Sunday, 18 August 2013

Comparing Perth and Melbourne for pedestrians

On a recent trip to Melbourne I was impressed by how much easier it is to be a pedestrian in that city. What makes it better? One of the main advantages is it takes less time to cross a road. This is achieved by using the parallel crossing system at traffic lights. Put simply, pedestrians are allowed to cross a road in the same direction as motor traffic, at the same time. This means for every phase of traffic control there is an option for pedestrians to move. Motorists wanting to turn must wait until all pedestrians have crossed the road before making their move.

In Perth, at most busy intersections, pedestrians have to wait until we get our own special time to cross. All motor traffic is stopped, then pedestrians can go in any direction. This exclusive system for pedestrians is safe but it also means much longer waiting times. Pedestrians have to wait while motor traffic goes north-south, then east-west, then sometimes there is an extra turning sequence before everything stops and the pedestrians get a turn.

The parallel crossing system works in Melbourne because people driving vehicles give-way to pedestrians when turning. In Australia, traffic laws can vary slightly from state to state but this rule is the same for Perth and Melbourne. We have a problem that most Perth drivers are ignorant of this law and the Western Australian Police do very little to enforce it. 

A Melbourne taxi driver waits patiently to turn

Here is a comparison. This first video shows an intersection in the Melbourne district of South Yarra. There are pedestrian crossing options about every 35 seconds. The longest wait for a pedestrian is 1 minute 10 seconds. Notice how the driver of the small black car waits for the pedestrian. That is not likely to happen in Perth.

This next video shows a similar intersection in the Perth district of Mount Lawley. Both South Yarra and Mount Lawley are busy areas with a mixture of residential and commercial activity just a few kilometres from the central business district of each capital city. In Mount Lawley there is no pedestrian crossing option that runs parallel with the traffic. This means no short waiting times, whatever direction you want to travel. All pedestrians have to wait for the exclusive pedestrian-only phase which means a wait of up to 1 minute 50 seconds. 

People in Perth often wait three times longer to cross the road than people in Melbourne.

You might think at least with Perth's exclusive pedestrian phase a diagonal crossing can be made in one trip thus avoiding the extra waiting time, however this only works if you are a quick walker and get a lucky break by not having to wait too long before the pedestrian phase. Older people and those with children are not likely to attempt a diagonal crossing in Perth. There is not enough time to make the crossing before the lights change and you are at risk of being killed or injured.

The older man with the walking frame at the start of the Mount Lawley video takes 25 seconds to cross the road. This is barely enough time to cross at the shortest point, he would not attempt a diagonal crossing in one go. For this person a diagonal crossing at these Mount Lawley traffic lights would have to be done in two parts and would take somewhere between 2 minutes 20 seconds if he got lucky, but it is more likely to be longer and take up to 4 minutes 30 seconds with most of the time spent standing watching cars go past.

In Melbourne's South Yarra, this same two-part crossing, done to reach an opposite corner would only take him 60 seconds!  A 25 second walk, a 10 second wait and then another 25 second walk.

It gets worse. Have a look at our central business district. This next video shows the intersection of St Georges Terrace and Milligan Street Perth. This is the oil and gas end of town. On one corner is the 40-storey QV1 tower and on another is the 29-story Woodside Plaza building. They have about 100,000 square metres of lettable floor space between them. On the opposite corners are a park and a boutique hotel plus there are other multi-storey towers nearby. This combination should result in a lot of pedestrian activity but it is relatively quiet down on the street. Perhaps it is because it can take up to 2 minutes 20 seconds just to cross the road.

This intersection has an extra phase of motor vehicle flow so the pedestrian-only phase takes longer to come around. The wait is so long some people ignore the rules and cross against the 'Don't Walk' sign. You can see a woman in black doing this at around 1' 35".

The pedestrian-only phase with diagonal crossing has different names around the world. It is sometimes called a "pedestrian scramble" or a "Barnes dance".  This Wikipedia page gives some further reading. Contrary to my observations here, there seems to be a general view that these pedestrian-only phases are an advantage to pedestrians. Providing amenity and safety over the dominance of motor vehicles. As with roundabouts, which I have written about previously, there are a number of ways to interpret and execute traffic control systems. The version of the pedestrian scramble we have in Perth is safe but the long waiting times followed by very short crossing times dissuade people from walking.

The following scramble intersection in Toronto has a different execution. They have the pedestrian-only scramble at every third phase but also allow pedestrians to cross in parallel with the motor traffic during the other phases.

The Sustainable Transport Coalition of Western Australia produced a paper in 2003 about the introduction of parallel phase pedestrian crossings in Western Australia. It is still available to download from their website. They expressed concern about the safety of pedestrians and complained about the poor implementation of the system by the Western Australian state government's department of Main Roads. It seems that not a great deal has changed in the past ten years.

It would be interesting to compare the pedestrian death statistics between the two cities. Even though Perth's pedestrians have to wait longer, do the exclusive pedestrian phases make walking safer than Melbourne's parallel system?  The only figures I could find compare the whole states: Victoria and Western Australia. Victoria has a higher population but once the figures are adjusted for that, on average, there is not a lot of difference. Western Australia has slightly more deaths. I got the figures from the BITRE Road Deaths Australia 2011 Statistical Summary (3.6 MB PDF).

The death statistics do not tell the full story about vulnerable road users in Australia. Lowering the number of deaths of pedestrians or cyclists means nothing if there are less people participating in those modes of transport. Governments should not congratulate themselves on achieving a lower road toll if they continue to create road environments that discourage walking and bicycling.

Intersections with traffic lights in Perth and the rest of Western Australia can be confusing. There are a range of different systems in place at various locations. The pedestrian-only scramble is not done at every intersection. There are some traffic lights with 'Walk' and 'Don't Walk' symbols and others with nothing. The intersections without the scramble phase are hazardous because of the risk of being killed or injured from turning vehicles.

However, expanding the use of pedestrian-only scramble phases at traffic lights is not the solution to better pedestrian amenity and safety. The major issue that needs to be addressed in Western Australia is the non-compliance by motorists of the law:


If motorists obeyed this law it would make life in Perth so much better. Intersections with traffic lights are the minority:  at the many thousands of intersections without traffic lights, pedestrians are also put at risk from motorists making illegal turns while they are crossing the road.  

Enforcing this law will probably not make a huge difference to the road toll.  The people who walk around Perth generally do not put themselves at risk. They are mostly cautious and vigilant of the two-tonnes of metal that are thrown around corners without warning. It is not very pleasant to always be on guard, to remember to watch over your shoulder every time you cross a minor street or driveway. Therefore, many people (too many) simply do not walk, it's not pleasant, it's too stressful and it takes too long. 

Town of Cambridge sign

The catalyst for change will not come from the state government Office of Road Safety. They measure their success on lower injuries and fewer deaths. This needs to be a whole of government approach. Less aggressive motorists and a better environment for walking will have benefits for tourism, health and the economy. Some traffic engineers also think those parallel walk lights at intersections are better for congestion as well.

If our state government would finally recognise the problem then act to educate the public and simply enforce the law, our quality of life could be improved immensely.

Pedestrians weave through cars in West Perth