Courtesy crossings cause confusion

STEPPING OUT: Pedestrians use a courtesy crossing in Richmond.
STEPPING OUT: Pedestrians use a courtesy crossing in Richmond.

It's the Nelson central-city dance - a pedestrian and a car approach the courtesy crossing outside Farmers in Trafalgar St. She hesitates, the car's driver gestures "go ahead", she waves her thanks, crosses the street and the car continues on its way.

That's how courtesy crossings are supposed to work, but more often than not, pedestrians walk briskly on to the courtesy crossing as if approaching vehicles did not exist, forcing drivers to slam on the brakes.

No physical damage is done, but drivers' tempers are wound up a few notches, while their respect for their fellow citizens' manners falls.

The bumpy relationship between pedestrians and vehicles in central Nelson is the result of courtesy crossings' design and regulation. The New Zealand Road Code's expectation is that drivers and pedestrians using courtesy crossings will treat each other with polite, respectful consideration. The road code's advice to drivers is as follows: "Although not official pedestrian crossings, (courtesy crossings) do provide a place for pedestrians to cross. Drivers should be courteous to pedestrians using a courtesy crossing."

In another section, the road code advises pedestrians, "Drivers are not obliged to stop at courtesy crossings . . . and recommends using them with care".

The Nelson City Council has tried to educate Nelsonians to put this into practice by asking pedestrians and drivers using courtesy crossings to make eye contact with each other, smile, and allow those who have been waiting longest to go first.

I'm not convinced that colourfully costumed educators Slo and Flo have had much impact. I spent some time last week observing drivers and pedestrians and only a tiny number acknowledged each other.

In practical terms, the council's advice is tricky, if not impossible, to follow, especially during the busy holiday period, with high numbers of pedestrians and vehicles trying to negotiate the same courtesy crossing.

Nelson's courtesy crossings have led to more than a few confused and frustrated drivers and many puzzled pedestrians, some of whom feel unsafe and avoid courtesy crossings altogether.

There have been calls for them to be removed and replaced with conventional zebra pedestrian crossings, where there is less room for confusion.

The rules around zebra crossings are clear: drivers must "slow down and be ready to stop for any pedestrians stepping on to, or on, the crossing . . . including people obviously waiting to use the crossing", while pedestrians are advised not to " . . . step out suddenly on to a pedestrian crossing if any vehicles are so close to the crossing they cannot stop".

However, a little time spent watching pedestrians use zebra crossings in the central city shows that some of the problems with courtesy crossings affect zebra crossing use.

While I was watching, drivers behaved very well at zebra crossings, but pedestrians often stepped on to the crossing without looking for approaching vehicles.

This is a potentially dangerous habit when transferred to zebra crossings where vehicles are moving more quickly than is typical in the central city.

I have seen close calls on the Haven Rd zebra crossing near Auckland Point School. A couple of times, cars were forced to stop for heedless pedestrians so abruptly that they swerved into the next lane.

One issue here is manners, or rather, the lack of them. Nelson citizens need to smarten up their awareness of other people using the same space.

However, the good design of public spaces supports civil behaviour, so perhaps the next time Trafalgar St needs to be dug up, its design could be reconsidered.

I would like to see the street design used at the top of Trafalgar St extended all the way to Halifax St: a one-level brick surface with no gutters to distinguish between footpath and roadway and space for cafe seating or stall holders signalled by bollards or planting, while still retaining drive-through access and as much parking space as possible.

There might even be room for some parking and/or planting in the centre of Trafalgar St, as seen in the main streets of other cities that aim for picturesque, people-friendly streetscapes. These changes would calm and slow traffic more than the present courtesy crossings. In this design, there would be no need for raised courtesy crossings or the pedestrian crossings in Hardy and Bridge streets, which would be replaced by bricked entry ways on to the Trafalgar St shared traffic zone.

Parallel cobbled strips, as used in New St, could indicate appropriate crossing zones or the street layout could omit them altogether, as in the shared space approach of Dutch traffic engineer the late Hans Monderman.

His counter-intuitive street designs encourage pedestrians and vehicle drivers to communicate their intentions to each other simply because there is no alternative.

Where his designs have been used, they have resulted in better relationships between pedestrians and drivers, less confusion and much lower accident rates.

Richmond has also had its share of issues with the Queen St courtesy crossings. Unless there is a radical redesign of this streetscape, there is a good case for removing the courtesy crossings and replacing them with zebra crossings.

Despite the best efforts of the Tasman District Council's town planners, Queen St is still much more of a traffic thoroughfare than Trafalgar St. Changes to Trafalgar St would help drivers and pedestrians have a happier central-city experience.