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.

What I learnt about UK rail fares

My blog posts from our Britain and Belgium trip continue, but it wouldn’t be one of my holidays if I didn’t geek out on transport-related stuff.

So here’s a post on the vagaries of rail fares in Britain… or at least, what you need to know as a tourist.

Buying rail tickets at home in Victoria is easy. For most trips you don’t even buy a separate ticket, you just use a Myki card for any trip in Melbourne and as far out as the “commuter belt” cities of Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Seymour and Traralgon, and local buses and trams are included in the price.

Further afield you book a ticket with V/Line. There are some exceptions: a fare on the XPT has to be bought from NSW Trainlink, though V/Line can sell you a ticket on Great Southern Rail’s Overland for a trip within Victoria. For most of the longer trips, there’s peak and off-peak, that’s it. First Class applies on some trips, as a simple surcharge on top of the regular fare.

Britain: a bigger, more complex network

As we found during our holiday, the UK has a lot more rail operators, and a lot more ticket types.

But then, it is a much more complex and extensive network. The UK rail system is made up of dozens of operators right across the country, branded collectively as National Rail, and using the old British Rail logo, first devised in 1965.

(Urban rail systems such as London Underground and others are separate, though there is some fare integration, as some of the National Rail services double as commuter/local lines within London and other cities.)

Salisbury station - next train to...

Shared infrastructure

The many operators share tracks in many cases, as well as stations – each station has a single operator managing it on behalf of the various operators serving it.

They also share a common ticketing system (with distinctive orange tickets with magnetic stripes), and fare gates, which are installed at most stations of any significant size. (If the Brits were running V/Line, they’d have fare gates installed at all the busiest regional stations.)

The fares are a bit confusing at first.

I studied the options, as I’d shelled out for not-very-cheap airfares. (Australian school holidays + European summer = A$2500 each Melbourne to London and return, and this is unintentionally turning into a big-spending year. So I was feeling pretty budget-conscious.)

Fare pricing is set by the individual operators, and initially it seems a bit like airline pricing, though in fact it’s not quite as complicated.

On routes run by multiple operators, the main one (“the lead operator“) sets the prices, which then applies to all other trains on the same route.

Night Riviera train at Paddington Station

Britrail passes

Overseas tourists visiting Britain can get Britrail passes, covering various areas or the whole country.

There are also various other passes available to locals and visitors alike.

The passes are not cheap though, and I worked out that based on our plans, we wouldn’t save any money (and it might be more expensive) over buying individual tickets, provided most of our trips were off-peak.

Three types of tickets

The marvellous Seat61 website has a lot of detail, but it comes down to three basic types of fares:

Anytime – in other words, including peak times. Very expensive in some cases. Some commuter routes get so busy that they’ll charge through the nose to try and convince you to catch other services. (Regular commuters tend to buy season tickets covering these trips.)

Off-peak – pretty self-explanatory. Flexible in terms of which train you can catch, provided it’s outside peak times. (Some operators have another tier called Super Off-peak, which is any train at specific times. As we found out, on some routes, this doesn’t automatically mean the trains aren’t busy.)

Advance – bought before the day of travel. Discounted, but inflexible, as you’re tied to a specific train (which also means a specific operator), and you can’t get a refund or even change it after you’ve booked. Not necessarily available for all trains – unlike the other types of fare, it’s up to the individual operator to decide how many tickets to make available, and at what price.

Some routes offer first class seating, for which you’ll obviously pay a higher fare. We didn’t opt for this. Standard Class was pretty good. The only exception was a couple of trains that were very crowded, but they were shorter trains that didn’t have first class seats anyway.

Example pricing from Taunton to Penzance:

  • Anytime single £70.50
  • Off-peak single £47.30
  • Open (off-peak) return £59.10
  • Advance single £19.50 to £31.70, depending on the train
  • First Class anytime single £163.00

For most journeys during our holiday, it made no sense to buy Advance tickets. In most cases we knew where we’d want to be going, and which day, but I didn’t want us to be tied to a specific train. That’s a path to a no-fun holiday, especially remembering that most trains on the lines we were using are every half-hour, or even more frequent. “No, we can’t catch that one. We have to sit here for another 30 minutes until our train comes.”

Packed train at Bath

The only exception, where booking in advance and reserving a spot was useful for us, was the sleeper train from Penzance to London – because we knew which night we were catching it, and there was only one train to choose from, and it guaranteed a berth.

(We also booked in advance for Eurostar, but that’s a different kettle of fish entirely, more like booking airline tickets.)

So, did avoiding Advance tickets mean we missed out on the cheapest fares? Actually, mostly not. Because we were travelling always in a group of four, and almost all our trips were on Great Western Railway, we were able to make use of GWR’s GroupSave discount… not all operators have it, but on those that do, for groups of 3-9 people, it reduces prices by a third, bringing normal Off-Peak fares down to about the same price as Advance fares.

Train ticket from Cardiff to Bath, and a water bottle from home

Single vs Return

Return tickets (including “open return”, where you come back on a different day) are usually only a bit more expensive than a single fare. The return trip isn’t tied to a specific train, though it may exclude peak times.

For our trip it was almost all single fares, but it’s useful if you’re doing some backtracking.

Multi-operator trips

While all train operators sell tickets for all the other operators, and they share ticketing infrastructure so that for instance all tickets work in all fare gates, the fares themselves are often not integrated.

If your journey includes two “lead” operators, it appears you’ll pay the cost of the two individual legs, simply added together. This makes it more expensive than if both legs were on one operator. As with local buses, I would expect this is a disincentive to use the trains for some trips.

Speaking of buses, there is some fare integration, with a scheme called PlusBus which gets you a discounted local bus pass with your train ticket. For trips to London you can also get a discounted London Travelcard. Both of these only apply on the same day as your train trip.

Trains at Paddington Station

How to buy

Buying fares online is possible, and you can then collect the tickets at a vending machine – a good option for tourists. One limitation of this is won’t let you buy online less than an hour before the train is due.

All the train operator web sites will sell you a ticket, including for any other operator. There are other web sites that have extra smarts for looking for cheap deals, but some of them also add small surcharges.

You can also buy tickets at the vending machines of course. A downside of this is that most of the machines can’t handle the GroupSave deal.

So in most cases I ended up buying tickets just before travel, from the booking office – which is something you’d think they’d want to discourage, but for us it was the easiest way. (To be fair, they’re upgrading the vending machines to handle GroupSave.)

To their credit, the operators of the stations involved always seemed to have plenty of staff in the booking offices. I never waited more than a couple of minutes, and the people on duty were all very helpful – and knew about the GroupSave discount, even at Cardiff Station which is run by a different Train Operating Company (Arriva) than the one we were booking for (GWR), though Arriva have a similar deal with a different name (Small Group Day Ticket).

One side effect of GroupSave only being valid on certain operators: in some cases you can only catch a train run by that operator. We did a trip from Bath to Taunton (via Bristol Temple Meads). The discount was only valid on GWR trains, not other trains on that route run by CrossCountry.

Salisbury station

A to B, B to C

Still reading? Okay. Finally, here’s a neat moneysaver.

Seat61 notes that in some cases it’s cheaper to buy two tickets for a single trip. It’s a quirk of the pricing system.

In most cases I didn’t look into this option, but I did check for one trip from Taunton to Penzance, which involved changing trains along the way at either Par or Exeter St David’s. It turned out to be quite a bit cheaper to buy separate tickets for each leg of the trip.

This we did by exiting the station at Exeter, buying fresh tickets and then going back in again. But if you have bought the tickets in advance, there’s no need to even do that. In fact you don’t even need to hop off the train; you just need to be on a train that stops at the relevant station.

Apart from buying the second lot of tickets, we were also able to use the 20ish minutes at Exeter to buy some lunch, though we didn’t venture out of the station as it was pouring with rain at the time.

How much did we save?

  • Taunton to Penzance is £31.20 each, if you include the GroupSave discount (change at Par or Exeter St David’s. Some combinations of trains were up to £47.30 each)
  • Taunton to Exeter St David’s £7.75 each + Exeter St David’s to Penzance £13.85 each = total £21.60 (includes the GroupSave discount)

So in our case, booking the full trip for the four of us would have been £124.80 total including GroupSave. Buying it in two parts ended up costing us £86.40 total. A saving of £38.40, or about A$62, about 30% of the fare. And we got to step outside the station gates and buy sandwiches, which I believe we technically couldn’t have done if making the trip on one ticket.

Worth our while.

Cardiff station sign

Would we want this complexity here?

You can see some advantages to the British way of doing things. Cheap advance discount fares encourages patronage and gives the operators some certainty over who will turn up. GroupSave and other discount schemes make it more affordable for groups to use public transport.

But it is quite complicated for passengers to understand. And return tickets only being slightly more expensive than singles, well that’s a bit odd given it costs a rail company twice as much to carry you on two trips.

And UK pricing is completely illogical in some cases — in part thanks to the myriad of operators all applying their own commercial decisions to their pricing.

We’ve got our quirks too of course, but the key is keeping it simple for passengers, and ensuring that there’s a good return to operators (and government) as extra services are added, to encourage further investment.

Crossing the street in Cardiff is an exercise in frustration

I wanted to reflect on something from our recent visit to Cardiff.

Some of central Cardiff is pedestrianised, which is great. Many other areas have nice wide footpaths.

It would be near-perfect for walking… if at most intersections the traffic lights weren’t designed to be so pedestrian hostile.

It’s as if the traffic engineers either hate pedestrians, or have done everything they can to theoretically prevent car and pedestrian accidents.

But in the process they’ve created an environment where people have to wait for so long to cross the street that jaywalking is widespread.

Cardiff staggered pedestrian crossing

Beg button x 2

What’s the only thing worse than waiting for a traffic light to cross the street? Waiting for two traffic lights to cross the street!

In Cardiff, many intersections have traffic islands, and the pedestrian crossings have all been designed to be staggered, with the lights programmed to give a green man at different times.

Rule 28 of the UK Highway Code says:

When the crossings on each side of the central refuge are not in line they are two separate crossings. On reaching the central island, press the button again and wait for a steady green figure.

The proliferation of this design in Cardiff means that at most spots as you cross the street, provided you obey the green/red man, you have to wait twice, and the way these are implemented, the wait is often for an extended period of time — even when there’s no traffic coming.

I suspect it’s used to minimise accidents caused by inattentive drivers:

  • For instance at a three-way (T) junction, you might have a three part cycle with each road having equal green time.
  • Then you fit the pedestrian cycles around it: on any one of the three roads, two-thirds of the time, people can cross in front of the stopped cars.
  • Only when those cars get a green can you cross the rest of that road. So you’ll never make it across the entire road in one go.

They’ve set up similar programming at many four way intersections.

Yes, it theoretically cuts vehicle conflicts with other vehicles and pedestrians, and probably maximises vehicle throughput where there are a lot of turning vehicles.

But should that be the top priority in a dense city centre?


Pic from Google Streetview — On the main road from Cardiff city centre to Cardiff Bay. The pedestrian light nearest the camera is red; the other one is green.

This setup is beyond irritating when you’re trying to walk around. Often there will be a long wait for two separate green men despite there being little or no traffic.

It’s a very poor experience for pedestrians, and does nothing to encourage walking.

Thankfully such a design is rare in Australia. The only time you’re unlikely to get all the way across a divided road is if you’re not a fast walker, and you’re at a very wide road, perhaps 4+ lanes each way plus a wide median.

Traffic light design

Apart from how they’re programmed, some of the traffic lights have their green man display not on the opposite side where it’s easily seen, but on a display next to the button.

This is quite low down and can be difficult to view when other people are waiting.

Cardiff pedestrian signal mounted on pole

It’s also completely counter-intuitive to watch for a light that’s off to your side, rather than in the direction you’re wanting to go.

Combined with many traffic lights not having audible prompts (near-universal in Australia), this leads to people not even noticing when the traffic light eventually allows them to go.

Not all the crossings in Cardiff had this design. It’s not clear to me whether this is the new standard, or one of several standards, depending on context. We saw them elsewhere in Britain, though I don’t recall seeing any in London.

(See an example, with an additional indicator further up the pole, outside Cardiff Castle.)

Outcomes?

In this kind of walking environment, it quickly became apparent that many of the locals jaywalk regularly – and I can’t say I blame them. It was positively painful walking around and obeying all the traffic lights.

Widespread jaywalking means that the safety benefit (if indeed that was the motivation for these designs) is completely undermined.

I saw similar issues elsewhere in the UK, but to nowhere near the degree they’ve done this in Cardiff.

I don’t know the history of this, and whether there have been objections from the locals – I searched online a bit, didn’t find anything.

It’s unlikely it would ever happen, but if I ever end up living and working in Cardiff, I think I’ve found my first advocacy campaign.

Cardiff is a lovely city. But it treats its pedestrians with contempt.

I’m back!

Just back (yesterday) from a three week trip to the UK and Belgium.

Apart from seeing family, we visited Cardiff, Bath, Penzance, Brussels and London.

In summary? Had a great time!

As you can see, I’m really delighted to be back:

Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff

Expect lots of overly-detailed blog posts in the next few weeks…

Use this link to see them all in chronological order*, or start here:

*When reading the posts in chronological (that is, forwards) order, you counter-intuitively click the “Older Posts” link for the next page, which in fact is newer posts.

A few hours in Singapore

Backdated. Posted 7/11/2017

We’d booked with Singapore Airlines, so unsurprisingly our stop-off back from Europe was in Singapore, where we landed at 6pm local time.

Our connecting flight wouldn’t leave until 2am, so I decided to see if we could leave the airport for a few hours and have a quick look around the city.

It was no issue to exit; the hardest bit was knowing what to say on the “How many days are you staying?” question on the immigration form. Turns out, if it’s only a few hours, but it spans two calendar days, the answer is two.

Singapore MRT train

It was actually easier to enter the country than to buy a ticket for the MRT (metro). We had two smartcard tickets from my previous visit, but needed a third. The ticket machines wouldn’t sell me a ticket. The counter staff could, but not by paying using a credit card.

I went back up to the ATM, which decided to refuse me a cash withdrawal. Eventually I had to do a cash advance off my credit card. Only after all that mucking around, I could finally buy the third ticket.

We headed for Gardens By The Bay, which I’d thought would be an interesting introduction for I+J to Singapore – that and the Marina Bay Sands Hotel are quite unlike anything they’d have seen before – though now I think about it, perhaps the latter is no big deal given they’ve been to Vegas.

As if to prove that even someone familiar with a city, who can read a map, can also misread a map, I led us on a trip that involved more changes of train than necessary.

Singapore: Gardens By The Bay

But we managed to arrive just as the 8:45pm “Garden Rhapsody” light and music performance was starting. It was warm and muggy outside, and there were big crowds. It’s very kitsch, but fun.

After the show we headed back into the MRT station, but diverted to a 7-11 to buy some cold drinks – as did much of the rest of the crowd, meaning we had to wait a while in a queue.

From there we caught a train to the city centre, close to last year’s accommodation, and exited the station for a few minutes to look around on the streets.

It was fairly quiet outside, but despite it getting late, it was still pretty warm.

We were all feeling a bit fatigued, so despite having scads of time before our plane, rather than keep roam aimlessly exploring, we headed back to the airport.

Singapore Changi Airport

Changi Airport is huge, very modern, and is an international-only airport. (I wonder if Singapore even has domestic flights?) I also found it interesting that each gate has its own security screening. Perhaps that’s handy with so many transiting passengers.

It was cooler back inside the airport. We found some snacks, rode the inter-terminal monorail, found powerpoints to charge phones, and generally killed time until our 2am departure.

It was an uneventful flight home, getting back into Melbourne Tullamarine on Monday just before lunchtime. Skybus to the City, train home, and we were back. Back from European summer to Melbourne winter.

Flying over Melbourne, approaching Tullamarine Airport

You get home from these great holidays, and for a few hours everything seems a bit other-worldly. Or maybe it’s the jetlag.

But actually the jetlag wasn’t too bad – we managed to stay up until the evening, then slept it off.

It was a great holiday. Not everything went exactly to plan. And we had a few too many late starts, even once the jetlag had worn off. But it was still great.

It drained the finances a bit. Occasionally in the past I’ve tried to catalogue all the costs in detail. I won’t this time, but for the four of us, all the accommodation, travel, meals and attractions added up to about $9000 plus airfares of about $2500 per person. Though I did get a refund on the train fare from Exeter to Penzance!

Holidays always cost money, of course. It was a great escape from the Melbourne winter, a visit with numerous relatives, and terrific sightseeing along the way.

I can’t wait to go back.

Thanks for reading if you made it this far through!