Why is City of Sydney removing zebra crossings?

A photograph of the zebra crossing on Mitchell Road near Maddox Street in Alexandria that City of Sydney wants to remove. Figure 1: Threatened crossing #1 (Mitchell Rd at Maddox St). Moving signage and cutting back vegetation would improve sightlines.

Despite community opposition, City of Sydney Council is proceeding with a proposal to rip up two pedestrian-priority zebra crossings on Mitchell Road in Alexandria and Erskineville. Instead of investing in safety upgrades, it wants to replace them with pedestrian-delaying traffic lights at a cost of roughly $1 million.

Before trying to understand the council’s motivations, let’s have look at how this proposal would impact walkability, traffic speeds, safety and traffic volumes.

Impacts of replacing zebra crossings with traffic lights

Walkability and accessibility

Traffic lights impose significant delays on pedestrians. If the new traffic lights have similar timings to others nearby, each set will add up to 1.5 minutes to the time it takes to cross the street, or up to 2 minutes if crossing diagonally.

Together, they could add up to 7 minutes to the time it takes someone to walk to and from the train station, bus stop, shops, school, etc. That’s on top of the delays caused by the numerous existing traffic lights in the area.

You can’t continue to make thousands of people wait at traffic signals while a few vehicles inch past.

City of Sydney Lord Mayor, Clover Moore (2012)

By delaying pedestrians, traffic lights reduce the number of places and public transport stops that residents can walk to within an acceptable time. If traffic lights increase walking times from a person’s home by 30%, their walkable area (walkshed) is reduced by about 41% (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Potential area a person willing to walk for 15 minutes can access (a) without traffic light delays (blue + red) and (b) with traffic light delays (blue only). Traffic light delays make all places and public transport stops within the red area inaccessible.

In addition, most people find time spent waiting at traffic lights to be frustrating and much less enjoyable than time spent walking. The combination of reduced walkability and unpleasant waiting time can affect a person’s walking choices in various ways. They may choose:

  • to go out less.
  • a different route.
  • a different destination.
  • a different mode of transport, e.g., drive to the local post office instead of walk.
  • a different destination and mode of transport, e.g., drive to a distant supermarket with abundant parking rather than walk to the local one.

In other words: if the council makes it less attractive for people to walk and more attractive for them to drive, we will end up with more traffic.

Traffic speed and objective safety

No pedestrian crashes/injuries at the threatened zebra crossings have been reported in the last five years. This doesn’t mean there is currently no objective risk. However, replacing them with traffic lights will increase the risk.

Firstly, traffic speed will increase. The existing zebra crossings and adjacent roundabouts help to slow traffic to a safe speed (<30 km/h). Raised crossings function as speed humps (vertical deflection) while roundabouts force changes of direction (horizontal deflection). Removing these traffic-calming devices would allow traffic to speed through the intersections at 40 km/h or more. Many drivers will accelerate on seeing a yellow light.

Last year, the nearby red light camera in front of St Peters Station detected 21,598 drivers speeding or running a red light. A higher vehicle speed means greater stopping distance, crash risk and injury severity (Figure 3). A driver running a red light at 40 km/h+ is much more likely to kill or seriously injure any pedestrian they crash into than is a driver going over a raised zebra crossing at less than 30 km/h.

Figure 3: Lower traffic speeds are safer for pedestrians. (Source: Auckland Transport)

Secondly, most traffic lights in NSW are programmed to give pedestrians and vehicles turning across their path a green light concurrently—a practice that has caused many horrendous fatalities (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Transport for NSW programs traffic lights to give turning vehicles and pedestrians a green light concurrently. (Source: Queensland Government)

Thirdly, traffic lights significantly increase crash/injury risk for drivers and motorcycle riders, compared to roundabouts.

Perceived safety and comfort

A person’s travel choices are influenced more by their perception of risk than by objective risk. For example, a parent/carer may opt to drive their child to school if they perceive that it is too unsafe to walk.

Objectively safe zebra crossings can be perceived to be unsafe by some people if they have witnessed a driver not giving way. Older people may feel particularly uncomfortable.

But traffic lights are not the answer: they often don’t give older and less mobile people sufficient time to cross, and drivers also fail to give way at traffic lights sometimes. Pedestrians shouldn’t be punished with additional delays because of a danger created by motorists.

There are better ways of improving driver compliance and safety at a zebra crossing. These include:

  • setting a safe speed limit (30 km/h),
  • raising the crossing,
  • traffic calming on approaching traffic lanes, and
  • improving sightlines.

At one of the threatened zebra crossings (Figure 1), signage could be moved and vegetation cut back to improve sightlines. The other threatened crossing (Figure 5) could be raised, despite the council’s claim that this is not possible due to “drainage considerations”. It is possible—it’s just a question of engineering expertise and cost.

Figure 5: Threatened crossing (Mitchell Rd at Harley St). Raising the crossing would significantly increase driver compliance and safety.

At both sites, the crossings could be made flat and level with the footpaths to make them more accessible for wheelchair and pram users. Raised pedestrian-priority crossings could be installed on the other arms of the adjacent roundabouts to further calm traffic and improve walkability and safety (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Fully protected roundabouts are the norm on local streets in the Netherlands. Compared to traffic lights, they are safer for all street users. (Source: ACT Government)

Through traffic

For a local, residential street, the aim is normally to minimise or eliminate through traffic, and associated noise and air pollution.

The council’s traffic modelling estimates that replacing these two zebra crossings and the adjacent roundabouts with traffic lights would reduce motor vehicle travel times along Mitchell Rd by up to 2.5 minutes during peak times. They didn’t model/estimate impacts on walking travel times.

But reducing driving travel time would result in Google Maps and other navigation apps sending even more through traffic and trucks along Mitchell Rd. That’s because these apps select the route with the lowest travel time, not the route with the lowest impact on residential areas.

Removing zebra crossings to increase traffic speed/flow is like adding another lane to a motorway—it simply induces more traffic.

Public transport

Mitchell Rd is a bus route and the new traffic lights would be programmed to prioritise Mitchell Rd traffic over intersecting side streets. In theory, this could improve the reliability and travel times of bus services. In practice, however, it would also encourage more through traffic—further diminishing service reliability.

There are other ways to improve bus service reliability. Kerbside lanes could be designated as bus lanes during peak times. Or through traffic could be restricted using regulatory, pricing or engineering controls.

Traffic lights in NSW have technology that can give priority to approaching buses, but our state government has resisted calls to enable it.

Why is City of Sydney prioritising traffic over people?

City of Sydney has done more than most NSW councils to improve walkability in recent years (along with some fails, such as obstructing footpaths with advertising panels). Among the priorities in its Walking Strategy and Action Plan are to make walking “quick, convenient and easy” and “safe and comfortable”. Its strategic plan talks of “a city for walking, cycling and public transport”.

We need to provide greater priority, safety and amenity so people are encouraged to walk more often.

City of Sydney Lord Mayor, Clover Moore (2015)

Why, then, has it chosen to rip up these pedestrian-priority zebra crossings instead of investing in safety upgrades? And why is it ignoring the results of the community consultation, in which 72% of submissions opposed removing them?

Over the last 20 years, the City of Sydney has approved the construction of thousands of new off-street parking spaces in new residential developments. This has caused the proportion of households owning a motor vehicle to surge from a 45% minority to a 58% majority (Figure 7). For every 1,000 people added to the population over that time, the number of motor vehicles increased by 1,500.

Figure 7: City of Sydney has encouraged growth in car ownership.

Having fuelled rapid growth in car ownership, perhaps the council is now coming under increasing pressure to prioritise driving over people walking.

In a recent council meeting, Lord Mayor Clover Moore argued for removing the zebra crossings, stating that, “Slowing down the traffic … means that someone might be inconvenienced about [driving] to their house”. It seems your time and convenience are important to her if you’re sitting in a car, but not if you’re walking.

Thank you for reading. Please consider signing this petition calling on City of Sydney to upgrade, rather than demolish, these zebra crossings.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.