Queuing for Beginners
Pedestrian crossings were first introduced after the 1934 Road Traffic Act, at a time when the growing number of deaths on the roads was seen as a national scandal. To make road crossings conspicuous, they were marked at kerbside by Belisha beacons,' named after the minister of transport, Leslie Hore-Belisha. These seven-foot-high striped poles with amber-coloured globes on top were garish additions to the streetscape and produced a great deal of both amused and hostile public interest. The Spectator protested that they made London look like it was 'preparing for a fifth-rate carnival.' In the four months after their introduction, 3,000 of the 15,000 beacons installed in London had been destroyed, by people throwing stones or taking pot shots at them with air rifles. Perhaps these guerrila foot soldiers were protesting at the way in which the crossings conceded the rest of the highway to the motor car. By the end of the 1930s, both local authorities and the government began to restrict pedestrian movement. Miles of pedestrian barriers were erected in London, making it harder not to use the provided crossings. In a pilot project in the capital, policemen stood on the roofs of police cars in busy streets during the rush hour, shouting advice and admonishments at pedestrians through megaphones.'
The next major innovation was the zebra crossing, invented in the late 1940S after a series of studies by the Road Research Laboratory on the conspicuousness of different road markings in different conditions like wet roads and night-time. The future prime minister James Callaghan, then a junior at the Ministry of Transport, came up with 'zebra' as a name for the crossing that would be easily remembered, particularly by children. A thousand sets of zebra stripes were painted on roads in preparation for 'pedestrian crossing week', held in April 1949 to test the new zebras and promote the use of crossings generally. There were also painted footprints on the pavement leading up to the zebras, silently urging pedestrians to follow their example.
The Ministry of Transport believed that there were now so many crossings that they were not being observed by either motorists or pedestrians. So the Belisha crossings not converted to zebras were gradually abandoned, reducing the overall number of crossings by about two-thirds. In many towns, parents protested against the removal of crossings, forming human barriers and holding up traffic while their children crossed the road to school. The zebra crossing also failed to get rid of the long-standing confusion over rights of way. The 1954 version of the Highway Code informed pedestrians that they had precedence on the zebra but should 'be sensible; wait for a suitable gap in the traffic so that drivers have time to give way.' It is easy to see how, in heavy traffic, this could lead to a game of chicken.
By the early 1960s it was clear that the zebra could not cope with the growing volume of urban traffic. The post-war office boom had created huge rush-hour congestion in city centres, as more white-collar workers drove to work in cars, many donated by their firms as non-taxable perks. So the government experimented with a 'hybrid' crossing that would stop cars more emphatically but would not disrupt the traffic flow as much as traffic lights. Instead of the zebra's parallel stripes, these new 'panda' crossings had triangular black-and-white shark's teeth, supposedly resembling panda markings. The pedestrian pressed a button at the roadside, which produced a flashing amber light followed by a pulsating red light for drivers, warning and then ordering them to stop, followed by a 'cross' sign for the pedestrian. This was a new concept of road-sharing, which gave pedestrians and cars priority on the same section of road at different times. Panda crossings were introduced in April 1962, when the minister of transport, Ernest Marples, switched on the first one, opposite London's Waterloo station. There is a curious piece of BBC news footage of this event in which, deprived of any ribbon-cutting moment, Marples simply walks over the crossing, holding a toy panda presented to him by the Mayor of Lambeth's wife. Ominously, he has to wave the traffic on again once he has crossed the road.