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.” 


Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.