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.

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.

Do your bit for walkability: keep the footpath clear

It wasn’t planned this way, but this week’s posts seem to have been all about pedestrians/walking.

Along with rules about not parking over footpaths (and vehicles needing to give way to pedestrians when crossing footpaths), some people seem to be unaware that there are rules about keeping vegetation clear of footpaths.

Footpath

Able-bodied people can duck or brush past overhanging trees, or detour onto a nature strip, but someone pushing a mobility aid or a pram may not be able to do that.

In my area, the City of Glen Eira says:

Property owners are responsible for keeping trees and shrubs under control and trimmed back to ensure pedestrian safety and clear sightlines for drivers.

Trees must be trimmed to a height of three metres above the ground and, at least, vertically in line with the property boundary. Shrubs must not protrude beyond the fence line or encroach onto the footpath.

The precise rules vary by council area, but the City of Monash describes it nicely in this diagram:
City of Monash: footpath overhanging vegetation rules

Why 2.5 to 3 metres? I suppose it allows for cases where rain weighs down tree branches, bringing them lower. You also need to account for an adult riding a bike (accompanying children doing the same, which is perfectly legal) — their height is likely to be higher than 2 metres.

What’s not clear to me is whether property owners or the councils have responsibility for trees on the nature strip.

City of Monash says: Council acknowledges its duty to ensure street trees and other public vegetation does not encroach onto footpaths.

…but other rules imply that property owners are meant to keep nature strips under control. Personally, I’m happy to take this responsibility.

Some people in my street seem to take no such interest. Should I flag such issues with council? It might be quicker to sneak out with pruning shears and do it myself! Hmm, vigilante footpath clearers…

It’s worth checking the precise rules in your area.

Do your bit to help walkability: for the sake of pedestrians in your street, keep overhanging trees and other vegetation off the footpath.

(Try Googling your local council name and: footpath overhang, or similar terms)

Steps to fitness

First, an update:

FebFast is going well. A couple of minor transgressions, but overall given I’ve normally got a bit of a sweet tooth, I think I’m doing well avoiding junk food. Certainly no chips or chocolate have passed my lips since the start of the month, but perhaps more remarkably, no biscuits (despite the plentiful supply in the office) and no muesli bars. Thank you to those who have sponsored me! If you’d like to contribute: here’s the link.

Running is also going okay. I’m keeping up with at least three runs per week. I would like to go longer distances, and am scoping out some sports headphones (after the normal ones I used just fell out of my ears at speed!) I might adapt to RunKeeper’s interval training, as during my test run with music, the other problem apart from the headphones was I couldn’t keep count of my steps.

Which brings me to the third tranche of my fitness regime: steps.

I’m not into sport, but I love walking, and am blessed with a very walkable neighbourhood.

I recently upgraded my Nexus 5 phone to Android 5. With it came the Google Fit app, which makes use of the pedometer hardware which has been built into my phone all this time but I never noticed before. (Presumably I could have installed Google Fit earlier, but I didn’t know about it.)

Google Fit

With the app running, and given I take my phone almost everywhere I go, I can now very easily track the steps (and time) I take walking or running each day — excluding a small number of steps around the house or inside at work.

The beauty of trying where easy/possible to go places without the car is that I get some exercise built into my day. For instance I have a short walk on each end of my daily train trip to work — this adds up to about 2000 steps. Add a moderate walk at lunchtime, and the trip back home, and I can easily exceed 6000 steps on a work day without even trying.

On the nights that I don’t go running, I often take an evening walk with the kids. Depending on the weather and the errands we want to run (I often pick up supermarket supplies as part of this), this might typically be another 4000-5000 steps.

Some days I walk less. Some days I walk more. My record in one day was this Sunday just gone, where a couple of walks down the street, plus a walk around Southland (another 5653 steps) and an evening run added up to a grand total of 15,796.

How many steps is good? Google Fit seems to come with a default of 6000 per day to measure you against, but a lot of material recommends 10,000 steps per day:

Dr. Hatano’s calculations also showed that we should walk 10,000 steps a day to burn about 20% of our caloric intake through activity.

Today, the World Health Organisation (WHO), US Centre for Disease Control, US Surgeon General, American Heart Foundation, US Department of Health & Human Services, and the National Heart Foundation of Australia all recommend individuals take 10,000 steps a day to improve their health and reduce the risk of disease. — 10,000 Steps Australia

Digging around, I also found this study abstract, which says in part:

Based on currently available evidence, we propose the following preliminary indices be used to classify pedometer-determined physical activity in healthy adults:

(i). <5000 steps/day may be used as a ‘sedentary lifestyle index’;

(ii). 5000-7499 steps/day is typical of daily activity excluding sports/exercise and might be considered ‘low active’;

(iii). 7500-9999 likely includes some volitional activities (and/or elevated occupational activity demands) and might be considered ‘somewhat active’; and

(iv). >or=10000 steps/day indicates the point that should be used to classify individuals as ‘active’. Individuals who take >12500 steps/day are likely to be classified as ‘highly active’.

How many steps/day are enough? Preliminary pedometer indices for public health.

I’m thinking my aim should be to get to 70,000 steps or more in a week. Some days will be fewer than others, but if I can an average 10,000 per day, I’ll be doing pretty well.

Last week:

  • Monday 10435
  • Tuesday 9454
  • Wednesday 9926
  • Thursday 9348
  • Friday 6901
  • Saturday 11353
  • Sunday 15796
  • Total = 73213, or an average 10,459 per day

I’m not sure I can keep up that pace, especially through the winter, but I can try.

You met your goal!

At the moment, only a few phones have pedometers or other chips aimed at performing that function: these include the Google Nexus 5 that I have, as well as the Samsung Galaxy S5, and the iPhone 5s and iPhone 6.

Smartphones that don’t have a built-in pedometer can run an app that calculates steps via the accelerometers in phones. Here are some for Android and iPhone

The other alternative of course is an actual pedometer, or a fancier device such as a FitBit, or other devices with a pedometer such as a Nintendo DS.

What steps are you taking?

Some good stuff in the City of Melbourne’s Draft Walking Plan

You might have seen media coverage (Age / Herald Sun) of the new City of Melbourne Draft Walking Plan.

There’s lots of interesting stuff in the document (PDF, 35Mb).

Below are some notes from a skim through. (Page references refer to those at the top of the page, eg numbered from the start of the PDF including cover sheets/intro, not the start of the document.)

William Street, morning peak

p1. The economic benefits from dense city centres and improved walkability, underpinning the need for action: “A 10 per cent increase in the connectivity of the Hoddle Grid’s walking network is estimated to increase the value of the economy by $2.1 billion per year by making it quicker and easier for people to move around the city to do business, access services and jobs.”

p6. The bottom line on numbers: 840,000 people visit the city daily, expected to rise to 1.2 million by 2030.

p10. Updated figures (2011) for journeys to work in the City of Melbourne: Public transport 50.4% (Train 39.5%), vehicle 37.7%, walking 5.5%.

Note that the City of Melbourne is a lot bigger than the CBD, and the Hoddle Grid — I would expect figures for just the Hoddle Grid to show a higher proportion of public transport trips, but this walking strategy covers the whole council area.

p12. Weekday trips within the City of Melbourne are dominated by walking (66%).

p16. The importance of resolving crowding: “Crowding discourages people from walking, creates delays which waste time and money and undermines Melbourneโ€™s international reputation for liveability.”

p20. Yikes: “In the City of Melbourne, a pedestrian is killed or sustains a serious or other injury every two days.”

p21. They’re aiming/expecting to increase walking, and public transport and bicycle use, with private car trips reducing.

Another CBD spot in need of a footpath upgrade. Wonder if @DoyleMelbourne is looking at these?

p30. They’re seeking to work with the Vicroads SmartRoads network operating plan, which already highlights which streets should prioritise which mode.

p32. Ever wondered why more traffic lights don’t automatically show a green man, even if nobody presses the button? Or wondered what it’s called? Apparently this is called “Auto pedestrian phase signals”.

Sounds like it will be implemented at a lot more crossings, which is good. Why is it important? As the document says: “They reduce waiting times for pedestrians (pedestrians do not miss an opportunity to cross if they get to the intersection after the time a walk phase could start). They give pedestrians a similar level of service to motorists, public transport vehicles and cyclists who do not need to manually activate lights.”

I’ve spotted this at a handful of recently re-programmed suburban traffic lights… would be great to see much more of it — it should be the standard.

p33 has a map of where they plan to implement it, which is encouraging. Thing is, I’d like to see it become the default for all signalised intersections — particularly as typical traffic light programming means a pedestrian who just misses the start of the green phase has to wait until the next one starts to get a green man.

p34 notes some (about 15) CBD intersections don’t have green man displays (“pedestrian lanterns”), apparently a legacy of the original installation in the 1940s! They’re going to install them — I suppose it may seem more restrictive for pedestrians, though as the document says “people with disabilities face significant difficulty when crossing the street as they are not alerted when it is safe and appropriate to cross”.

p36-47 goes into some detail about increasing pedestrian priority across the CBD, with five proposed categories:

  • Street as place — eg a destination, for instance Centre Place, Degraves Street
  • Walking street — for instance Bourke Street Mall, and proposed for the bottom of Elizabeth Street
  • High mobility walking street (public transport corridor) — for instance Swanston Street at present, and proposed for the remainder of Elizabeth Street
  • High mobility street (public transport corridor)
  • Other streets used by pedestrians

p50 talks about improved maps around the city.

p52. Stop lines to be moved to require motorists to give way to pedestrians when exiting minor lanes.

p56-57 talks about works to assist current areas of pedestrian overcrowding, such as around railway stations.

p59. Widen pedestrian crossings at intersections, and build-out kerbs. Also act on motorists who block crossings.

Edit: This page also notes they plan to move blockages such as street furniture (eg bins) away from busy intersections.

p64-69 goes into some detail about access in and around railway stations, including investigating re-opening the Little Collins Street pedestrian subway into Southern Cross Station).

I’m somewhat amused that they believe they need to “investigate ways to encourage use of [the Degraves Street] entrance” to Flinders Street Station. One look at it makes it pretty obvious what the problem is — there’s zero signage telling you it goes to the station.

p72-73. More formal pedestrian crossings, such as mid-block crossings.

p76-77. It notes that it is completely legal to cross more than 20 metres from a crossing, and because this is important for reducing walking distances and delays, and because they can’t provide crossings absolutely everywhere, they want to make streets easier to cross between the crossings.

The example they give (William Street outside Flagstaff station) is slightly odd — the reason people cross here is to avoid the packed footpaths. It’s unlikely many would cross between the station and the old Mint car park — though some using the car park might be going to nearby buildings.

p84 onwards. The appendices cover a number of interesting topics, including pedestrian countdown timers — not generally seen as recommended as trials haven’t shown they improve signal compliance.

Barnes walks (scramble crossings). They conclude they’re not worthwhile due to overall delays to pedestrians, trams and motorists — though oddly that’s based on a study of two locations seemingly chosen at random. They really should have looked at spots which are more obvious candidates, for instance those with busy buildings on all corners and a railway station on one side: say, Spencer and Bourke, Spencer and Collins, and Flinders and Swanston.

Pedestrian early starts — showing a green man before parallel traffic gets a green light. Fair enough — it’s really of benefit when turning motorists aren’t correctly giving way, and this isn’t a big problem at signalised intersections in the CBD.

p95. An interesting couple of tables about “Pedestrian level of service” — that is, different standards for how quickly a pedestrian can cross the road at traffic lights.

p96. Another interesting table showing a Transport For London reference on pedestrian comfort levels (PCL), based on how congested a pavement is, measuring the number of people and how restricted movement is at each level.

“At Pedestrian Comfort Level D, walking speeds are restricted and reduced and there are difficulties in bypassing slower pedestrians or moving in reverse flows.”

This is important research — for someone who hasn’t regularly experienced such conditions, it can be difficult to understand why a photo of a bunch of people on a footpath which appears to have plenty of space is, in fact, quite restrictive if you’re actually trying to walk on it. (This is why people resort to walking on the road.)

Pedestrian Comfort Levels (from City of Melbourne draft walking strategy, originally from a Transport For London document)

Conclusion

The draft document makes a lot of good points, and it’s fantastic to see the breadth of thought and research into a topic that’s so important for the City of Melbourne, including recognition of such issues as permeability and crowding levels on footpaths.

Cities like Melbourne need to plan carefully to cater for more pedestrians. On foot (in conjunction with public transport access) is the most efficient way to move more people around a busy city centre.

The only niggle I have is that it completely fails to talk about motorcycles parked on footpaths — as I’ve noted before, the guidelines don’t seem to be well-known (or followed), and certainly aren’t enforceable.

But overall, a big thumbs up — and it’ll be great to see some of the proposed changes implemented.