Long read: Minister Eamon Ryan’s Department of Transport is looking at whether it will give legal backing to a new design proposed by the National Transport Authority which will combine zebra crossing and traffic light crossing for cycle paths.
The special traffic lights are to be used where cycle paths are located between bus stops and footpaths — a type of design which is often called an “island” or “floating” bus stop.
A set of questions answered in mid-August after months of asking, the Department of Transport said it is still considering the traffic light issue, and that any solution needs to be “understandable and safe”.
The NTA described the planned traffic light as “a single signal head mounted on a mini-pole” which is “complete with a push button request and an audible tone generator”. The authority said that the new bicycle traffic light “contains both amber and red icons within the singular unit” and one is needed on both sides of the cycle track so that push-buttons can be used.
The design — pictured above — is contained in the new Cycle Design Manual published this month by the NTA. The manual includes the following note: “Some newer features will require amendments to legislation which is underway. Designers should check with the NTA prior to installing any of the new features as it is expected to take 18 to 24 months from release date to have all legislative changes in place.”
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The design includes zebra crossing markings to give priority to users who do not use the push buttons, but, currently in Ireland — as well as the UK — zebra markings must not be used on crossings which are signalised with traffic lights and push-button crossings. The two crossing types are supposed to be like oil and water.
The combination of the two types of crossings, which would create a totally new type of crossing, would likely cause confusion for many users. So, it’s unclear how mixing a zebra crossing with a signalised crossing or how using a single-aspect traffic light could be considered in line with universal access.
When writing about ‘island’ bus stops in 2021, UK-based transport engineer Mark Philpotts, warned: “As a designer and someone interested in all of this, it is sometimes difficult to separate genuine concerns from the other, specially where people are using genuine concerns as a front for their culture war. All I would say is people should look very carefully at some of those who cluster around these causes because they do not have your interests at heart.”
He added: “It’s a difficult and emotive subject, but with the Guys’ & St Thomas’ site”, where there was large-scale controversy, “the scheme was built as you can see in the photograph above and as far as I am aware, the noise moved onto the next scheme that people wanted to derail. In fact, the hospital’s charitable trust [which had objected] is now helping fund low-traffic neighbourhoods in the local area.”
Meanwhile, the efforts to weaponise sustainable transport as part of the ‘cultural war’ have gone into hyper-drive mode with conspiracy theories around low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) in the UK attracting international attention.
One of the main disability campaigners in Ireland who has most rallied against cycle paths at bus stops also regularly retweets UK-based accounts that are anti-LTN, anti-Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ), and just plain old anti-cycle path.
Videos of “island” bus stops from London, which are usually highly edited, have been used as a scaremongering tool in Ireland. Most examples, as well as being highly edited, highlight clips of issues unrelated to the cycle path ‘bypass’ of the bus stops, including passenger rickshaws which mainly carry tourists being cycled on footpaths.
The reality of most cycle paths and bus stops — which are widely used in Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands and elsewhere — is that most of the time, bus passengers and cyclists are not present at the same time.
A Transport Research Laboratory research for Transport for London found that 90% of the time, there were no pedestrian and cyclist interactions at all.
When there was some sort of interaction, the report said “A large majority of interactions between cyclists and pedestrians were of a low level, both with the uncontrolled crossing (92%) and with the zebra crossing (96%)” — this brings the conclusion that painting zebra markings on raised crossings is helpful to show pedestrian priority and reduce conflicts.
The 2018 report is based on an analysis of a week’s worth of footage from six sites across London. The authors said: “Factors judged to be important in higher level interactions with cyclists were pedestrian inattentiveness, local features that constrained pedestrian movements or reduced inter-visibility, crowding and lack of space for manoeuvring.”
The issue of “lack of space for manoeuvring” is in keeping with the view by cycling experts in London that bus stop/cycle path design where there is a narrowing of cycle paths causes more conflicts. Yet this is the approach being taken by the NTA, see the video showing the BusConnects project at Liffey Valley below.
With the London report, the authors said: “There was a small but significant increase in the proportion of cyclists giving way at the crossing, from 33% (uncontrolled crossing) to 40% (zebra crossing); however there was also an increase in the proportion of pedestrians that gave way, from 45% to 53% respectively, these increases largely coming from reduction in the ‘both gave way’ category.”
The presence of the zebra crossing also encouraged more bus users to use the designated crossing — with uncontrolled crossings, 39% were crossing on or within 1 metre of the crossing point, while that increased to 53% with zebra crossings.
As part of a detailed response for this article, a spokesperson for the National Transport Authority (NTA) said: “In a perfect world, there would be no need to supplement zebra markings with other measures. But we don’t live in a perfect world and visually impaired people along with people with other disabilities have a genuine concern about their safety in crossing busy cycle tracks where they cannot be sure that cyclists will stop, or have stopped.”
The NTA said that this is “for use in cases where extra measures are required” but Dublin City Council has plans to use the traffic lights at all of the stops along the Clontarf to City Centre route which is under construction.
While some bus stops have been constructed with no obvious traffic lights, the ducting and traffic light ‘retention sockets’ are in place which means that traffic light poles can be installed without digging up the road again. This is also the case with a number of projects in the South Dublin County Council area, including at bus stops without traffic lights at the BusConnects project at Liffey Valley.
On the Clontarf route, there are two crossings being built across cycle tracks at most bus stops, which means there will be four traffic light poles across cycle tracks behind most bus stops along the route when council officials say there’s a lack of funds for crossings at some of the busiest roads in the city centre. The city council also has plans to use the design on an extension of the S2S Dublin Bay cycle route into East Wall Road.
The NTA also referred to “additional measures” — these include red flashing LED lights embedded into the ground at Luas tram crossing in Dublin where motorists have regularly run into trams.
Such warning lights are not used on a single stand-alone pedestrian crossing, even not at junctions where motorists are notorious for running red lights. Even where the lights are embedded into the ground at Luas tracks, the lights are located after the point where motorists and cyclists cross the pedestrian crossings.
Asked in February if the Department of Transport has provided any legal advice or other guidance regarding the traffic lights across cycle tracks, a spokesperson said in the same month referred to all of the existing law that governs traffic lights
The Department spokesperson added: “Both the Regulations and the Traffic Signs Manual are currently being consolidated and revised to address a range of matters including pedestrian and cycle crossings. In addition, Action 56 of the Road Safety Strategy seeks for a review of cycle and pedestrian facilities at Junctions, including measures that do not require powered traffic signals.”
When asked a series of follow-up questions in June on possible legal changes, the Department, towards the end of July, said: “We understand that our colleagues in the NTA have recently responded to you regarding the questions below.”
This website replied that it was seeking a response from the Department on questions only the Department can answer on its intentions and views.
One of these questions was if the Department has or is considering any legal or guidance changes for signalised crossing details. In a response in mid-August, a Department spokesperson said: “This is a very broad question. The department is considering a range of potential solutions for crossings / signalised crossings that can be implemented for a range of scenarios. This is particularly so having regard to modern needs, the range of users and legal obligations.”
The second question was if the Department has any view on combining zebra crossing markings and push-button signalised crossing and if this combination is not a confusing combination.
A Department spokesperson said: “This option is being looked at, however any approved approach will need to be understandable and safe.”
IrishCycle.com also asked if the Department had seen any of the international expert opinions that the NTA were given about the issue of traffic lights over cycle paths or if the Department looked at Transport for London evidence that cycle paths at bus stops are safe.
A spokesperson said: “Any solutions will be based on international research and safe practice including TfL research, having regard to the needs of all users and legal obligations.”
Asked if there was any evidence that signalised crossings over cycle paths would be safer than, for example, a raised zebra crossing, a Department spokesperson said: “Like any crossing type, signalised crossings need to be deployed in the correct circumstances to ensure they are optimised for use and safety, having regard to the need for the particular circumstances.”
Councillors in a number of councils across the country complain that they cannot get funding for pedestrian crossings across busy main roads. It’s in this context that IrishCycle.com asked the Department: Have cost estimates been done on the rollout of signalised crossings on cycle paths at bus stops?
A Department spokesperson said: “The issue of costings are being considered to ensure best value for money. However, any solution needs to be optimised for use and safety having regard to all users and the need to meet legal obligations.”
This website’s final question to the department was: How can it be justified on the one hand running a trial to allow zebra crossings without beacons across carriageways with everything from bicycles to trucks, but then to enable the over-the-top design of signalised crossings at bus stops?
A Department of Transport spokesperson said: “It is important to have a range of solutions available for use to ensure that the correct solution is implemented in the correct circumstances having regard to all users. Wherever possible the simplest solution should be adopted while ensuring safety. This also ensures value for money.”
At the end of June, IrishCycle asked the National Transport Authority (NTA) questions on the push-button signalised crossing across a cycle path at bus stops.
The questions were similar to what was asked of the Department including if the combination of crossing types was a confusing combination, if there was any evidence that the combination crossings would be safer than a raised zebra crossing alone.
The cost difference was also questioned and the issue of trialling zebra crossings without beacons across carriageways with everything from bicycles to trucks but using push-buttons across cycle tracks.
In a detailed response, the NTA said: “The zebra crossing markings at a particular cycle track crossing establishes pedestrian priority at the crossing – a cyclist is required to yield the right of way to any pedestrian who has commenced crossing the cycle track at that location. However, the disabled community, and particularly the visually impaired, do not consider that the provision of zebra crossings on their own are sufficient. While visually impaired persons do use zebra crossings to cross general traffic roads, the position in regard to cycle track crossing does differ.”
The NTA said that on roads, blind persons and people with partial vision are “able to hear motorised vehicles slowing down and stopping” but “in the case of a cycle track at the rear of a bus island, visually impaired persons cannot hear cyclists slowing or stopping, particularly over the noise of the traffic on the road lanes.”
“They are not able to obtain the same security and confidence that they can on a general road crossing,” the NTA said. However, it’s not clear why the NTA thinks that there will be no cyclists using zebra crossings on roads without cycle tracks.
The response from the NTA said: “The addition of a request activated signal arrangement to the crossing provides extra measures that significantly assist visually impaired users. The activation of the stop signal provides a reinforcement of the requirement for a cyclist to stop, giving extra assurance to the visually impaired person that it is safe to cross. The use of an audible tone while the red stop signal is operational, also provides additional security to the visually impaired pedestrian, increasing confidence that they have the necessary priority to cross safely.”
However, disability campaigners have expressed doubt that cyclists will stop for the planned single-aspect red lights and no evidence has been provided of the effectiveness of such measures.