Green men no longer flash. If you're a UK pedestrian, you must have noticed. The flashing green man was wiped out years ago, and pedestrian crossings stick to a much simpler pattern. After the red man comes green, then where green used to flash there's a blackout, no colour at all, before red reappears. Or at least that's how it is for the time being.
Flashing green used to confuse people, apparently. They thought it meant "cross right over, and hurry up", whereas in fact it meant "don't start to cross, but if you're on your way keep going". It used to instil unnecessary panic, whereas in fact it was still perfectly safe for any pedestrian in the road to carry on crossing. So the powers that be switched off the green flasher, and that confused us even more. We never really understood what the blackout meant ("don't start to cross, but if you're on your way keep going"), assuming cars were about to accelerate into us at any second. We dithered, we rushed, we walked out into the traffic without thinking, and all because absence of symbol gave absence of message.
But that's all changing. As of this week, London boasts the UK's first Countdown Crossing. A digital timer which kicks in when the green man disappears and hits zero when the red man returns. 12, 11, 10... still ages, you can make it ...9, 8, 7... if you run, you'll get across ...6, 5, 4... hurry, there'll be traffic soon ...3, 2, 1... you're pushing your luck ...0... run!!! The idea is that a countdown means so much more than a blank screen, and pedestrians can better judge what chance they have of crossing depending on time remaining and their fitness. A huge improvement, surely.
Or maybe not. These countdown timers cost money, because they're bolted on rather than replacing an existing light. There are thousands of signal-controlled crossings in London, so to spread this innovation across the capital would cost millions. And then there's the sneaky bit. Along with the countdown timer comes a re-phasing of the associated traffic lights. Where previously the green man might have shown for ten seconds, now it only shows for the statutory minimum of six. There's still plenty of safe time to cross while the numbers tick down, a period whose duration remains unchanged, but the proportion of time spent on green is reduced. This is, essentially, a cunning wheeze to increase the amount of time during which traffic can pass through a set of lights. This alteration, which on the face of it only benefits pedestrians, is really a clever way to boost the dominance of the car.
If you read TfL's press release from yesterday, you might think this countdown trial was already well underway at eight different locations. Not so. I went along to one of the trial spots, at High Holborn, and no adjustment to the traffic lights has yet been made. No bolt-on timers, no shorter crossing times, not yet, nothing. As I understand it the sole location so far is outside Southwark tube station, should you ever be in the area. While the year-and-a-bit long trial continues, pedestrians get greater information and car drivers get more time. It's either a petrolhead con-trick or a transportation triumph. Only time will tell.