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 is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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