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Staggering insight

Staggered crossing in Bath

I’ve mentioned a few times, perhaps more often in presentations than on the blog, the fact that guidelines for the design of pedestrian crossings in the UK [PDF] recommend that where a crossing is staggered, pedestrians should be routed so that they have to face traffic, thus increasing the likelihood of noticing oncoming cars, and indeed of oncoming drivers noticing the pedestrians:

5.2.5 Staggered crossings on two-way roads should have a left handed stagger so that pedestrians on the central refuge are guided to face the approaching traffic stream.

When I gave this example of Design with Intent at Lancaster, the discussion – led, I think, by Lucy Suchman and Patricia Clough – turned to how this arrangement inevitably formalised and reinforced the embedded hegemony of the motor car in society, and so on: that the motorist is privileged over the pedestrian and the pedestrian must submit by watching out for cars, rather than the other way around.

Now, all that is arguably true – I had seen this example as merely a clever, sensible way to use design to influence user behaviour for safety, for everyone’s benefit (both pedestrians and drivers) without it costing any more than, say, a crossing staggered the opposite way round – but this is, maybe, the nature of this whole field of Design with Intent: lots of disciplines potentially have perspectives on it and what it means. What a traffic engineer or an ergonomist or a mistake-proofer sees as a safety measure, a sociologist may see as a designed-in power relation. What Microsoft saw as a tool for helping users was seen as patronising and annoying (at least by the most vociferous users). It’s all interesting, because it all broadens the number of interpretations and considerations applied to everything, and – if I’m honest – force me to think on more levels about every example.

Multiple lenses are helpful to designers otherwise stuck at whatever focal length the client’s prescribed.

Back to the crossings, though: the above crossing in Bath is a bit unusual in how it’s arranged with so many control panels for pedestrians. But in general, with simple Pelican and Puffin crossings in the UK, there is a design feature even more obvious, which only struck me* the same day I photographed the above crossing in Bath: the pedestrian signal control panel is usually also to the right of where pedestrians stand waiting to cross, i.e. (with UK driving on the left), in order to press the button, pedestrians have to turn to face the oncoming traffic.

The guidelines actually mention this as helping people with poor vision, but it would seem that it really assists all users, even if only slightly. It means you can watch the traffic as you decide whether or not you actually need to press the button, and will be more likely to be standing in a position where you can see the oncoming traffic at the point when you walk out into the road.

5.1.7 To assist blind and partially sighted pedestrians, as they approach the crossing, the primary push button/indicator panel should normally be located on the right hand side. The alignment should encourage them to face oncoming vehicles. The centre of the push button should be between 1.0 and 1.1 metres above the footway level.

This is the sort of ‘hidden’ intentional, strategic design detailing which fascinates me. It is obvious, it is quotidian, but it’s also thoughtful.

Staggered crossing in Bath

*Looking back through my notebooks, I see that someone actually mentioned this to me at a seminar at Sheffield Hallam in September 2007 but I forgot about it: many thanks to whoever it was, and I should be better at reading through my notes next time!


  1. All very interesting and good as far as it goes.

    However, the “sheep pen” crossing is inherently a bad design for pedestrians and no amount of making it more “thoughtful” can hide the fact that most pedestrians will have to walk off their desire line to use it. They will have to walk double the length of the crossing out of their way if they’re going the wrong way (ie. down to the start of the crossing, then all the way back along it or vice versa).

    This seems to matter little when the crossing is relatively short, but when it’s long it’s a real problem that causes many pedestrians simply to circumvent the thing entirely and cross in a place which is presumably more dangerous and at which drivers aren’t specifically alert to crossing pedestrians.

    Imagine a crossroads that runs NS/WE. It has a 30 metre sheep pen on the southern approach road which reads from W to E, that is, it follows the desire line for pedestrians crossing from W to E by having its entrance on the W side of the road at the junction itself and its exit on the E side 30m S of the junction.

    You can see a real one here:

    For pedestrians starting on the W side, the possibilities are:

    – cross and continue E, walk 60m off desire line.
    – cross and continue N, walk 60m off desire line.
    – cross and continue S, on desire line.

    For pedestrians starting on the E side at the junction, the possibilities assuming they’re going to walk S to the start of the crossing are:

    – cross and continue W, walk 60m off desire line.
    – cross and continue S, walk 60m off desire line.
    – cross and continue N, walk 60m off desire line.

    For pedestrians starting on the E side of the junction but approaching from the S so that they meet the entrance to the crossing without having to walk out of their way:

    – cross and continue N, on desire line.
    – cross and continue S, not strictly on desire line but walking no further than if they had to walk to the junction for a safe direct crossing
    – cross and continue W, on desire line.

    Observing actual behaviour at these crossings tells us what we’d expect: that most pedestrians coming from E to W at the junction choose to “unsafely” cross around the outside of the sheep pen barriers rather than take a 60m detour to use it “correctly”.

    Moral: You can build a very inconvenient crossing for pedestrians in the name of safety but in the name of convenience most will completely ignore it.

  2. I suppose the inverse of this would be a chicane that forced drivers to turn towards waiting pedestrians, forcing them to brake. This is a really, really bad idea:-) Which is a lesson – people’s interests are rarely served by a move closer to equality that makes the failure-modes more dangerous and unforgiving.

  3. The other day a crossing like this caught my eye in San Francisco.

    But it’s staggered in the opposite manner. The offset is to the left as you cross the street (as in your example), but the far lane of traffic moves from right to left, putting the pedestrian’s back to oncoming traffic as they shift toward the 2nd half of the crossing.

    From a pedestrian perspective, the stagger seemed designed to prevent people riding their bikes or skating across the crosswalk, or generally rushing out into oncoming traffic. You could stagger the crossing in either direction to get that effect. So why not stagger toward oncoming traffic?

    It occurred to me that from a vehicular perspective offseting against the flow of traffic prevents drivers from using that gap in the median as an impromptu turning lane. In the photo you posted, I think they’ve installed yellow pillars to prevent that. They also retain most of the median. In San Francisco, the crossing is at pavement level and although it’d be a tight fit for anything other than a motorcycle or smart car, a U-turn would be possible if the stagger weren’t sharply against the flow of traffic.

    Just seemed like an interesting counterexample.

  4. Rich

    Since you posted this I’ve started to take a closer look at these crossings. The ‘correct’ orientation is by no means always followed, and I’ve noticed several which are the wrong way round. For example there is a whole intersection with the North Circular next to Wembley Stadium where as far as I can tell all of the crossings are the wrong way round.

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  8. Matt Wardman

    The button being on the right on the second half of the crossing makes the girl face *away* from the traffic.

    Not quite thoughtful enough.

  9. These are interesting points in terms of the challenges of motorists and pedestrians, but the increasing trend is for “toucan” crossings, which also bring cyclists into the equation.

    Here, the “sheep pen” becomes a complete nightmare as there is a space conflict between people on bikes and people on their own (or with dogs or sticks or in wheelchairs) in a tiny fenced in box.

    This is why the “straight-through” crossing with no displacement has to be best in this scenario, if it can be fitted into the traffic scheme.

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