A Push for More Zebra Crossings May Leave Some Pedestrians Behind

The zebra crossing on Strand Street in the Italian Quarter just north of the river has seen better days.

Last Thursday, lunchtime commuters crossed this quiet city-centre road, over faded white lines painted on tarmac below their feet.

This is one of only two zebra crossings in the city centre, according to a council spokesperson. The other is at Harbourmaster Place in the International Financial Services Centre.

Some have recently been arguing that Dublin needs more of them. “I’m a big fan,” says Green Party Councillor Ciarán Cuffe. “I see them being used more and more in towns and cities around Ireland.”

Dublin City Council Beta Projects – a council initiative that tests ways to tackle city challenges – is exploring zebra crossings as a safety measure for pedestrians and as a potential traffic-calming solution.

But not everyone is keen. “Your average sighted person, waiting at a zebra crossing, looks for an approaching car and makes eye contact,” says Fiona Kelty, of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI). “A blind person can’t do that.”

A Changing Mood

Back in May, DCC Beta Projects got several messages suggesting that there should be more zebra crossings throughout the city.

The arguments in favour? More pedestrians crossings are needed in Dublin, one submission noted, and zebra crossings are cheaper than signalled crossings with lights.

(Although the cost of zebra crossings can vary based on “site conditions, utilities both underground and overhead, traffic management issues and choice of materials”, said the council spokesperson.)

“Dublin’s streets are congested and often quite angry places,” somebody wrote in another submission to DCC Beta Projects. Different road users compete for limited road space.

Zebra crossings would provide a “calming influence” throughout the city, read one submission, because cars wouldn’t race to beat red lights. In turn, Dublin’s pedestrians wouldn’t be required to wait for “insultingly long” times at traffic lights.

What has stopped the council’s traffic department from rolling out zebra crossings around the city in the past, says Cuffe, is a preference for controlled traffic lights.

But Cuffe says that within the traffic department, “it seems like the mood is changing, that they’re more open to them”.

For Whom?

Zebra crossings, however, do nothing to help a blind or partially sighted person, says the NCBI’s Kelty.

Visually impaired people cannot “eyeball” drivers at zebra crossings, she says, and drivers often assume pedestrians have seen their vehicle.

Not all visually impaired people use canes or guide dogs that would signal to a driver that this pedestrian might not have seen them coming, Kelty said. Besides, not all motorists stop for people with those aides, anyway, she said.  

Everybody should have equal access to public roads, Kelty said. That includes crossings. “If you don’t have a pedestrian crossing with audible signals then a blind person cannot do that independently,” she says.

In addition to presenting difficulties for people who are visually impaired, zebra crossings present challenges for people with intellectual or cognitive difficulties, says Gary Kearney, spokesperson for the Disability Federation of Ireland.

Anything but a controlled crossing is “dangerous”, says Kearney, who suffered brain damage nearly 10 years ago. Zebra crossings create an added level of uncertainty that can be difficult to navigate, he said.

“I have friends who won’t cross at them,” he says. “They go further along to a controlled crossing.”

Striking Balance

Elsewhere, efforts have been trialed at making zebra crossings safer by using optical illusions to make them appear to drivers like three-dimensional obstacles, rather than just flat paint on the street.

Fianna Fáil Councillor Paul McAuliffe says it’s time that Dublin trialed something similar. “There are places in Dublin where it’s just not cost-effective to put traffic lights but that need frequent crossings,” he says.

McAuliffe has asked the council’s traffic department to look at zebra crossings that use lights to create a three-dimensional effect. “I think they could be used for traffic-calming as well as zebra crossings.”

Staff at DCC Beta Projects plan to examine zebra crossings as a city-centre traffic measure as part of its shortlist of potential ideas to work on, beginning this month.

According to the council spokesperson, “there are plans in place for a number of pedestrian crossings across Dublin City in the coming months”.

“The exact design and nature of each will be chosen on a case by case basis,” said the spokesperson.


Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

Reader responses

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Anonymous commenter
at 13 September 2018 at 14:27

I think this posits two separate issues against each other. The needs of the visually impaired are, arguably, better served by signalled crossings at busy junctions, but zebras would be much better for the visually impaired than the status quo, which is nothing at all at the vast majority of junctions in Dublin! The approach in Brussels and elsewhere in mainland Europe is to have zebras by default at every junction, with tactile surfaces to guide the blind to them.

Anonymous commenter
at 14 September 2018 at 23:52

Why do they need to appear as three dimensional? Surely it would work better if they were three dimensional, i.e. large ramps effectively. The NCBI raise valid concern, but maybe they should be calling out the true concern: drivers have a lack of respect for pedestrians and the law alows it. Tighten the law and put plainclothes Gardai at the crossings, handing out penalty points to drivers who don't stop for peds.

Anonymous commenter
at 15 September 2018 at 09:26

The problem is that we need to change the whole dynamic of our streets. People were here before cars. It has to be the cars responsibility to stop at a zebra crossing, not the vulnerable road users responsibility to make eye contact in order to shame them to stop. Maybe they need To put mandatory stop lines on crossings and enforce, enforce, enforce!

Anonymous commenter
at 15 September 2018 at 13:56

It's importance first to define what we are talking about when we say zebra crossings – in different parts of the world zebras markings are on what we called fully signalised crossings, or they are used just with signs or with nothing or with beacons like we have. Different countries also allow for different movements at junctions – some countries allow for conflicting movements (ie cars turning as pedestrians have the right to cross), other counties never had conflicting movements or phased them out a long time ago and others have started phasing out conflicting movements. Zebras we use are generally used away from junctions and mostly in low volume areas and they are partly signalised (the beacon is a signal). The arguments against zebra crossings, while understandable, are wrong to think of zebra crossings as only a replacement for fully signalised crossings – this is not the case, zebras are often used where there would otherwise be no formalised crossing at all or just two lines. Zebra crossings are much clearer to motorists as places people are crossings, while less formal crossings are hardly respected at all. Zebra crossing are about half the build cost of fully signalised crossings and are lower maintenance – if people want to campaign against zebras, they need to answer: how much have they campaigned to fund the replacement of zebras and roll out of signalised crossings around the country? In lots of places in Dublin and elsewhere, the traffic volumes and costs do not justify fully signalised crossings (not just based on cost, but based on volumes for most of the day). So, in many cases, going against zebras is just looking for the status quo to be maintained.

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