Why Do Some Roads Need “Refuge Islands” for Walkers?

When Pat Liddy is guiding tour groups around the city, he avoids trying to navigate the junction that would take them down Nicholas Street, just south of Christ Church Cathedral.

It would be the preferred route for guides, so they can quickly tick off two big monuments – Christ Church Cathedral and St Patrick’s Cathedral.

But “I don’t even go up that way. It takes too long to cross the road”, says Liddy, who runs walking tours.

Part of the problem is the refuge island in the middle of Christchurch Place, he says.

That’s why many tour groups avoid it – it slows them down, or if there’s a big bunch, they spill out of the island and onto the road, which is dangerous, he says.

It’s one of several “refuge islands” in the city that walking tour guides and others say point to wider issues of anti-pedestrian infrastructure.

All it would take is for people to be given longer to walk across, and cars to wait a bit more, says Pat Dunne, an Independents 4 Change councillor.

“A lot of the traffic signals are coordinated as a free run for cars. There’s no effort to give the same priorities for pedestrians,” he says.

Waiting on the Islands

Peter Gormley avoids the Nicholas Street crossing too, he says.

“You don’t want to be sitting there with 25 people on that island, because you’ll block it up,” says Gormley, the director of Yellow Umbrella Walking Tours.

If he’s shepherding a big group, it can take multiple trips, he says. “It could take conceivably twenty minutes to get across.”

Liddy can list from memory the refuge islands around Dublin with short crossing times, which add time on his tours.

O’Connell Street, he says, at the base of the spire. “Unless you cross with the green light, you’ll just barely make it to the other side before it goes red against you.”

If you’re slower, you’ll have to take it in two stages. “I don’t think for the amount of traffic on that street, that it needs to be that short.”

The refuge islands at Cornmarket, while larger, are a squeeze. “You have to take refuge – literally.”

In College Green, it can take three stages to make it to the Bank of Ireland building from Trinity College, Liddy says.

“Again, you just have to know this,” he says, “and you don’t expect people to make a mad dash. If you keep crossing, suddenly half of the group you’ve left behind isn’t going to be able to cross.”

Another difficult one is Merrion Square, going from the Oscar Wilde statue towards Trinity College. The island is small, with barriers keeping pedestrians close together. “Once you start crossing there, you can’t make it the whole way,” he says.

“From a pedestrian point of view, it’s very frustrating when a light doesn’t let you cross the whole way, safely,” says Liddy.

Said Gormley: “[Christ Church] island is a particularly inconvenient example, but you have those kinds of issues all over the city. It is city-wide.”

Gormley sees the solution, he says, in giving even more time to pedestrians to cross the road – even more than has been done already.

“You have to wait an awful long time to get a green light as a pedestrian, and when you do get it, it doesn’t last for very long,” he says.

He’s sensitive to how long it takes to cross – and how long it takes to get a green light too – because it eats so much into his tour time.

When his tour company was still operating, he and his groups would spend a significant 20–30 minute chunk of a three-hour tour waiting for the green light to signal for them.

“A re-prioritisation of pedestrians at traffic lights would be very helpful, for the city generally,” he says.

The Direction

Wait times for pedestrians have been cut through Covid-19 traffic measures, shows a council report from May last year.

The maximum cycle time for traffic lights went from 120 seconds to 80 seconds. That has given pedestrians a maximum wait of 60 seconds, rather than 100 seconds, at a crossing.

This is still a long time compared to other European cities, says Brian Deegan, a principal design engineer who specialises in road infrastructure for walkers and cyclists for Urban Movement.

“Eighty seconds is pretty good, but it could be a lot less,” he said. Dutch traffic engineers consider a 20 second wait to be poor, he says.

Wanting to compare pedestrian wait times in the UK and Europe, Deegan did a study. He sent groups out in Paris and Manchester to walk around for two hours.

The longest wait time at a pedestrian crossing that the group experienced in Paris was 20 seconds. In Manchester, it was 223 seconds.

Deegan says traffic engineers still prioritise car waiting times at pedestrian crossings.

The term “lost time” is commonly used to refer to the time that cars have to wait for pedestrians to cross the junction, and the aim is to reduce this time as much as possible, says Deegan.

Rory Brewster, a transport planner for engineering consulting firm Arup, says “lost time” is typically avoided by having pedestrians cross parallel with traffic moving in the same direction.

He says an all-pedestrian phase, where all cars at a junction are stopped to allow pedestrians to move, reduces the average wait-time for pedestrians.

Refuge islands are occasionally used as a solution to reduce the time that cars have to wait, said Brewster.

Deegan says the pedestrian green light is also usually timed so that a slower pedestrian would have to wait on the island.

A speedier walker could usually hop across in one go, whereas elderly, younger or disabled pedestrians may find they are spending three minutes to cross the road, he says.

Congestion Fears

The council report from last year said that its changes to reduce the wait time for pedestrians at crossings, and its automation of push buttons, had “resulted in the capacity of the city traffic signal system for vehicular traffic being reduced by approximately 40%”.

Some argue that longer car waiting times would lead to congestion elsewhere or send unwanted traffic down local streets, says Deegan.

“There’s always that one. Everyone will come up with a thousand ways to defend the status quo,” says Deegan.

But he recommends a tough approach. “You can treat the local streets so there’s no cut-through in low-traffic neighbourhoods,” he says.

Measures like blocking local roads and forcing cars to stay on the main roads, meaning they have to face delays.

Another solution, says Deegan, is allowing cars to turn right while there is a green pedestrian light. This is the case “in the rest of the world”, he says.

It can be a danger to pedestrians, he says, but it prevents congestion while allowing pedestrians to cross.

He says he once saw a nine-lane road in Thailand where pedestrians were allowed to cross, and the lanes moved continually.

But Deegan says he believes traffic engineers have a duty of care to protect pedestrians over addressing congestion or car-waiting times.

“We have to ask, are we going to take the delay and risk of increased congestion, or go with an improved quality of life, and not stressing pedestrians out at every single junction?” he said.

Gormley says he is aware of the space that walking tour groups take up on refuge islands. Trimming group sizes has been one way they have tried to combat this.

Smaller group sizes quicken the time it takes to get across the city. But sometimes blocking the path is unavoidable, he says.

With their tour companies closed since March, both Liddy and Gormley imagine smaller group sizes to allow for social distancing if their industry can open back up again in the summer.

Liddy isn’t sure of the solution. “It’s not perfect, but what is? You can see that I’m used to it. Maybe I’ve become a bit tolerant of it, but maybe I shouldn’t be.”

The groups have already rerouted their tours to avoid the trickier spots of Dublin, but Gormley thinks it still points to a wider issue.

“Some of them are necessary, if you’ve got a big junction,” he says. “As a pedestrian, I’d like to see less traffic, and if you’ve less traffic, then maybe you don’t need a refuge island.”

[UPDATE: This article was updated at 5pm on 10 March to correct a comment from Rory Brewster about having an all-pedestrian phase at junctions. Apologies for the error.]

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Claudia Dalby: Claudia Dalby is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. She's especially interested in stories about the southside, transport, and kids in the city. Get in touch at [email protected]er.com.

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