diamond geezer

 Friday, July 20, 2018

Walking round Paris, I was struck by how utterly different the experience of crossing the road is compared to London. We don't tend to do zebra crossings these days, whereas in Paris most road junctions are marked with white stripes, the expectation being that's where you'll cross. The stripes also provide a clear reminder to drivers of your presence although, this being Paris, that doesn't mean they'll stop. They're supposed to, or at least slow down, once you've stepped onto the crossing, but in reality not all of them do. It took a while for me to get used to taking the plunge into a stream of traffic, and I often ended up meekly waiting until the road was clear.

Crossings on anything other than the quietest roads tend to be controlled by lights, a simple green man for walk and red for don't. What's interesting is that green doesn't mean the traffic's stopped, because French lights tend to omit that stage of the proceedings. At junctions either the man is red, when traffic's exiting the road you're crossing, or the man is green, and traffic may be entering after turning left or right. This two-stage system helps keep the traffic flowing faster, but also invites greater interaction between pedestrians and vehicles, with the latter supposed to pause to let those crossing through.

It seems to work well, and there is a sense that as a pedestrian you're flowing more freely across the city. But I'm less convinced it'd work in London, where our junctions aren't usually so rigidly geometric, each subtle deviation making it harder for a uniform solution to apply. Our 'pedestrians only' crossing phase is also much more favourable to the elderly, disabled and those with young children, so perhaps the British way is simply better by default.

But there is one way Paris beats London hands down, and that's the two-stage crossing. The Parisian authorities are perfectly happy to trust you to cross a big road in two steps. They install a red/green man for the first bit, as far as a central space, then install a second immediately on the other side. Pedestrians are respected enough to do things by halves, usually with a 'Traversez en 2 temps' sign to make the division clear.

TfL simply don't allow this kind of thing. Instead they create staggered islands to force pedestrians to cross in two goes, or they use just one red/green man sign to apply to the entire crossing. The first option can be slow, making everyone walk further. But the second option can be slower still, as the red man can't change to green until both directions of traffic have stopped. It's infuriating to be shown a red signal when in fact half the road is perfectly safe to cross, and you could've been partway across by now.

Our slightly nanny-ish system is predicated on perfect behaviour, but instead often encourages people to cross on a red light because it looks safe to do so. The Parisian set-up, by contrast, makes explicit which half is safe and which isn't, making it far less likely you'll misjudge which half of the road is clear. Might we ever be trusted enough to see some 2-stage non-staggered crossings in London? The straight-across solution with two signals is one thing Paris gets absolutely right.

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