Crossing absurdities

Why do some pedestrian lights go so dangerously dark between red and green lights? Hugh Pearman calls for a complete rethink of the pelican crossing

I’m standing at the pelican crossing. Or I’m stopped at the red light there on my bike, or in a car. And I’m watching the painful pantomime of light-controlled people movement and thinking, as always – who devised this bizarre system?

The traffic stops and then, after a long pause, the pedestrian green light comes on. After that, as we all know, the weirdness starts.

They vary minutely, but most go like this, in stately slow-motion. Green-person light vanishes, but red-person light does not appear. Instead, there is a long, long pause when no little lit-up people are to be seen at all. But the traffic is still stopped. This is the danger time, and there’s plenty of it. As the seconds tick by, people walk up, gaze confusedly around, have no idea where in the cycle they are, and start off across the road. This will be the moment when red-person light decides to emerge from hibernation. But the traffic remains halted a few more seconds, during which more people walk up and – used to these enormous time delays – decide to chance it. Now is when the pent-up traffic is released, and the hapless pedestrians have to run for their lives or become roadkill.

Plainly, it’s stupid, time-wasting and hazardous. But someone, somewhere, presumably once thought this was a classy system. He or she – I suspect a he – must then have managed to convince the myriad of panels, boards, committees and interest groups involved in road safety and traffic management that he’d cracked it. That everyone would be admirably served if pedestrian lights turned themselves off completely at a key point in the cycle. Rather than, say, having another phase – flashing symbols, perhaps – so people know to get a move on, or wait. Presumably nobody said – hang on you fool, just imagine if you applied that thinking to normal traffic lights. In which case, you’d ditch the amber phase, turn the red and green right off for several seconds at regular intervals and see what happened. But we know what would happen/ chaos, carnage.

Now I’m one of those who is sceptical about traffic lights. As with roundabouts, there are too many unnecessary ones. We’ve all noticed how, during power cuts, everyone seems to manage just fine. This just proves an old truth: no control system at all is better than a rubbish one. That doesn’t mean we don’t need good systems in the right places. Anyway, have you noticed that the things are getting even stupider? The latest pelican crossings don’t have their warning lights in your line of vision at all. They are placed, very small, next to the placebo button you press. To see them when you’re standing waiting to cross, you have to twist sideways. If anyone else is standing next to you, you won’t see them even then. What cretin designed that poxy set-up? I suspect a value-engineer, who spotted a way to save one circuit, hence some money.

We need today’s equivalent of David Mellor. Best-known for his superb cutlery, Mellor, as an all-round designer, also designed the nation’s traffic-light system back in the days when the people involved brought intellect to their task. So/ how to get back to that golden age? I favour a national design competition to find us all a better – and faster – way to cross the road. Pedestrians need good design as much as anyone else. Oh, and it wouldn’t half help to get cars around more efficiently, too.

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