On pedestrian infrastructure & culture

Continuing with my Canadian-in-Australia series, and my random observations and urban-nerdiness, this entry is about pedestrian infrastructure and culture.  I’m an avid pedestrian – I walk everywhere, given the opportunity, and love going on long distance walks in urban areas so this is one that’s close to my heart.

This will likely be a shorter entry as it’s fairly focused.  Pedestrian infrastructure and planning is something you don’t really think about until the things you take for granted change!  Most of this will focus on Australian pedestrian life, but in the view of contrasting it to Canada’s.


Walking in Sydney, and in most of Australia for that matter, can be a risky venture.  The most amusing form this takes is a campaign in New South Wales that advises readers “Been Drinking? Walk Safe.”  Apparently drinking and walking is a really big problem here.  (It’s not, really, at least that I can see).


First, the good side: virtually every city, town, and suburb has a pedestrian precinct.  Even Alice Springs, a town of less than 30,000 people and one of the few places that actually don’t have any logical reasons to support pedestrians, has a large pedestrianised street in the middle of town.  Pedestrian malls are so normal here that it would be weird if you went somewhere that didn’t have one.  For the most part, they’re lined with thriving businesses, flowing with shoppers and tourists, and a refuge for the weary walker or jogger.  And people do walk here.  It might have something to do with the transit systems (which in many cities are awful), or something to do with the weather, but there are always lots of pedestrians wherever you go.  In Canada, many do walk, but it never feels like there are as many people on the streets – and pedestrian malls are reserved for our more “European” cities like Montreal.

Zebra Crossing

The downside of walking in Australia, though, is that some parts of it can be really inconvenient. The biggest inconvenience being crossing the street.  There are two major ways to cross the street (plus the third option of crossing mid-block, which is risky at best but in a quiet neighbourhood quite normal).  The first is “zebra crossings.”  These are designated crossings, noted with thick white parallel lines and usually a sign for traffic in both directions that resembles two feet on a street.  The rule at zebra crossings is that pedestrians have the right of way, all the time.  You step out onto the street and traffic everywhere stops for you.  Usually.  I still walk cautiously as it’s not uncommon outside the CBD for these crossings to be on roads that have few enough pedestrians that the driver doesn’t expect you.  I kind of like these crossings, and given the alternative (see below) here, they’re actually preferable since you just get to walk whenever you want.


The other type of crossing in Australia is a pedestrian light.  Instead of the North American style red hand and white walking person, Australian pedestrian lights feature a red standing person and a green walking person – easy enough to figure out as long as you’re not colour-blind.  They also make a sound that vaguely resembles a 70s or 80s film laser gun (I half expect Luke Skywalker to come around the corner whenever I hear it) followed by a digitised egg timer ticking down the green light (see the video below).  Canada’s crosswalks make bird sounds.  I don’t really understand either, to be honest, and the blind people I’ve spoken to about it don’t really know how the system works either, especially since it’s never clear which direction has the green light when the sound is being made.  The one advantage Australian lights have is that the push-button to request the light to change has a tactile arrow above it showing the direction of the light – and the laser-gun sound comes directly out of that box.  Scramble crossings are also more common in Australian cities, though in Sydney they’re often very poorly marked (if they’re even marked at all).

The problem with the lights in Australia is that vehicle traffic is given a huge priority on the intersections so it takes a really long time to cross the street.  It’s not uncommon to wait five minutes or more to get a green light – and when you do, it rarely stays green more than 30 seconds, though the flashing red seems to last a really long time before it finally turns red.   One extreme example was in Surfers Paradise in the Gold Coast, where the light to cross the Gold Coast Highway nearest to my motel went through two full cycles for cars before allowing pedestrians to go East-West (which at this intersection meant a right turn light for each of three traffic directions, plus a left turn/straight light, or a total of 6 light changes per cycle or 12 light changes before the pedestrians got to go again).  Those light changes took close to 10 minutes – I learned after the first day to jaywalk Northbound (across the side street) and go a few blocks further where the lights changed slightly faster and jaywalking was easier.  As a result of these absurd delays (across the country), no one obeys the lights.  Some do (especially in Brisbane, inexplicably), of course, and when the light is green there are certainly more people crossing the road than when it’s not.  But it’s quite common for people to make a dash for it during the flashing red.  And even more common to simply cross while it’s red if the traffic is clear.  (I think this is the real problem – if you waited a long time and there was constant traffic it would be tolerable, but if you obey the lights you often spend minutes on end waiting for the light to change on a deserted street).  Since it’s so common to jaywalk, it sort of provides the advantage / cover that you basically cross whenever you feel like it (even though it is still illegal to do so) because everyone does it.  But it’s also quite dangerous; and I’ve seen (or been a part of) way too many close calls.  Another thing that’s lacking is countdown timers – the little display on the pedestrian light that shows how many seconds are left until the light turns red.  Of course these are still fairly new in Canada too, and not rolled out everywhere yet, but the City of Sydney just started a pilot project of two intersections in late December 2010.  It’s kind of quaint, really.


In comparison, mid-block jaywalking is still quite common in Canada, but since pedestrian lights turn green / white much quicker it’s much less common at controlled intersections.  Strangely, Toronto has recently started putting down zebra crossing-style road paintings for crossings that are not zebra crossings – they use them in combination with pedestrian lights, contrary to the approach taken in virtually all of the rest of the world.  (They’re common in much of Europe, too, one of the most famous of which being at Abbey Road where the Beatles did their famous photo shoot.)  Vancouver, on the other hand, has zebra crossings used in the traditional pedestrian-has-right-of-way manner, though most drivers are unaware of this.  Vancouver also has awkward rules about pedestrian-controlled intersections – the vehicular traffic lights constantly flash green unless a pedestrian comes along and pushes the button to cross the main road, when the lights turn red. This is contrary to the meaning of a flashing green in other parts of Canada and the world (being an ‘advanced’ green where the direction with this light gets to go before other directions)… and also makes crossing the side street as a pedestrian ambiguous – the cars leaving the side street have to yield the right-of-way to cars going through but not pedestrians.

These have proven incredibly helpful when it comes to not being killed

One final thing that I think is useful worldwide is a marking on the pavement telling pedestrians which way to look. This helps tourists who are from countries that drive on the opposite side – but it also helps deal with unexpected one-way streets.  These are everywhere in Australia, particularly in Sydney and other major cities.  They’re virtually nowhere in Canada – though on my latest return visit I did spot an old looking one in Vancouver, and a brand new one in Hamilton’s MacNab Bus depot.


A brief photo selection of Australian pedestrian malls:

Adelaide – Rundle Mall

Malls BallsIMG_1603

Alice Springs – Todd Mall


Brisbane – Chinatown Mall

Chinatown Mall

Brisbane – Queen Street Mall


Canberra – City Walk


Darwin – Smith Street Mall


Hobart – Elizabeth Street Mall

Elizabeth Street Mall

Launceston – Brisbane Street Mall (strangely I didn’t take any photos of this mall itself – I have only this photo… the photo below is from a Flickr user who has kindly applied a CC licence):


Melbourne – Bourke Street Mall


Newcastle – Hunter Street Mall


Perth – Murray Street Mall (the primary mall – there are many other pedestrianised side streets and arcades throughout the Perth CBD)


Sydney – Pitt Street Mall


Sydney – Martin Place


6 responses to this post.

  1. […] post to go up later this year about pedestrian crossings in Australia… EDIT: Now posted here).  I also have to admit I rarely ever see anyone using the Woolloomooloo end of the Bourke Street […]


  2. Posted by Traveleish on 2011/09/08 at 11:58 am

    Just on the ‘flashing red man’ thing…
    AFAIK in Australia, green man means ‘Start walking’. Red flashing man means ‘finish crossing if you already started’. You’re not supposed to *start* crossing if the red man is flashing. Non-flashing red man means ‘do not walk/cross’.
    I felt a bit pressured by the North American crossings that counted down the seconds you had left to cross!
    Pedestrian crossing types have some weird names – although most people are only familiar with ‘zebra crossing’ and maybe ‘pelican crossing’ as names. See a list at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedestrian_crossing#In_the_Commonwealth


  3. […] they would prefer to pick me up across the road (a process which takes 5-10 minutes – see my pedestrian post on that one!)  This call came 5-10 minutes after they were supposed to pick me up, but I crossed […]


  4. […] On pedestrian infrastructure & culture […]


  5. […] Melbourne, below).  I’m in favour of using both of these, though as I’ve pointed out in an earlier entry these are not used consistently within Canada, where zebra crossings mean “pedestrian right […]


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