Remaining untouched for around 70 years, the zebra crossing we know so well might soon appear very different after a road safety experiment in the London borough of Westminster to get drivers to reduce their speed.

Although the location wasn’t an accident blackspot the council were receiving reports of children, elderly people, and pushchairs users having trouble crossing the street. The result? What appears to be lumps of concrete sprawled on the road ahead.

Trompe l’oeil

Eight weeks ago, after complaints about the speed of vehicles in affluent St John’s Wood High Street, Westminster Council installed a state-of-the-art £3,000 three dimensional-effect zebra crossing as a traffic-calming measure, at the junction with Wellington Place.

The council chose the site near the crossing pictured on the acclaimed Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover after local parent group NW8 Mums, along with Barrow Hill Junior School, and The St John’s Wood Society campaigned for introducing new safety measures in the street.

Traffic speed also concerned residents, with many arguing the 20mph limit is too fast—if drivers are sticking to the speed limit.

The clever floating effect that attempts to convince motorists they’re about to drive into an obstruction is ‘dual directional’. The design comprises the typical zig-zag lines on the approach and five white stripes across the width of the road. Around the stripes are some added blocks of grey paint that, as the driver approaches, appear to be white blocks on the road.

It’s interesting the experiment proved so effective when, before reaching the new crossing, a red sign reading ‘3D crossing trial marking ahead’ warned motorists.

And because most of the motorists using the street are local, soon after installation, one would expect the illusion would no longer cause anybody to slow down any more than for a standard zebra crossing.

Yet, at the start of the trial, Westminster Council fitted pneumatic tubes across the road to measure the effect the new crossing had on traffic speeds, so the results seem to show that a pedestrian crossing like this does appear to have something blocking the road.

‘Worth a try’

Councillor Tim Mitchell, Cabinet Member for Environment and City Management, said:

“We are delighted it appears to be working so well. Drivers are more cautious and feedback from locals has been positive. It’s really encouraging.”

Councillor Mitchell added, “Our 3D zebra crossing could be the future of road safety across the country and once again Westminster City Council is at the forefront in innovation in bringing this type of crossings to the UK.

“Far from being simply a brilliant innovation that makes the ordinary look eye-grabbing and modern—the 3D effect helps drivers to see the crossing easier.

“It’s been proven to make roads [safer] and is another example of why Westminster has a national reputation for providing excellent local services, driving improvements, and making sure the city is safe and well run.”

A spokesperson for Britain’s Automobile Association (AA) told the BBC the measures were “worth a try” but cautioned “its safety record needed monitoring”.

Edmund King, President of the AA may need convincing that 3D crossings are the answer, but he seemed open to the idea when he said:

“Once the novelty has worn off, will drivers continue to slow down? It should have a full evaluation. But if it’s successful, it could become as popular as Abbey Road.”

The AA suggested that just because the 3D crossing designs proved successful in other locations, the design may not work so well in London because of the city’s road layout. They said London authorities needed to “try new ways” to improve safety as roads grow busier.

Coming to a road near you?

The council—who said the prototype slowed motorists to a crawl—branded the experiment a success so the scheme may now extend across the rest of the borough. Local authorities throughout the United Kingdom are also proposing similar 3D crossings. This won’t alter the fact that, according to a 2018 study, 80% of drivers and pedestrians don’t know how to use zebra crossings.

This is the first time the UK has tried a 3D effect pedestrian crossing, but Transport for London (TfL) first tested illusory speed bumps in Newham, London in 2014, where they lowered traffic speeds by 3mph.

3D crossings used in a similar pilot scheme in New Delhi, India, resulted in average speeds of 31mph plummeting to 19mph. China, France, Germany, and Iceland are among the countries who have also tried out such optical trickery in the name of safer roads.

If the 20mph zones are too fast for the locals of St. John’s Wood, what about the increased pollution levels lower speeds bring, especially outside schools? Fewer vehicles using internal combustion engines seems to be the answer and is the government’s ultimate plan.

Whether the sightseers who visit St John’s Wood to pay tribute to The Beatles at the Abbey Road studios and walk across the legendary zebra crossing will now also visit the 3D crossing for their Instagram snaps, who can tell? In the meantime, here’s a video of the 3D crossing.

What’s your opinion on the new zebra crossing design? Do you think it will be a success across the UK? Tell us your views in the comments.

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