In Manchester, walking tsar Chris Boardman is trying to rethink the zebra crossing

A zebra crossing famous from some album cover or another. Image: Getty.

Walk an hour in any direction across Paris and, no matter how many roads you cross, you’ll rarely pause for long. You’re safe to step out ahead of turning traffic at junctions and side roads because of one simple thing: those on foot have priority. Try that in any UK city and you’re taking your life in your hands. Please don’t try it. As the UK has among the longest pedestrian wait times in the world, you’ll also cover markedly less tarmac. 

What delicious pedestrian-friendly sauce have the French, and countless other nations around the world, poured on their streets, you ask? They simply take one pot of white paint, laws that prioritise walking in more than word, paint broad horizontal stripes on the asphalt at the entrance of side roads, and hey presto. 

The trouble is, those white stripes, although widely recognised, are illegal in the UK without accompanying white zig zag lines, and a flashing yellow light on a stripy pole, known as Belisha Beacons – costing £30,000-£40,000 each, compared with £300-400 each for just the paint. Multiply those costs by an entire city, or indeed a nation looking to increase walking rates, and you’ve soon eaten up an entire active travel budget.

The team behind Manchester’s ambitious 1800-mile, £1bn walking and cycling Bee Network embarked on a mission, eight months ago, to change this – because their entire pedestrian programme hinges on it. 

This was after the Department for Transport (DfT) told Manchester it couldn’t use the zebras alone without rigorous testing; and that the government wouldn’t fund the research needed to satisfy civil servants, after which Manchester coughed up the £250,000 itself. 

Step forward the Transport Research Laboratory, a high-tech bunker (it’s an office building) just outside of Bracknell. This is the organisation that brought you research on intelligent speed assistance, bus stop bypasses and safer HGV cabs. For this mission, it will test the stripes using, among other things, driver simulation computer programmes and digital flash cards. 

In the eight months since the DfT told Greater Manchester “no” on zebras, what has happened? Initial results from the TRL are positive: people recognised the non-standard zebra stripes 94 per cent of the time, against the next highest contender, painted footprints, at 66 per cent. A TRL review of the 100-odd non-standard zebras that have sneaked their way into supermarket and hospital car parks across the country illegally, indicate they are safe, too. 

Last month, Greater Manchester’s walking and cycling commissioner, Chris Boardman, his advisors, national and local government representatives and commissioners visited the TRL to check progress. It didn’t escape attendees’ sense of irony there’s a Belisha-less zebra crossing smack bang outside the TRL’s front door, one of more than 100 such anomalies across the UK operating in a grey area of legislation. 

Describing himself as an “impatient person”, accustomed to working in the cutting edge of the professional cycling world where innovation “is only limited by our imaginations”, Boardman is chomping at the bit for change. For him it’s an equity issue. He puts it bluntly: it shouldn’t require bravery to cross a road. Ambiguous Highway Code rules mean it often does, though. 

As Boardman told the Times: “The law is this: that when you put a foot on the carriageway, you have the right of way. But people don’t do it, because there is no point being in the right, while at the same time being in hospital after getting run over.”

A report, sent to government last year, and signed by Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, sums it up: “Crossing side road junctions in the UK is stressful.  There is an assumption that turning traffic will not give way and will rarely indicate so people must either grit their teeth and accept whatever fate brings them, or move away from their desire line to a distance where they feel they could react quickly enough to avoid an approaching car. This issue is exacerbated for those with disabilities and those with small children.”

Brian Deegan, Boardman’s technical advisor, thinks the city could reduce collisions at side roads by 20 per cent with the zebras, based on London research conducted more than a decade ago, and on his own experiments. A maverick of transport planning, when Manchester installed temporary paint zebras at side roads, Deegan spent a couple of hours stepping out in front of drivers without looking. 

Thankfully all of them gave way. By contrast, attempting the same at regular side roads, where drivers should still have given way, or at least slowed down, he found himself having to run out of the way of various vehicles, including a hurtling HGV driver. 

Deegan says the current confusing wording of the Highway Code around giving way to pedestrians leaves “just enough of a grey area for people to get away with murder”. 

Zebra crossings, meanwhile, give “as close to strict liability as we have ever got [in the UK]: if you hit someone on a zebra you are assumed to be at fault. When it comes to pedestrians paint comes a long way,” he says. “Zebras are the most recognisable road marking on the planet, and they’re cheap.

“With them, we could have a walking network for everybody, but we need that change before we can open up even part of the network.” 

The other way Brits make crossing side roads safer, side raised entry treatments: tightening corners and raising the road to pavement level to slow turning traffic down, cost £40,000 to £150,000 a pop. After which, turning drivers still don’t generally give way. 

In London in 2008, around a third of the London Cycle Network Plus project, £1.5m, was spent on just 79 side road treatments. Across the 20,000 side streets Manchester planners have in their sights, the change could save hundreds of million pounds. 

Boardman accepts the processes in place “stop us doing stupid stuff” on the roads. “Checks and balances are in place for a reason, and we have to be led by evidence.” 

If the evidence shows they aren’t working, he says, he’ll drop it. While the full results won’t emerge until this summer, the issue has the attention of Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who mentioned protecting pedestrians at side roads in a speech to Parliament last month.

Boardman notes that, to get people out of their cars, something needs to change. Half of daily trips in Greater Manchester are less than 2km, and 62 per cent of those trips are made by car. 

“We make decisions that aren’t necessarily good for us in the long term,” he says. “People want to do the easiest thing. And we ignore that at our peril.” 


To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.

Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.