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.

Surprise surprise, expanding the Dingley Bypass caused more traffic

Remember the Dingley Bypass?

The western end was built as the “South Road Extension” as two lanes (one each way) just last decade. It mostly wasn’t dual carriageway, but it was otherwise suspiciously freeway-like. Having appeared in the 1969 freeway plan, it wasn’t difficult to see that it would be expanded.

Dingley Bypass in 2015 (Google Streetview)
(Dingley Arterial 2015 – Google StreetView)

Sure enough in 2010, it was announced it would be expanded to four lanes (two each way).

Fast forward to March 2016 when it opened… and somehow it’s become six lanes (three each way). Classic salami tactics!

Sow roads, grow traffic

So wouldn’t making a road three times as big be likely to lead to problems on the roads it connects to? Why yes.

What a surprise — it seems South Road now has congestion problems:

Vicroads: South Road traffic study

Vicroads: South Road traffic study

Having fed lots more traffic into South Road, what can they do? Currently through Moorabbin it’s six lanes (three each way, but with one taken by parking). They could try and fix this bottleneck by imposing clear ways — effectively expanding traffic capacity by 50% and leaving a long mostly residential stretch of the road as a huge six lane traffic sewer. Eugh.

Making the environment even more hostile to pedestrians, bus/train and bike users sounds like a great way to produce even more traffic. (The intersection of South Road and Warrigal Road is horrible.) And it would probably just move the bottleneck elsewhere. Nepean Highway next for widening, perhaps?

The proposed freeway to remove the bottleneck created by the previous proposed freeway...

Even with no more road expansion, more traffic lights might be needed to help pedestrians and cross traffic now that the road is more congested — especially at the eastern end around the Sandbelt Hotel. (Somewhere I saw an online petition for a pedestrian overpass; I can’t find it just at the moment.)

Meanwhile, the main bus route along there is only every 20 minutes on weekdays (including peak hours, when it no doubt gets stuck in traffic), and every hour at night and on weekends. Most other suburban routes run even less frequently — generally only every 30 minutes on weekdays. No wonder so many people are driving.

I don’t know quite what the solution is. But I do know that free-flowing urban traffic is a myth. At least if there’s a bottleneck now, it’s preventing traffic levels growing even more.

Ways have to be found to move more people around the suburbs them each bringing a two tonne chunk of metal. Expanding road capacity further is the last thing we should be doing.

Barred from Bayswater – that escalated quickly

I’d been reading this article about the proposal to narrow a section of Mountain Highway through Bayswater when the level crossing is removed — from 3 lanes in each direction down to 2.

Bayswater state Liberal MP Heidi Victoria has submitted the petition against the plans to State Parliament and urged the Government to intervene.

“Those of us who live and work in Bayswater know the traffic congestion is already at an all-time high,” Ms Victoria said.

“The community do not want this; local businesses do not want this.”

I don’t know the area well, but given Mountain Highway is 2 lanes east of the nearby intersection, and the removal of the level crossing would cut the major delay factor for cars, and the area just west of the station is a retail precinct, I thought the idea shouldn’t be automatically rejected.

Closer to my neck of the woods, Ormond is 3 lanes each way, and is quite pedestrian hostile. The noise of the traffic is near-constant, and unlike nearby Mckinnon or Bentleigh, it’s very difficult to cross the road to points of interest.

Mountain Highway, Bayswater (Pic: Google Maps)

Looking at the Google StreetView imagery, there are similarities. It’s hard to tell what day of the week and time the pictures were taken, but the businesses all look open, yet there is an absence of shoppers. Many of the street car spots are free, suggesting that local shops don’t do spectacularly well.

Removing a lane, widening the footpaths and reducing the speed limit might improve things, and appear to be ideas supported by the local council.

Judging from the comments in the local paper, the most vocal locals don’t care much for Bayswater other than as a place to drive through as quickly as possible.

But area is marked as a pedestrian priority route under the Smartroads strategy, so it’s understandable where the council and Vicroads are coming from.

So I pondered on it Twitter:

Note that I didn’t say it was a wonderful thing. I just said it shouldn’t automatically be rejected.

A few hours later, this furious response from the MP for Bayswater:

Well, that escalated quickly. Is this really the standard of public discourse that one should expect? I know the limited form of Twitter posts isn’t great for nuance, but that just seems ridiculously over-the-top.

Apparently I’ve been barred from going to Bayswater by the local MP. There goes any chance of getting to know the area better. Is this like the opposite of being presented with the keys to the city?

Happily, other locals are more welcoming.

It’s hard to tell, but I would assume that Ms Victoria (and anybody else getting into a debate about traffic and roads) is aware of the term “traffic sewer” (meaning an environment that encourages lots of traffic to move through at speed, to the detriment of other local activities such as walking, cycling, shopping). It’s definitely not the same as calling a place a sewer.

Assuming she knows that, she appears not to consider that a six lane road through a shopping centre doesn’t actually result in a great urban and retail environment.

My guess is the level crossing can result in long delays and frustration for motorists. Removing it will drastically cut delays, especially long unpredictable ones. Removing the third lane each way (matching the road further east) may still mean overall fewer delays for motorists, while drastically improving conditions for walkers and shoppers. One would hope Vicroads has done modelling on this.

Perhaps for some — a bit like Skyrail — any hint of even considering any evidence has gone out the window, because outright rejection is seen by the Opposition as the best way to make a political point.

I’d hope for a more considered response from the Member for Bayswater, but perhaps I got off lightly.

The “tradies” argument for more roads

The argument for more/bigger roads (particularly motorways) is often that tradies and others need to carry their tools and equipment to jobs, so they can’t use public transport.

Perhaps that’s true, but they are the minority of people on the road.

According to a 2012 ABS study, only about 7% of people avoid using public transport (for work or study) because they need to carry tools etc. Another 10% say they have to take their own vehicle.

The more significant reasons are that no public transport is provided (about 30%), they want convenience/comfort/privacy (28%), the services aren’t convenient (25%), or the travel time is too long (18%).

So for the vast majority of people on the roads, it’s because the public transport service isn’t good enough, not because they inherently can’t use public transport for those trips. There might be some overlap in responses of course, but I suspect most people travel most of the time with nothing they can’t carry themselves.

And in fact if you jump on public transport at the right time, such as early morning and early afternoon, you’ll see plenty of blue collar workers using it — presumably those who don’t use personal tools, or are able to keep them securely on-site.

Swan St traffic

Of course, if building new motorways were really to prioritise those vehicles that have to use them — trucks carrying freight, tool-carrying tradies and so on — there’d be priority lanes to make sure those vehicles got through without getting caught up in congestion caused by individuals in cars. But no roads have such priority lanes.

Source: ABS

Related: Average car occupancy figures – about 1.2, and dropping

Edit 29/4/2017: Added top image of a tradie and his tools on a train to Pakenham.

Domain tunnel closed. Gridlock? What gridlock?

GRIDLOCK will begin to choke Melbourne’s roads from Friday night, but the full impact of bridge and tunnel closures for maintenance won’t bite until the New Year.

Motorists are being advised to steer clear of the city, or they could experience delays of up to an hour.

— Herald Sun: Traffic chaos expected as West Gate Bridge and CityLink tunnels close, 26/12/2013

Oh noes! The Domain tunnel (that’s westbound) closed for days! Disaster!

Except… gridlock? What gridlock?

Here’s how it looked at 8am this morning on the Vicroads live traffic web page:

Vicroads traffic map: 8:05am, 30/12/2013

A few little spots of delays marked in red, but nothing major at all. (Click on the pictures to see them bigger.)

On Saturday, the only major delays were miles away from the tunnel, due to incidents on the Princes Highway westbound.

Vicroads traffic map: 11:30am, 28/12/2013

This photo this morning from a Channel Ten reporter also noted a distinct lack of chaos.

There are probably a number of reasons for this. Firstly the timing of these works was wisely scheduled when fewer people are travelling around town.

But I also wonder if the widespread publicity of the closures has led to people purposefully avoiding it. After all, if you know in advance there’s a major road closure, why would you deliberately drive into a snarl if you could avoid it?

Turns out major road closures often result in no gridlock

Turns out this is not unprecedented. In 2007 a major shutdown in Seattle resulted in… no gridlock.

I mean, who’d have guessed you could shut down a third of our most congested freeway and not paralyze the region in epic traffic jams? Oliver Downs, that’s who.

The case of the vanishing cars is no mystery to him. In fact he predicted it.

He forecast no extreme clogs anywhere โ€” not on I-5, nor on alternate routes such as Highway 99 or 599. So far he’s been right about that.

— Seattle Times: Math whiz had I-5’s number, 22/8/2007

And a recent major shutdown in Birmingham, that also resulted in little disruption, has many wondering if these big inner-city motorways are needed at all.

When it emerged Birmingham’s Queensway tunnels would be closed for six weeks over the summer, it is no surprise there were predictions of “chaos”.

The main through route for the A38, the tunnels are used by thousands of drivers each day and have been an integral part of the city’s transport network since they were built in the 1970s.

There was some surprise, therefore, when the anticipated gridlock did not materialise.

The reality was so different that a report into Birmingham’s transport network for the next 20 years has called for a debate about how much they are needed, pointing out they create a “noisy unattractive barrier to intra-centre movement”.

— BBC: End of the road? Are major routes through cities outdated? 26/12/2013

This has even happened in Los Angeles:

The traffic many thought would be a nightmare was much lighter than normal as Los Angeles entered the second day in the shutdown of a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 405 – one of the country’s busiest highways.

Associated Press: Los Angeles bridge project cruising toward finish, 17/7/2011

This phenomenon has been studied, and it’s actually quite common.

In 1998, British researchers studied what happened to traffic in more than 100 highway and bridge shutdowns in Europe and the U.S. They found that on average 25 percent of all car trips simply evaporated.

People still went to work. Some commuters drove, some found another way in. Some other trips were just not made.

“Drivers are not stupid,” Downs says. “They change schedules. They don’t take some trips, or they delay them. The net effect of all these little decisions can be dramatic.”

— Seattle Times: Math whiz had I-5’s number, 22/8/2007

Is this the opposite of induced traffic?

Induced traffic happens when large numbers of people decide it’s easier to drive, and do so, more often and further. It’s commonly seen when new major roads open, as often congestion initially falls, before building back up.

As I mentioned above, demand is definitely lower at this time of year, with many city workers on holiday. But VicRoads says this typically results in only a 30% drop in traffic levels… so normally 70% of the traffic volumes would still be on the roads.

It might be that in the case of the current Domain tunnel closure, with plenty of advance publicity, large numbers of people may have decided not to make some trips, at least not by car.

The real test might be next week when the Burnley tunnel is closed, and a lot more people are back at work.

But as with the questions being asked in Birmingham, what we’ve seen so far again calls into question the wisdom of building more major inner-city roads such as the East West Link. Ultimately, do we need more of them, especially with a price tag of billions of dollars? Shouldn’t we be smarter about how we provide mobility for large numbers of people (and goods) in a more efficient manner?

Update 31/12/2013

I’ve been looking through the TV news from the last couple of nights. Here are some choice quotes.

In a story introduced with the phrase “Carmageddon”: “I think people are well informed, and I think they understand that when we do have virtually a single major link – Citylink and Westgate – that does occasionally have to be shut down. And that’s why the people of Victoria say get on and build the East West Link.” – Dennis Napthine, Channel 7 news, 27/12/2013

“Melbourne has escaped traffic chaos on the first day of the city’s biggest road network closure. Drivers didn’t face the hour-long delays that were forecast…

With an average 9000 cars using that stretch of Citylink every hour, Victorians were warned there’d be chaos and long delays. But it seems that was enough to keep most drivers off the roads.
…Monday tipped to be an especially busy day as many Victorians return to work.”

– Channel 7 news, 28/12/2013.

Update 6/1/2014

Warnings continued over the weekend for the closure of the Burnley (eastbound) tunnel, and minor queues from Westgate onto Kingsway were noted on Saturday, but still major delays have proved elusive.

This morning, arguably the first day there are lots of people returning to work, the Vicroads traffic web site does show a queue about 2km long in that same spot. It’s still not widespread gridlock, though it’ll be interesting to see if it spreads through the day, and particularly in evening peak.

Vicroads: traffic 6/1/2014 7:30am

By 8am the queues stretched back to about the service stations, but there was little other congestion noted in the inner area.

The ABC reported it thus: Closure of Burnley Tunnel for resurfacing work causes only minor traffic delays

Perhaps the delays are only this minor because the authorities talk up the chaos. But as noted above, it should leave us questioning the Premier’s claims that it is critical to build another cross-city tunnel.