yet the motorist was simply elbowed out of the picture. A previously car-centric city became one where people, cars and cyclists were treated equally.

So this is how it works in northern Europe - a system most Brits will be able to adapt to fairly quickly.

Local knowledge

But several hundred miles south, in Rome, the streets start to look more like a deathtrap, as Fiats and Piaggio scooters zoom past in an "every man for himself" style of transport. Roman residents, however, are confident in their ability to share the streets with the car. They know that vehicles only stop when you walk out in front of them.

This local knowledge in a tourist-dependent city like Rome isn't much use to its many millions of visitors.

Pedestrians crossing the street in Tokyo
Tokyo pedestrians cross in an orderly fashion

The European consumer testing agency EuroTest, based in Brussels, did a survey of more than 200 pedestrian crossings in 17 different cities last year partly because of this issue, with the help of local motoring organisations

"If you're going to another city as a foreigner what are your chances of crossing the road?" says Caroline Ofoegbu of the Federation Internationale de L'Automobile, a European driving organisation. "You don't think 'do I need to know the differences about crossing roads?'

"In Belgium for instance, if you cross the street anywhere other than a crossing and a police officer sees you, it's a 70-80 euro fine - and he'll take it as an insult that you saw him and still crossed!"

Separation

As motoring has developed, so has the design of systems to stop people and vehicles running into each other.

For the past four decades British roads have been built to keep pedestrian and driver separate - ostensibly to improve the safety of the lowly foot soldier; a patrician guiding hand preventing the unsophisticated, perhaps, from wandering into the grille of a juggernaut.

Yet Britain led the way in the development of pedestrian crossings. Most people use them without realising the wealth of systems they use to help drivers and pedestrians - including the deaf and hearing impaired - interact safely.

Pedestrian crossing New York road
New York - pedestrians and cars share the streets

There are linked lights to make sure people aren't crossing in front of moving traffic, sloped kerbs, different textured pavement to help the blind, more visible signs showing when to walk, flashing graphics, tones and ticks and buzzes to tell us when we should be crossing, barriers to channel us into safe crossing zones.

For drivers, there are warning signs, lights, zigzagged lines and colour codes, all telling drivers to be careful, that people may be crossing ahead.

But sometimes drivers become so inured to this street "furniture" they forget to look for people crossing - they forget what it's there for. And a 1970 study by the Institute of Transportation Engineers Journal looking at San Diego accidents found incidents were twice as likely at "marked crossings" as unmarked crossings.

Why? Pedestrians lose a sense of personal responsibility - they think that because they are at an official crossing, they don't need to look where they are going. And then they step out into oncoming traffic.

The best-designed crossing, according to EuroTest's research, was to be found in London, in the middle of Westminster between Tothill Street and Storey's Gate.

It has some well-designed features that make it visible to drivers (and a traffic island in the middle), but essentially it's a zebra crossing like those first designed in the 1940s - where pedestrians and drivers have to make eye contact.

This, Mr Page says, is often the answer. "If you encourage them [drivers and pedestrians] to mix you are asking them to take more notice of each other."


Below is a selection of your comments.

I've just been to Malmö in Sweden for the weekend. The pedestrian lights there click slowly when the light is on red and when it goes green for pedestrians it clicks very loudly and very quickly making you want to run across the road! It would be a good idea to run though as the crossings activate while traffic is still using the road! We also went into Copenhagen and used one of the countdown crossings on Radhuspladsen - very clever as they countdown how long it is until you can cross and then countdown how long you have got to cross before getting mowed down...
Phillip Darlington, Nottingham

My Italy-living brother once told me: "In Milan, traffic lights are instructions, in Rome they are suggestions, and in Naples they are decorations."
Jules, London, UK

When I went to Sorrento, Italy in 2007, my boyfriend and I stood at a zebra crossing and just watched the cars whizz on by. As the Italian tour guide said, "To Italians, zebra crossings are just a nice bit of art on the road!"
Kezia, Cornwall, England

On holiday in Jasper, Canada, the other year, my wife and I started to cross a wide seemingly empty road when we noticed a cyclist coming towards us. We stopped to let him go by but he stopped as well, took off his hat and with an expansive gesture said "After you, Ma'am". Now that's Canadian courtesy!
Mike McM, Sheffield, UK

I was 23 in August 1987 and new to Vienna visiting my soon to be wife. On one of those quiet Saturday afternoons, just after noon in fact. Weekends in Vienna were very quiet then, with the shops closing at midday until Monday. The Iron curtain was still a reality. Vienna was from my perspective, as a Londoner, a rather sleepy City. Very pleasant, but sleepy.

Any way, I had purchased my last minute errand - coffee beans freshly grounded. I had to cross a wide boulevard back to the apartment. No traffic. None. Nothing left and nothing right. Was it the than unusually hot August? Maybe. Just the trees lining the imperial street, shading the footpaths on either side. The tram tracks glistened in the heat. Not a soul about, except one elderly lady already waiting at the crossing. I unconsciously stepped out into the empty road. Just before I reached half way I heard the command in a distinct voice. I turned my head and the elderly lady was beckoning me back. I returned. Where upon she told me my error. 'The pedestrian crossing light is still red, young man'.
Christopher Brewer, London

We visit Romania sometimes and in some towns they have introduced the countdown clock for pedestrians and traffic. It does mean that the cars are ready to go when their clock has reach zero, but it also gives the pedestrian advice as to how long they have left to safely cross a road. I don't know if it has reduced accidents, but I think that it should.
Keith Evans, Maidstone UK

Rome isn't "a few hundred miles south" of Copenhagen. It's nearly 1,200 miles south. That's a lot of roads to cross.
Nick B., York, UK

I work as a town planner and I agree that cities in the UK place the pedestrian at the bottom of the heap. Most people journey by foot for at least part of their journey in a town centre and they should be the highest priority. Cars should be diverted away and users encouraged to use public transport - which needs to be radically improved. Public spaces should be largely car-free or shared, with pedestrians having priority on raised surfaces. Where there is a need for pedestrian crossings, these should be larger with longer crossing times. This will deliver real economic benefits as town centres become more attractive spaces to spend time (and money).
Iain, Edinburgh UK

At crossings in Italy, motorists drive so as to just miss you; in France, so as to just hit you! The best place (apart from UK) is in San Francisco where timed crossings are respected by both pedestrians and motorists and also at crossroads where there are no lights, but only a pair of white lines for pedestrians. Unnervingly for me at first, motorists ALWAYS stop for pedestrians. The secret, my SF-resident son tells me is, "If they don't stop and hit you, you sue them for all they have!"
Paul, London UK

You should see Nairobi-wall wall vehicles mounting pavements to cut through-people walking between vehicles selling goods and crossing the street takes skill and sheer guts!
David Messer, Stanton Suffolk

For countdown lights try Brazil: in Porto Seguro they are set for the cars! The revving of bio-fuelled beetles is almost as exciting as an F1 start: certainly brings an adrenalin rush to pedestrians.
Bill, Barcelona, Spain

Visiting Prague we were impressed by the 'Click-Clack' audible man who went faster as the lights were about to revert to the traffic.

In Tallinn where the trams run along the centre of the street the traffic is disciplined to stop to allow pedestrians to cross to the tram from the pavement.
John, Doncaster

When I went Interrailing I was told by a Parisienne NEVER to look at the traffic when crossing the road at a crossing. If they see a pedestrian has seen them they will assume that the pedestrian will stop. By "pretending" you've not seen the car leaves the driver thinking you've not seen them and they will stop.
Al, UK

Here in Vancouver, pedestrians are like second class citizens. There is little provision for pedestrians and you can wait up to 5 minutes at a junction before the 'countdown' will begin. Even then, you do feel under pressure to 'hurry up'. Cars here can turn right on a red light! They just have to wait for pedestrians, and they slowly nudge forwards towards you legs (as they are under pressure from traffic from behind). And all this in a city with great public transport. But why encourage cycling, and then make it difficult to walk?
Anne-Marie, Vancouver, BC, Canada

In the USA (Oregon and California are the places I have visited) they use these a lot, and I have only ever once managed to cross in the time for which the 'Walk' sign is up. It changes to 'Don't Walk' when you are about two-thirds of the way across. How disabled people, or those with prams etc manage I don't know.
Geoff Cox, Bracknell, UK

In Cambodia, the trick is not to hesitate - set off from the curb and walk at a steady rate, regardless of approaching traffic. All the bikes, cars motorbikes and tuk-tuks will take into account the speed that you are progressing and adjust to avoid you. If you hesitate or stop, you're done for!
Sarah, Liverpool

In Mongolian capital Ulan Baatar, pedestrians are given a countdown to cross the huge roads. This definitely makes you feel inferior to the cars, as the countdown is about 5 seconds, or perhaps a generous nine seconds. It is impossible to get across the roads safely before the cars, regardless of pedestrians, start moving again, if indeed they ever stopped.
Harriet, Paris

One point you forgot to mention in your article is that in Belgium, when the green man shows for pedestrians to cross at a junction, it is also green for cars who are turning into that street. This makes it slightly more dangerous than tapdancing through the Korean DMZ. Especially if one factors in the fiercely aggressive Belgian driving mentality.

Something else that the Lonely Planet guides don't tell you is that the majority of zebra crossings (without traffic lights) are placed on blind corners which Belgian drivers take considerable pleasure in negotiating at high speeds. It sometimes worth risking the 70-80 euro fine rather than cross at the zebra crossings!
Londoner, London

I have been hit 4 times crossing the road. twice by a cyclist, once by a car and once by a 76 bus! So far, I've got up and walked away. All these incidents occurred at a crossing when the lights were in my favour. We do not need to have the traffic moving more quickly but more safely.
Tim, London

The best pedestrian crossing signs I've seen were in the old town of Quito, Ecuador. They too have a countdown clock, but above it they have a green man who to begin with is striding slowly along, but as the clock counts down starts to walk faster and faster, until it's running at full pelt when the clock hits zero. They get the point across, but are fun at the same time.
James, London

Visiting San Diego for a conference with three British colleagues and an American (USA) we had to cross several roads between our hotel and the conference centre. The American colleague set off with us but arrived ten minutes later than us as she could not be induced to cross against a "Don't Walk" sign at any price!
Brian, Dundee

Visited Nova Scotia recently, and was amazed to find that in towns, pedestrians have the right of way... you step off a kerb, and the cars will all stop and wave you across the road. Does wonders for peoples sense of community.
Duncan Fraser, Inverness Scotland

Nice to see the East Berlin "Ampelmann" used to illustrate this story. I understand it was phased out after re-unification and only brought back into use after public protests from Berliners. The hat somehow makes it charming rather than purely functional.
Peter Graves, York

Some crossing times are absurdly short - Wellington Arch, on a very busy roundabout in London, gives you only four seconds to cross 25m. No problem for Dwain Chambers, but a challenge for many of us!
Rob, London, UK

Taking a foreign friend round London in the 1980s I was surprised when she turned back to re-cross the zebra crossing which we had just used. She did this several times - delighted by the novelty that the traffic actually stopped to let her cross.

However in Sweden we found that by stopping for a pedestrian on the crossing's kerb we were inviting them into a dangerous situation. Local cars overtook us, as they only stopped if the pedestrian was actually in front of them.
ChrisJK, UK

In cities where it seems like a bit of a 'free-for-all' (like Rome or Athens), my maxim when crossing the road is always use some natives for cover.
Alan , Dundee, Scotland

I've just had a good chuckle about the 'cons' of timed crossings. These for me were one of the best things about Washing DC on a visit last year - a city which has a great balance everyone. Knowing that there were only five seconds left to cross meant that I was no longer running for the road in a desperate attempt to get over (instead waiting patiently for the next green man), and the drivers seemed far more patient knowing exactly how long it would be before they could get moving. Roll on countdown timers!
Ailsa, Edinburgh, UK

"Countries such as the Netherlands and Germany see streets as 'public realms to be enjoyed as a pedestrian rather than roads as a conduit for traffic.'" Surely some mistake? A system where being caught walking across an empty road in the middle of the night can be punished by fine is not one that puts pedestrians first. Thankfully (eastern) Germany has the world's best red and green men to look at while you wait.
Edmund, Chemnitz, Germany

Yes having been to Cairo, I know exactly what you mean. I was born and brought up in the UK and lived there for 25 years. My father still lives in Manchester and has now retired from his profession as a doctor and senior lecturer. Personally and as far as concerns the EU, I hope and would like to see a EU-wide policy, legislation and law enforcement come into place. In Greece the situation on the roads is horrific, hardly anybody adheres to red lights if they are drivers so pedestrians take it upon themselves not to adhere to traffic signals and zebra crossings either. Greece unfortunately is a backward underdeveloped third world country when it comes to road and traffic issues with cars parked on pavements, in front of hospital access roads, on zebra crossings, on disabled people's access points. I feel that an EU-wide law making and law enforcement in this issue will have positive impacts for the third world unacceptable behaviour of Greek drivers.
Victor Theofilopoulos, Athens, Greece

I spent a week in Seoul on business last year and got to do some sight-seeing at the weekend. They also have the count-down system on their pedestrian crossings there and it is invaluable! Some of the roads there are massive: the biggest we came across was 14 lanes wide!!! When you start to cross something like that you need to know you'll have enough time to make it across. If you've just got there and seen that it's green but have no idea how much longer it will be green for you could end up stranded in the middle of the road!
Rob, Hassocks

I once crossed a PEDESTRIAN street in Vienna on a red man, and was summonsed by a whistle to a policeman who wanted to issue me with an on-the-spot fine - even though there wasn't a vehicle in sight in either direction. When he realised I was English, however, he harrumphed and set me on my way with an incomprehensible but clearly irate ear battering. Here in Bristol the council has moved the red man/green man signal from the other side of the road (where you're crossing TO) to same side of the road as the waiting pedestrian (where you're crossing FROM), but only on SOME junctions. It may be better for people with poor sight, but I think it's a horrible danger for everyone else who is used to seeing the signal on the other side of the road - you tend to assume that the crossing is not signal-controlled and take your life into your hands. I've only seen this system in one other city (Manchester) which makes me think that road planners don't think it's a very good idea either.
Grant Finlay, Bristol

Interestingly enough my experience here in Canada has been that the rules change from city to city. I work in Calgary where pedestrians are king. Although jay walking is frowned upon pedestrians always have the right of way. I was stopped at a pedestrian crossing one day waiting for the light when a man walked up and simply crossed on red. An approaching car gave him a blast on the horn, fair enough I thought. Two women next to me said 'oh how ignorant' (yes really!), but they were referring to the driver not the pedestrian. But on a visit to Montreal the people in our local office advised me to be very careful crossing, even on green, as they seem to work on the principle that vehicles have the right of way. Zebra crossings are particularly scary.
John, Bragg Creek, Canada

Last year in Berlin I saw a gaggle of well behaved Berliners waiting for the green man to show at a crossing, even though the road was closed, with a road block on either side. What's more, on that very corner there was a cafe called 'Freud' - you couldn't make it up...
Simon, London

In the Czech Republic, the car rules the road. If a pelican crossing shows green to cross, the cars turning onto the road get the green to go too! They say the law says the cars have to wait, but the way the Czechs drive, it's hit and miss (or run in some cases) The Czechs have some of the highest numbers of deaths on the road per percentage of the driving population.
Gary, Prague, Czech Republic

Who would have thought that a piece on crossing the road could be so interesting? Fascinated by the Belgians if that's true. England nowadays seems to have adopted more manic methods. I'm coming across more and more people crossing at the lights, regardless of their colour, and people using Zebra crossings to hold impromptu meetings. Not good.
Lewis Gaston, Portsmouth

I remember being in Rome and trying to cross the road. After waiting almost five minutes for a suitable gap a very friendly man told me that the best way to cross was to find a Nun to cross with, because the cars would always stop for Nuns. And low and behold, it did actually work. I was amazed.
Dan Lovell, Guernsey

Having been to many of the cities you mention, I found this interesting. The countdown clock idea (seen it in Toronto) is actually pretty good. As a motorist, it prevents those irritating pedestrians who start to cross 1 second before the lights change-delaying everyone. And as a pedestrian, it stops that alarming moment when you're in the middle of the road and you realise that the cars are coming towards you. When I was in Berlin, I merrily crossed the roads when I felt like it, until I got beeped at and told by a fellow tourist that's not allowed... I think it'd be very hard to change people's road-crossing habits as they are so ingrained.
Rachel, Reading

In Estonian cities, many of the pedestrian crossings combine both the clock and the red and green men. The clock is there to indicate how many seconds you have before you can cross, or how many seconds you have remaining to complete your crossing. The clock turns red or green as well as the appropriate coloured man showing.
Andy, Reading, UK

They use the clock system in Taiwan as well and have done for years. They are used mainly on really large and busy roads. Pedestrians and drivers like them and find them really useful because on large roads, there is not always enough time for slower pedestrians to cross the road in time so the clock gives a clear indication of how long you have left to cross.
Roni, London

Cycling is all very well in Denmark where it is flat but not a lot of use in more hilly environments. It also seems that road users are seen as being mutually exclusive - I ride, I walk AND I drive, so I can cope with having to predict the behaviour of all three.
Mark, Guildford

In Shanghai the locals step out into the road and maintain a fixed speed and direction as traffic whizzes around them. The natural temptation to stop or run must be avoided as this just confuses the drivers and leads to accidents.
Chris, Nottingham, UK

Nice idea - making eye contact with car drivers is how I stay safe on a bicycle - a crash helmet is an "after the event" safety device that gives a false sense of security. So how do you tell someone head down on the mobile/texting whist stepping blindly into the road to make eye contact?
Ted , Felixstowe

The original zebra crossing was the best. It encouraged both road user and pedestrian to be alert and aware of the dangers of the road. They operate with an implicit recognition of both parties responsibilities and what's more actually encourage communication. How heart-warming to use those old crossings. A courteous wave of thanks to the driver for stopping, sometimes a wave of acknowledgement in return. No aggressive assertions of supposed 'rights of way', no drivers wasting time at red lights with no one crossing and everyone much more chilled out for the experience. I usually find the first or second car will stop to allow me to cross - and that's on busy junctions too.
Simon Olley, London

I think the countdown to the green light is a great idea... I've seen at work in Iran and India and lets everyone know exactly where they are in terms of time. Also it should stop people revving cars continuously. So good for the environment and for our pockets too.
Ismail, London

In Amsterdam, the countdown approach is used for some crossings - they not only countdown the time you have to cross the road, but how many seconds it will be until the green man appears, meaning that many people will wait as opposed to rushing across when the red man is still showing. It sounds like a good way to prevent injury and death.
Paul S, The Hague, The Netherlands

As a frequent pedestrian, I feel that UK roads are not designed with us in mind - hence my willingness to jaywalk. Obviously I have my own safety to think about, and I need to be courteous to other traffic; but I do intend to get where I'm going.
Howard, C

In Ljubljana, Slovenia they use both: the red/green man and a countdown clock. When the light is red, the clock shows how man seconds are left until the light will turn green: why chance it if you only have five seconds to wait? When the light is green, it shows the time remaining to cross. Approaching motorists have similar countdown clocks. That way, the green man stays and no one feels inferior. The system seems to work well.
Hugh, Brussels, Belgium

Dublin uses the countdown system in the centre of the city and it works very well
Jonathan, Sheffield, UK

So "Critics say a countdown system like the proposed by Johnson might also make pedestrians feel inferior to drivers." What drivel. The US system is an excellent idea - and I say this as someone who has done a lot of walking, not driving, in some major US cities - so let's hope Boris adopts it in London without delay.
Rod M, Camberley, UK

It all depends on where you are. In Oxford, no one drives through the centre of town if they can help it. The historic streets are very narrow, and lots of them don't really go anywhere much, and added to that a few key streets in the centre of town have been pedestrianised. This means that pedestrians tend to treat all the central streets as their own, and drivers know to drive slowly because people WILL just walk out.

Oddly, I can think of one street in particular where this used to happen all the time. A few years ago the council installed a pedestrian crossing. Suddenly the previously patient drivers started to behave as though the street was theirs and to get angry if pedestrians didn't wait at the crossing.
Jess, Oxford, UK

In Rochdale, where I live and work, pedestrian crossings have been changed to those that use a camera to sense the pedestrian on the crossing. They don't work! The traffic is held at a red light long after the pedestrian has strolled away down the road causing frustration and unnecessary delay for motorists. Bring back the flashing-amber discretionary proceed with caution.
Stuart Sawle, Rochdale

Why don't they put a pedestrian section in the driving test? Where potential drivers are made to get out of the cars and try walking in some heavily trafficked areas? For a start, they'd start to recognise places where, from a pedestrians point of view it seems like a good place to cross ( but doesn't from the driving seat) and also, they might have more regard for pedestrians having been there themselves. I think many young drivers have themselves been driven everywhere. I think the same rule should apply to cyclists: drivers should have to (at least!) watch a video shot from the perspective of a cyclist (i don't think you can insist everyone cycles because some people may not be able to) to show them how it feels to be a cyclist in traffic.
Louise, England

Strange that you mention Bangkok. Last time I was there they had also gone for Countdown crossings, which worked surprisingly well. Incredibly for Thai traffic, most drivers seemed to obey them!
Katie, Woking, Surrey

In NI pedestrians seem to think that by stepping on to a zebra crossing they somehow become invincible - they walk onto them without lifting their heads to check for traffic, without breaking their stride nor giving a driver any indication that they intend to cross the road. Making eye contact is practically anathema to them. The pedestrians need to be reminded of their responsibilities as well as reminding the drivers.
Jude, Belfast, NI

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