COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan has this morning announced a “pilot scheme for the provision of zebra crossings without the flashing orange Belisha beacon lights”, and this has been welcomed by sustainable transport campaigners, but is that trial even needed?
The evidence and experience seem to suggest the pilot seems should have been skipped. And — more importantly — still should and can be.
First of all, there are actually two trials relating to zebra crossings. The National Transport Authority is conducting the one with continental-style signs instead of beacons as announced today, and Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) is conducting a trial with just zebra markings. The TII trial has already started.
But why are new crossings needed to study anything related to zebra crossings? There are already ample examples of zebras on different streets and roads. It’s unclear why pilots or trials are needed.
Thanks to IrishCycle readers we have now mapped nearly 600 zebra crossings with Belisha beacons in Ireland and we have mapped nearly 100 zebra crossings without beacons on publicly accessible streets and roads (mainly on roads and streets and not within car parks).
The trial announced by Minister Ryan includes a timeline of “approximately nine months” and after that “final analysis” and, highly likely, more delay.
In Dun Laoghaire, it includes Marine Road, Monkstown Crescent, and Pavilion Car Park Access. And in Limerick two within St Pauls School Zone scheme in Dooradoyle (on St Nessan’s Park and Carrig Drive), School Road in Lisnagry, and Railway Road in Castleconnell.
The Department said the trial will include the following signs: “A 450mm sign to be used in locations with traffic speeds less than 30 km/h; and a 600mm sign which includes a fluorescent yellow border to be used in locations with traffic speeds greater than 30 km/h and less than 50km/h.”
But just as one example of crossings without beacons: Clifden in Co Galway already has 11 zebra crossings without beacons operating since at least 2019, a mix of raised and non-raised crossings.
At St Vincent’s Hospital, there’s a road — not a council-run road, but still a public road and also a through road — which has two zebra crossings without beacons on the main carriageway and seven more along the mouths of sideroads on the road. It also has a number of such zebras off this main road.
On the other side of the city, St James Hospital has 10 zebra crossings without beacons, mainly on busy enough access routes. Both hospital campuses have crossings with and without beacons in very similar contexts and this might be confusing to motorists.
The question of whether we should be using beacons or signs is a bit of a distraction from (1) A rapid rollout of zebra crossing at a time when there’s an underspend in active travel funding, (2) education and enforcement to back such up, and (3) better guidance, including the importance of using or not using raised zebra crossings which are more costly but more effective, and avoiding having a mix where there are beacons on some crossings and none at other locations beside these
The Department of Transport said today that “By dropping the need for these expensive lights in secondary legislation and replacing them with a reflective sign instead, road authorities could quickly and easily increase the number of safe crossing points for pedestrians and active travel use, particularly where speed limits are 50km/h or less.”
There is a cost associated with beacons but on main roads — where zebras are commonly used outside Dublin and Cork — some form of beacons and lighting will be still needed. The fact is that even with beacons zebra crossings are much cheaper than fully signalised crossings, which can cost twice as much.
On this, the Department said: “While the move wouldn’t fully eliminate the use of Belisha beacons, the pilot will provide the information needed to inform a decision to omit or replace them with a fixed sign, in certain situations.”
That’s understandable given that even in some countries where Belishas are not used, some kind of flashing light is used when zebra crossings are installed in trickier locations. If the trial mainly seems to be for zebras in low-traffic or low-speed areas, it’s all the more reason it should be skipped and progress is made on what has already been proven to be a safety measure, especially raised zebra crossings..
But it will need to be made clear in communications campaigns to motorists that they must yield in all the different versions of zebras.
It added: “Research has already been carried out to assess the impact of such a move, and how any potential risk to vulnerable road users can be reduced. It has also informed the criteria needed to identify pilot locations and has taken into account the experience of other European Countries, where Belisha beacons are not commonly used.”
But, why not or existing examples and international research to inform rapid leadership? For example, Greater Manchester said its evidence shows that zebra markings on side roads lead to drivers giving way 65% more than where there is no marking.
If Minister Eamon Ryan is telling councils he wants quick action on active travel, he has to be willing to show how his Department is going to lead with a sense of urgency in providing for the framework of legal and guideline changes which are needed to enable walking and cycling.
If we have to trial or pilot everything, progress will take a long time.
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