Bringing cars up to our level: How crossing design gives cars the power

Different countries handle crossing the road differently: some with simplicity, others chaotically – with varying degrees of danger. Check out this eye-opener on how our typical crossing design makes streets dangerous where it doesn’t have to be.


Depending on where you are, crossing the street can be an afterthought or a dangerous ordeal. These differences largely depend on where you can cross and how the crossing meets the road.

This fascinating video by Not Just Bikes looks at how North American and Dutch cities handle pedestrian crossings. Each place has a variety of approaches and rules for each crossing. But what’s most interesting is how crossing design subtly communicates who has the power and right of way; who’s entering whose domain.

It explains how many intersections are designed primarily for cars. If someone wants to walk across they have to press a button and wait. Depending on the area if you miss the window you have to wait for a full round until the next cycle.

Everywhere approaches this a bit differently. When I first moved to Australia I would miss my time to cross constantly. Even if the red ‘don’t cross’ light is on across the street, many crossings still require you to press the button. You know it’s activated when another light comes on on your side.

In the Netherlands, these buttons are mostly just used to trigger the light’s audio signals.

Australian crossing button with its little light. Image credit: Kgbo

Typical North American crossings are also quite long. This is because the streets are designed more like highways with heaps of lanes. This leaves people vulnerable for longer when trying to cross.

Not Just Bikes argues that you can always tell a traffic engineer’s priorities by how they use the space. And in too many cases, a slight added convenience for cars warrants a larger danger and inconvenience for walkers.

But what does a good crossing look like?

First of all, for wider streets refuge islands are a game changer. These allow people to cross in shorter bursts while having somewhere substantial to wait partway. These make crossing much safer for drivers and walkers as people are exposed for less time and you only have to look out for one direction in a smaller area.

‘Refuge islands’ in Amsterdam; some are even bigger than this and split the road into safer sections. Image credit: Jonas Denil via Unsplash

Amsterdam also uses smart crossings that detect traffic and allow people to walk when the lanes are clear. This means if you’re walking, you’re not necessarily slowed down by crossing in multiple phases.

Some crossings even have radar to detect if people are crossing. Let’s say someone is taking an especially long time to cross, their walk signal will stay on until the space is clear.

Now for some subtle changes that affect how we see crossings and the road.

If the car’s traffic lights are on the far side of an intersection, the person driving is less likely to stop in time or notice people approaching. But if the lights are closer on the car’s side of the intersection, the driver’s focus is also pulled closer. This makes it less likely for people to accidentally drive into a pedestrian crossing or be surprised by walkers.

Raised crossings slow down drivers and make it easier to cross. Image credit: Not Just Bikes

Then we have raised crossings.

Typically, you have to step down to road level to cross the street. This reveals how people walking are entering the car’s domain, not the other way around.

This design also means we have to include ramps and slopes for people with prams or in wheelchairs. But these can get clogged with rubbish and debris. Or they become a massive puddle in the rain leaving them unpleasant or even impossible to cross.

Raised crossings, though, let people crossing stay at the same level. In this way, cars are made to slow as the street acts like a massive speed bump. It also communicates that the car is entering the walker’s domain. These kinds of crossings are also easier and more pleasant if you’re working with wheels. Here are some great examples of them proposed for an ordinary suburb.

We already use some of these elements in Wellington, and the proposed Accessible Streets and Reshaping Streets law changes will (eventually) make things a bit easier. But what else could Wellington incorporate in the meantime? What could we do more of? What crossings in your opinion are in desperate need of updating (slip lanes, anybody)?

For even more crossing innovations (and gripes) check out the full video below, it’s definitely worth the watch!


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