On the same day I wrote about upcoming Cycle Superhighway changes in Bow, one actually took place - the replacement of a long-standing pedestrian crossing by a new improved version. This is the pedestrian crossing at Bow Church, the crossing that links the church on its island to the wider neighbourhood. And woo, this is cutting edge stuff, this is an LED pelican crossing with a countdown timer.
It's by no means the first countdown crossing in London, TfL have been introducing them for a number of years. But normally they've appeared at road junctions, or particularly important crossing points, and this is the first time I've ever seen one somewhere this mundane.
Previously the man changed colour from red to green, announcing to pedestrians it was time to cross, then switched immediately back to red once it was too late to start crossing. Now the start of that red phase has been changed to a countdown timer, giving those on the crossing notification of how long they've got, which in this case is up to four seconds. That's the briefest countdown period I've seen anywhere in London, indeed you might think barely worth installing. But this simple mechanism gives those arriving at the crossing the nudge that if they cross quickly, or eventually run, they'll be fine, and is a huge improvement on the blunt 'no, stop there' offered by the red man phase at the previous crossing.
Originally this crossing had been operated by an ordinary pelican, but three years ago this was upgraded to a puffin. Previously the red and green men faced us from the other side of the road, and were easy to see, but puffins work to a different design that experts decreed to be safer. At a puffin crossing the green man only appears on the pole beside you, deliberately forcing you to look in the direction of the oncoming traffic, or at least that's the idea. In reality people still look in front of them to where the green man isn't, and then miss it when it changes, and occasionally fail to cross at the appointed time at all. I hated it when we got a puffin, and assumed we were stuck with this non-instinctive means of crossing forever. But hurrah, the upgrade of Cycle Superhighway 2 has thrown unexpected cash at my local pedestrian crossing, and replaced the 3 year-old puffin with another pelican. I am beyond thankful.
I've been out watching to see how the change has gone down with local residents. Things aren't yet entirely normal, because the contractors haven't yet taken the old pedestrian crossing lights away, and much of the central reservation island is coned off for further works. But Bow's pedestrians have been using the new crossing with aplomb, as you'd expect, because it's not exactly rocket science. They press the button, they wait, and then they cross when the time is right. It's just that I haven't yet seen many pedestrians wait for the lights to change, they generally cross much earlier, in the first available gap in the traffic.
Apart from during the rush hour, traffic tends to flow along Bow Road in pulses. That's a consequence of tightly spaced pedestrian crossings, holding back vehicles at regular intervals and clearing the carriageway ahead. And this means that even if the traffic looks busy when you press the button, there'll generally be a gap along shortly which any able-bodied pushchair-free pedestrian can exploit. When the lights don't change that quickly, this tends to mean that by the time they do eventually switch, the person who pressed the button is long gone.
The previous puffin crossing had a sensor that 'watched' the pavement to check whether pedestrians were waiting. Interestingly the new countdown pelican crossing is less intelligent, with no visible sensor whatsoever, so the mechanism has no idea whether anyone's still waiting or not. The whole process is now independent of human presence, apart from the initial button press, so the red/green ballet plays out at the appointed time no matter how many, or how few, people are present.
The first time I used the new crossing, during the evening rush hour, it took 90 seconds from pressing the button to the lights eventually changing in my favour. During these 90 seconds there were at least three occasions on which I could have crossed the road quite safely, but the lights ignored these gaps and remained resolutely in favour of non-existent traffic. About ten seconds in I was joined by a young man who nipped across almost immediately, and shortly afterwards an old lady arrived, who also beat me to the other side. She even looked at me in a strange way as if to say "why are you still standing there?" and I felt like a bit of a idiot for holding out for the maximum minute and a half.
Even though it felt like a lengthier wait, I can't be sure whether the new lights have a longer maximum waiting time than before. It's easy to stand by the roadside as a pedestrian and assume you're being discriminated against in favour of cars, even though it's obviously important that traffic gets through without repeatedly having to stop. But TfL's original plans for the CS2 upgrade made it crystal clear that overall crossing times would increase, and junctions would take longer to traverse, and I fear that this may have happened here. Indeed with two halves of the road to cross, and a possible 90 second pause each time, at busy times pedestrians could be spending three minutes at a time to cross Bow Road.
When a Cycle Superhighway upgrade comes your way, so does an unexpectedly large amount of money. And this cash is not just aimed at improving facilities for cyclists, because quite a bit goes on restructuring facilities for pedestrians too. Adding a segregated cycle lane generally messes up whatever crossing layout already exists, so TfL are taking the opportunity to rebuild, realign and restructure as they go along. Some crossings are being changed from straight across to staggered, some changed from staggered to straight across, and some are getting push button controls for the very first time.
This particular crossing used to be staggered (the yellow lines on the map), with pedestrians having to walk along the island for a short distance before completing the second half. Not any more, now it goes straight across.
And this is great if you're crossing to the southeastern side of Bow Road, because that's where the new southern crossing lands. But it's less good if you're heading west, because the new alignment forces an annoying diversion. Previously you'd follow the staggered route via the yellow crossings, whereas the designated route now involves an additional zebra crossing located further down Bromley High Street than before. There's no way I shall be doing this every day, I shall be wilfully cutting corners, indeed I suspect I'll press the button on the new crossing and then walk up to where the crossing used to be and wait there instead.
However good it is to have a countdown timer, this new lengthier crossing is symptomatic of what's happened and will continue to happen as the Cycle Superhighway upgrade plays out, not just here but at several other locations. In 'improving' our pedestrian crossings TfL have deliberately created longer paths, as safety trumps practicality, and introduced longer waits to maintain the traffic flow. Expect pedestrians to ignore where they're being asked to cross, as well as how long they're being asked to linger, despite the designers' best intentions.