Smarter Cambridge Transport

Who’s afraid of a zebra? Pedestrian-friendly streets just need some paint

I visited Spain recently, not for the first time and not for the last. ¡Ojalá! I enjoyed the warmer weather, fresher food, relaxed lifestyle …and the zebra crossings. Streets with shops have zebra crossings spaced at frequent intervals. Roundabouts have zebra crossings on each arm. Every side road has a zebra crossing at each end. People walk with poise and confidence, and then motorists proceed when clear. It works well.

Spain is a country that the British love to visit — even British traffic engineers occasionally go. But if you suggest importing the idea of having frequent zebra crossings, those very same traffic engineers will insist that it’s impossible. Traffic armageddon! It can’t work here.

It’s very strange. There are many British people driving cars throughout Spain, and when I passed back through the UK Border, nobody was stripped of their ability to give way to pedestrians.

Yet, in British cities I have watched in amazement as pedestrians hop backwards onto the pavement — multiple times in a row — in fear that some motorist might possibly be turning into a side road, maybe.

The problem is that in the UK, traffic engineering follows the law of the jungle: ‘the powerful trample the weak’. A more civilised guiding principle would be: ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. That’s how I was taught when I originally learned to drive: a mishandled car is a lethal weapon, always drive with care.

The Highway Code is already clear on the matter, although sadly, most motorists here are not aware of this. Rules 170 and 206 both instruct motorists to give way to pedestrians who are crossing side roads.

We also need safer infrastructure. Instead of wide junctions that encourage drivers to speed around corners, we need compact and pedestrian-friendly designs — suitable for all ages and abilities. In addition to more crossings on high streets, we can add zebra crossings at side road junctions easily. Manchester is already leading the way on this, under Chris Boardman’s direction, by painting zebra stripes on side road crossings. We can do it in Cambridge too.

This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 23 January 2019.

Matthew Danish

Matthew Danish is a research computer scientist who studies ways of verifying complex software models. In his spare time, he volunteers for various voluntary organisations such as SCT, Camcycle and Camsight, and he advocates for safer, fairer and nicer streets for people. This generally means working towards better walking, cycling and public transport conditions for people of all ages and abilities.


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  • This all sounds very good and interesting, but ….

    The cited rules from the Highway Code do not “instruct motorists to give way to pedestrians who are crossing side roads.” There are two important limitations compared to zebra crossings:

    1. The pedestrian must already have begun to cross the road. In other words, a driver may not make pedestrians jump backwards to safety, but can cross in front of them as they are approaching the curb.
    2. The rules apply specifically to motorists turning into a side road, not coming out of it.

    Neither of these limitations applies to zebra crossings. Motorists have to stop, whether turning into, coming out of or travelling along a road with a zebra crossing, and as soon as a pedestrian approaches with clear intent.

    Therefore, the traffic engineers are right in that an abundance of zebras would inhibit traffic. The debate, however, could and should be whether this would be tolerable (or even desirable!).

    As for Spain, or any other Mediterranean country, as a pedestrian, I would rather cross an open road with no marked pedestrian crossing in front of a British motorist than a side road with a zebra crossing in front of, say, Spanish, Italian or Greek drivers! They tend to view these as deer hunters view a gap in the foliage: a worthwhile target may present itself any moment.

  • Hello,

    I hope you can forgive me that I have skimped on some detail due to a strict 350 word limit on the article. So I will add a bunch more here.

    I do agree that the highway code rules are poorly worded and not really the equivalent of a Zebra. Of course this is mostly moot since it seems very few drivers are even aware of them to begin with. But I do hope that the planned revision of the highway code will take this opportunity to simplify things, clean it up and clarify.

    I should note that Zebra crossings in this country only trigger pedestrian priority when a person actually enters the Zebra. Intent does not suffice. But I do also think that should be changed, like in other places, so that intent is sufficient. For more discussion see this (slightly out-of-date) article:

    I’m not sure what your experience with Spanish drivers is but mine is that I can quite confidently stride out on Zebra crossings of side roads or of main roads and expect drivers to stop (within what is reasonably possible given the laws of physics). I would most certainly not expect a British motorist to stop for me on an open road, and I have plenty of experience with British motorists doing the swerve around me when crossing side roads, even when they are supposed to stop.

    There is a marked difference in attitudes towards pedestrians. The UK seems to hate pedestrians and treats them like unwanted pests that need to be caged with guardrail and staggered routes. When you cross a road in Britain, apart from a few, far-flung crossings, you feel like you are trespassing in a place where you don’t belong. Just look at the ground. At the vast majority of junctions there is not a single marking intended to help pedestrians, and the kerbs are flared so widely that you have to cross twice as much road while drivers go even faster around the corner.

    Whereas in Spain, and much of the rest of the continent, the general goal of planning seems to be to treat people walking with dignity. I will not claim they are always perfect (spoiler: they aren’t), but they definitely try a lot harder than here. They like to walk. Streets will get wide footways (aceras) rather than more traffic lanes. When there is a pedestrian desire line, they put a Zebra crossing. Oftentimes a humped Zebra crossing. And either the traffic engineers don’t whine about inhibiting motor traffic flow, or they don’t listen to the ones that do. And you know what? It works well, both for pedestrians and for motor traffic. A lot of the fears that British traffic engineers have are just completely unfounded. They need to get out of their bubble more and see the world, and realise that things can be done better. (Sorry, I am being slightly unfair here because I do know a bunch of good engineers now who ‘get it’, and that number is increasing over time…but there is plenty more to go).

    Ideally we would build up more junctions with properly continuous footways (see however that will take a long time to do. In the meantime, striping Zebras as Manchester is starting to do, and as much of continental Europe does (as well as the walking-friendly parts of North America), is the cheap and cheerful way to get it done.