Does pressing the button at pedestrian crossings actually help you cross faster?

Waste of time, mate: London, 1932. Image: Getty.

According to an American study, people spend around 1.6bn hours each year standing idly at the roadside, at the cost of $2.6Bn to the American economy. With all this waiting around, it’s only natural to question whether pushing the “walk” button will help us get to our destination sooner.

To answer this question, we need to understand how the traffic lights work. Strict rules are applied within traffic control hardware to decrease the risk of collisions. For example, minimum times are set between one green light and the next, to ensure that vehicles can clear the junction safely.

While these timings are very important, they can place constraints on the operational efficiency of the junction. If you have ever driven through a city in the early hours of the morning, you’ll know exactly what this means. Despite there being practically no traffic on the road, you will still find yourself frequently stopping at red lights and waiting what can seem like an age for the lights to go green again.

A sign of frustration. Image: lanier67/Flickr/creative commons.

Transport authorities recognise that delay is bad for all users. Idling vehicles contribute to air pollution, and making pedestrians wait does nothing to help government targets to increase the number of trips made on foot. Some towns and cities, such as Drachten in the Netherlands, are even experimenting by removing traffic lights, to improve traffic flow. But in most places, the approach is to ensure traffic lights respond to the demands of those present, within the shortest time possible.


Meeting demand

For a simple pedestrian crossing, located away from a junction, the approach for dealing with pedestrian and traffic demands is simple. Press the button, and the green man or light will appear in due course. How long you wait is a function of how long ago the crossing was last activated, the volume of approaching traffic and the policy of the transport authority.

Many authorities now prioritise pedestrians, meaning that, provided a certain time has elapsed since the last demand for the crossing, the green man will appear almost immediately. If the button is not pressed, traffic will simply continue to flow indefinitely.

At an intersection, the situation depends on the design of the junction and the country you are in. In the UK and Ireland, most urban junctions with simple layouts operate on an “all stop” principle. In this case, traffic on all approaches to the junction is brought to a standstill to allow pedestrians to cross. Like the basic pedestrian crossing, someone must have pressed the button, otherwise the green man will be skipped to reduce delays.

But there is a second junction type, which includes what are known as “parallel” or “walk-with-traffic” pedestrian crossings. In the UK and Ireland, this is achieved on more complex junctions through clever separation of traffic lanes and turning movements, allowing pedestrians to cross while traffic continues to flow.

Crossing in harmony. Image: Rthakrar/Flickr/creative commons.

In continental Europe and cities such as New York, and in other parts of the world, different traffic rules apply, meaning drivers must give way to pedestrians when turning. This makes it easy to implement parallel pedestrian crossings, on even the most basic junctions.

For these junction types, as the pedestrian demands are served at the same time as traffic, in most cases the green man will usually appear regardless of whether the button has been pressed. The only time the button may need to be pushed is during periods of very low traffic volumes, or where the pedestrian crossing – if unused – would inhibit the efficiency of the junction.

At all crossings though, the button only ever needs to be pushed once. Due to the operational rules, pressing it many times or holding it in will not make the green man appear any sooner - even if it may seem that way when you’re in a rush.

To wait or not to wait?

Faced with the prospect of a stand off with the dreaded red man, the impatient pedestrian has a couple of options. Due to the absence of jaywalking laws, many Britons choose simply to cross the road anyway (hopefully only when it is safe to do so). But in places such as Germany, it is the law and the cultural norm to wait for the green man, regardless of traffic - or indeed the lack of it.

With all this waiting around, it is perhaps unsurprising that the ever-pragmatic Germans have come up with a way of killing time, through the installation of push-buttons featuring miniature video games at certain locations.

The ConversationSo the next time you find yourself waiting at a crossing, perhaps rather than fuming at the delay, try to think of ways to make the most of it. But don’t forget to press the button – just in case.

Richard Llewellyn, Lecturer in Transportation Engineering, Edinburgh Napier University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.