Brussels has zebra crossings. Lots and lots of zebra crossings. Could we have more too?

One of the things I found fascinating about Brussels on our recent holiday was – in contrast to Cardiff – how they’ve gone out of their way to make life easy for pedestrians.

Most striking was that there were zebra crossings. Lots and lots of zebra crossings.

Zebra crossings in Brussels

When I first spotted how many there were, I wasn’t totally sure what I was seeing, and actually warned my fellow travellers to watch and observe the locals, just in case the road markings didn’t mean what they mean in Australia. Did vehicles really have to stop for pedestrians at all these locations?

Yes. The stripes mean the same thing (except if there are traffic lights). There are just lots of zebra crossings.

Walking to the Metro in the rain, Brussels

Zebra crossings on main streets, zebra crossings on minor streets, zebra crossings on divided roads with trams in the middle, zebra crossings at intersections and mid-block.

Lots and lots of zebra crossings, and drivers observed them – perhaps because they’re so used to them.

Roundabouts? Not a problem. In Australia, these are virtually the only locations where vehicles in any direction don’t have to give way. Exceptions are rare. The Belgian roundabouts I saw had zebra crossings on all sides:

Brussels street

Two T-junctions so close together that putting zebra crossings on every side would mean three in row? Sure, go ahead. The motorists will survive:

Zebra crossings in Brussels

Generally, motor vehicles had to give way to pedestrians, but pedestrians had to give way to trams.

Zebra and tram crossing in Brussels

How much does having lots of zebra crossings affect traffic? It’s hard to say, but the cars driving around didn’t seem to be unduly held up. When I saw peak hour traffic set in, it was clear that – as anywhere else – the main thing delaying cars was other cars.

Some wider streets had traffic lights with pedestrian crossings. At many of these, you didn’t have to press a “beg” button – there was no button. The green man triggered automatically:

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

This not only tells pedestrians approaching that they don’t have to press a button to cross. It also indicates the authorities have no intention of changing it (and necessitating having a button) any time soon.

This of course is how it should be. If you’re giving the green to vehicles, why wouldn’t you also give the green to pedestrians? (More about this in another rant post soon.)

Note the signalised crossings have the same on-road markings as zebra crossings. I wonder if that helps with compliance? They’re much more obvious than the Australian dashed line markings.

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

At a few spots I saw, buttons were necessary to trigger the green man. These seemed to be reasonably responsive, not making you wait too long:

Pedestrian crossing button in Brussels

In some locations, presumably those that get very busy at times, the crossings were very wide.

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

Along with mostly wide footpaths (at least, wide enough to cope with pedestrian traffic), the design of the crossings left one with the impression that Belgian authorities would prefer you walked than drive.

It’s the sort of thing that some might not even notice, but it left an impression on me. If only Australian authorities were so inspired.

Could we do this in Australia?

Sure. But while some new zebra crossings have popped up over the last few years, they don’t seem to be routinely installed.

This spot outside Gardiner Station clearly should have been a zebra crossing:

This was almost a zebra crossing, but someone messed up. (I shouldn’t have opened my big mouth. It’s now entirely a signalised crossing… which thanks to the beg button, many people ignore):

This is the newish tram stop on Collins Street at William Street. It could have had zebra crossings at the non-intersection end. But someone decided a signalised crossing was a better idea. It’s maddeningly slow to wait for if you’re crossing, and many people just cross whenever there’s a gap in the traffic:

Collins St near William St

I would think there’s also scope to place zebra crossings on side streets at intersections, particularly in suburban shopping centres.

Main road/side street intersection, Bentleigh

The law says a vehicle turning into the street gives way, but convention is often the opposite, with vehicles exiting the street often giving way instead.

And pedestrians sometimes wave stopped motorists on, when the motorist is doing the right thing and giving way. (Do me a favour: if you’re crossing and other people are too, don’t wave the car on. You might not be in any great hurry to get where you’re going, but you don’t speak for everybody else.)

Painting zebra crossings right across the side street would not just encourage walking, it would also help reduce the confusion over who’s meant to give way to whom, in what are typically high traffic (pedestrian and vehicle) areas.

Ditto car park entrances, where motorists entering and exiting are meant to give way to pedestrians.

More zebra crossings are perfectly possible. Here’s what they’ve done in Footscray. It was quiet when I took this photo, but often there are lots of pedestrians around. Somehow, the traffic still gets through:

Zebra crossings in Footscray

Potentially two-lane main roads like Centre Road and McKinnon Road could have zebra crossings too. That would be bringing it up to Belgian standards, and would be in line with the Vicroads Smartroads strategy which says it’s meant to prioritise pedestrians and buses. What would be the effect on traffic? It would be interesting to see it modelled.

Ultimately, if we prefer people walk where possible, more needs to be done to encourage it.

Why is this road rule never enforced?

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know I see a lot of motorists blocking intersections, including pedestrian crossings.

Here’s road regulation 128:

Entering blocked intersections

A driver must not enter an intersection if the driver cannot drive through the intersection because the intersection, or a road beyond the intersection, is blocked.

Penalty: 3 penalty units.

At the time of writing, a penalty unit is $155.46, so this is a fine of $466.

A separate regulation, 59, talks about where vehicles coming to a red light must stop:

(1) If traffic lights at an intersection or marked foot crossing are showing a red traffic light, a driver must not enter the intersection or marked foot crossing.

Penalty: In the case of a natural person, 10 penalty units; In the case of a body corporate, 120 penalty units.

(A similar rule applies to entering the “bicycle storage area”.)

So, the rules are pretty clear.

But it happens all the time in the city centre, and there’s no visible policing of it.

Little Bourke/William Streets - vehicle in violation of Rule 218

Lonsdale/William Streets - vehicle in violation of Rule 218

Latrobe/William Streets - vehicles in violation of Rule 218

Flinders/Elizabeth Streets - vehicles in violation of Rule 218

Spencer Street - vehicle in violation of Rule 218

Lonsdale/William Streets - vehicles in violation of Rule 218

Bourke/William Streets - vehicles in violation of Rule 218

Bourke/Elizabeth Streets - vehicles in violation of Rule 218

Lonsdale/William Streets - vehicles in violation of Rule 218

Of course, in a lot of cases, the errant vehicle(s) will end up blocking other traffic, including private vehicles, freight and public transport.

Lonsdale/William Streets - vehicles in violation of Rule 218

Note: The above instances are all from the last fortnight.

You would think that in the city centre, drivers would be more conscious of not blocking intersections, since the chances of traffic congestion are much higher.

You’d also think that given the huge number of pedestrians (the area is dominated by public transport and pedestrians, far exceeding motorists), authorities would put more care into ensuring that vehicles don’t encroach on pedestrian space, for safety if nothing else.

Nope. No visible enforcement. Not even — as many of these photos are — in the middle of the legal precinct.

In contrast, police “blitzes” on pedestrians are very very common — yesterday morning they were busy doing it in at least two locations in the CBD alone.

Even while police are on the scene practicing traffic direction or watching for jaywalkers, they ignore vehicles blocking crossings.

Along with motorcycles parking in pedestrian spaces, and advertising and vehicles blocking footpaths, this is one of my pet hates. And the common theme is that pedestrian space is being constantly encroached upon, and almost nobody cares.

And how is it that the excesses of people in their metal boxes are condoned, while those walking around on their own two feet are marginalised?

Pedestrians in the car park – often there’s no choice

I sometimes wonder if motorists driving in and out of car parks get irritated by pedestrians walking through.

Often the pedestrians have no choice.

These pictures are from Caulfield Plaza – with the major drawcard inside being the Coles supermarket.

There is obvious pedestrian traffic from the railway station and the university campus to the southern entrance of the Plaza. There are no footpaths on this side, so of course people walk through the car park. There is a pedestrianised entrance from Dandenong Road, and another from Derby Road, but few people are likely to go the long way around.

Caulfield Plaza car park

In my suburb, Bentleigh, despite generally being very walkable, it’s a similar story at the big supermarkets:

  • Safeway Woolworths is on the corner of Jasper and Centre Roads, but provides no pedestrian access at all, so anybody coming on foot has to cut through the car park.
  • Aldi is on Centre Road, inside a bigger building, and has a dedicated pedestrian entrance to the street, as well as a car park around the back.
  • Coles has a well-placed pedestrian entrance from the eastern side, but from the western side there’s only a gap in the car spaces with some bollards (see below), and this is located well away from the desire lines, so nobody uses it.

Coles Bentleigh, pointless pedestrian path

These types of layouts are poor design, for both pedestrians and motorists.

And I guess until it’s fixed we just have to live with it. Motorists need to watch out, and consider that every pedestrian is one less car on the road and taking up car spaces.

And pedestrians need to watch out for inattentive drivers. Often visibility isn’t ideal, especially for cars pulling out of or backing into parking spaces.

I wonder though, is making pedestrians walk through a car park subtly discouraging them from walking? Particularly those who are, or are with, vulnerable walkers such as young children or those with mobility problems.

Would supermarkets and other businesses with their own car parks get more customers if they provided safe convenient paths to their doors?

Are newer car parks and shopping centres any better? How do we get this fixed?

Real estate agent signs – improving but some need more work

I’ve written before about blockages on footpaths: overhanging trees, motorcycles, cars and real estate agent advertising.

There’s at least been some pogress with real estate. It seems some agents, perhaps realising that blocking the footpath is illegal, have got newer, smaller flags.

During my walk on Saturday morning, I spotted these:

Buxton seem to have solved the problem. Their new signs are still visible, but smaller and also higher, meaning people can pass them with no problems.

Buxton real estate advertising sign

Hocking Stuart’s signs need some more work. People still have to walk around them – if they can. Those with prams or pushing mobility aids or riding in wheelchairs will still have problems. Going onto the grass is likely to be difficult. Going under the sign without a hand free to brush it away is also going to be an issue – or at least a complete loss of dignity.

Hodges real estate advertising sign, partially blocking footpath

For the sake of pedestrians, particularly those with mobility issues, I hope Hocking Stuart and other agents will see the light – and that the councils continue to enforce the rules.

Update: Hocking Stuart has said they’re looking into it.