Thursday, October 02, 2008

Pedestrian lights or Waiting for Godot?

This afternoon I received an email from my uni administration informing all staff and students of an accident that had occurred on Herring Rd between the Macquarie Centre and the Uni campus. The email then warned us not to disobey the crossing lights for our own safety. I knew the intersection well and had seen the large number of students run the gauntlet illegally. Strangely, I received this email at the exactly the same time I was reading Vanderbilt's chapter on "Why New Yorkers Jaywalk (and Why They Don't in Copenhagen)". In one study, it was found in London only 25% of pedestrians waited at the lights while in Copenhagen, jaywalking was virtually non-existent. Vanderbilt originally thought that this must be because of some cultural factor such as the social egalitarian laws known as the Jantelagen. However, when he interviewed Jan Gehl he received a very different explanation.
When I offered these theories to the celebrated urban planner Jan Gehl as we sat in his office in Copenhagen, he brushed them aside and countered with his rival theory: "I think the whole philosophy of the city means you have good-quality sidewalks and frequent intersections. You know you only have to wait for a short while and then it gets green." By contrast, his firm had recently completed a study on London. "We found it was completely complicated to get across any street. We found that only twenty-five percent of the people actually did what the traffic planners suggested to do", he said. The more you make things difficult for pedestrians, Gehl argued, the more you downgrade their status in the traffic system, "the more they start to take the law into their own hands." ...
There is an iron law in traffic engineering. The longer pedestrians have to wait to cross for a signal to cross, the more likely they are to cross against the signal. The jaywaying tipping point seems to be about thirty seconds. (p225)
Such observations felt true with my own observations of Copenhagen. One of the most strong memories I have is of the pedestrian crossings and how they counted down the seconds so you would know exactly how long you had to wait until you cross. Knowing the time would offset any Beckettian anxiety about being stuck waiting. I did a little google search on Sydney's pedestrian crossing times and found that several people including Jan Gehl had made similar comments in this article.

The chairman of the Pedestrian Council of Australia, Harold Scruby, said: "If you did a trial you would start to see [that pedestrians would wait] 90 seconds and have 15 seconds to get across."

The Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, wants the State Government to allow timers in the city and stepped up her campaign this year after several accidents involving vehicles and pedestrians next to the Town Hall.

The visiting town planner Jan Gehl, a Danish architect, has been studying Sydney's pedestrians since May and says that it takes too long to walk across town.

In his home town of Copenhagen pedestrian lights count in red numerals the time before the lights turn green, then green numerals show how long the lights will stay green. The ideal car and pedestrian waiting times was 45 seconds each, Professor Gehl said.

A spokeswoman for the Roads and Traffic Authority said: "The maximum pedestrian waiting time at an inner CBD intersection is currently less than two minutes.
I'd never really thought of the significance of pedestrian lights until today, but then again if you think about it, waiting for a period of up to 90 seconds multiplied by walking 10 blocks of the city could be the equivalent of an extra 15 mins over a fairly short distance. Similarly, when you cannot cross a road but are forced to move towards an overhead pedestrian crossing, its not hard to see who's mobility is being given priority within the urban landscape. The absurdity of the contemporary situation has been perfectly captured in a picture by vished on Sydney Cyclist today.

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