By Cutting Costs with Fewer Beacons or More Solar, Council Plans to Try Out More Zebra Crossings

There is often a steady stream of pedestrians crossing the forked junction at the bottom of busy South William Street and Stephen Street Lower in the south-inner city.

But cars have priority and many drivers don’t stop to let people cross the narrow road, says Green Party Councillor Janet Horner.

“So you can end up stuck for a while or having to dash across the road to get in front of a car,” she says.

Spots like this are where zebra crossings might make pedestrians safer because drivers are told to yield to people crossing on them, she says.

“It’s of most benefit to people who are older, who have mobility issues, who can’t dash across the road if there’s a car coming that doesn’t want to yield to them,” said Horner, who chairs the council’s zebra-crossing working group.

Dublin City Council has in the past held off on more zebra crossings, preferring to put in pelican crossings with traffic lights.

But the costs of installing those signalised pedestrian crossings might mean that busy crossing areas stay completely unprotected, Horner says.

Using solar panels to power zebra crossings, and removing the flashing lights, might bring zebra crossings back into Dublin city, she says.

In the past, disability groups have said that – compared to pedestrian crossings with bleeps indicating when it’s time to cross, and which require drivers to come to a full stop – zebra crossings aren’t as safe for those who are visually impaired.

On Friday, Rob Tobin, spokesperson for the National Council for the Blind Ireland, said that installing fully signalised pedestrian crossings is the only way to make crossing roads accessible for those with visual impairments.

Council officials have said they will propose between six and 10 locations in the north and south suburbs of the city, and the inner-city, where zebra crossings could be trialled, Horner said.

They have agreed to bring those ideas to the next zebra-crossing working group, she said. After that, the traffic and transport subcommittee would have to approve the trial, Horner said.

Searching for a Cheaper Way

To put in a new pelican-style pedestrian crossing – those with beg buttons – or zebra crossings, workers have to dig a trench to connect to the electricity mains, lay cable ducting, build manholes, and maintain the lights after.

This work is disruptive, can take a long time, and is costly.

A one-arm pelican crossing can cost around €80,000, while four-arm junctions can cost between €220,000 and €280,000. Zebra crossings can also cost up to €80,000 to install, says the government’s press release on the zebra crossing trial.

That’s because the flashing Belisha beacons either side of a zebra crossing need to be hooked up to the electricity mains, it says.

Therefore, the government is looking to trial reflective signs to see how they work in place of the Belisha beacons.

The trial is nine months long, and will take place in eight spots in Dún Laoghaire and Limerick, where any risks to vulnerable road users would be observed, it says.

“While the move wouldn’t fully eliminate the use of Belisha beacons, the pilot will provide the information needed to inform a decision to omit or replace them with a fixed sign, in certain situations,” it says.

However, after the pilot, the government might decide that zebra crossings really do need Belisha beacons, says Horner, the Green Party councillor and chair of Dublin City Council’s zebra crossing working group.

That’s why the working group is trying to push Dublin City Council officials to copy Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, and try solar power for zebra crossings. That could cut costs, as workers wouldn’t have to dig down to connect to the mains.

A council spokesperson said: “The Transport SPC is looking at the possibility of installing Zebra crossing, both mains connected and solar power.”

Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council put in nine solar-powered zebra crossings in 2021 and 2022, in Dundrum, Glenageary, Dalkey, Stepaside, Sandyford and Leopardstown, said a spokesperson.

Solar panels saved the council money and reduced carbon emissions, the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council spokesperson, although they didn’t have a figure on the exact cost.

“It was a lot cheaper than a mains-powered equivalent,” they said. However, solar panels don’t work for brighter flashing lights, which are preferred for zebra crossings on higher-speed roads.

Horner says a solar-powered zebra crossing should cost around €40,000. So, half the cost of a standard zebra-crossing.

A Fingal County Council spokesperson said they had heard that solar panels weren’t enough to power zebra crossings.

“We understand that another local authority has trialled a solar powered zebra crossing, however it has been reported that the batteries lack power in winter time due to lack of sufficient sunlight charging hours to recharge the batteries,” they said.

Solar panels aren’t suitable for powering street lights or traffic lights either, they said. “Fingal County Council is cognisant of the requirement to have a consistent uninterrupted power supply.”

A spokesperson for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council said that much bigger solar panels and batteries are needed for powering street lights, than zebra crossings, so that doesn’t work right now. “This may change in the future with improving technology.”

The Caveats

Right now, there are few public zebra crossings in the Dublin City Council boundaries, according to a zebra-crossing mapping project done by IrishCycle.com, a cycling-news website.

There’s one on Strand Street in the north inner-city, one on Donore Avenue in the Liberties, and one on Belmont Avenue in Donnybrook.

Most zebra crossings in the city are inside hospital campuses, with clusters in Beaumont, St James’ and St Vincent’s.

Dublin City Council officials have said in the past that they do not normally use zebra crossings, as they are not considered suitable for people with sensory loss or visual impairments.

“There is no audio or tactile indication to users that it is safe to cross,” said a 2020 council presentation about Strand Road.

Council officials in the Traffic Advisory Group, which review requests for changes to road infrastructure, have said that the council was phasing zebra crossings out, because they give pedestrians a false sense of safety when crossing the road.

“A pedestrian does not have the right-of-way until they actually step onto a zebra crossing,” said a council official in 2017, and it’s hard to catch motorists in the act and enforce compliance with the crossing.

Tobin, the spokesperson for the National Council for the Blind Ireland, says that for blind or visually impaired people, a zebra crossing is a moderate improvement on an unsignalised crossing.

People who are blind or visually impaired cannot make eye contact to communicate with a driver approaching a zebra crossing, to confirm it’s safe to cross, he says. “You can kind of read from the driver’s demeanour, or that you can see them slowing down, that yes, it is safe to cross, there is courtesy being given here.”

But visually impaired pedestrians are reliant on fully controlled pedestrian crossings to know when it is safe to cross the road, he says.

Although the council might be tight on budgets for signalised crossings, he says, installing them is best practice. “We wouldn’t be accepting anything less, and we certainly wouldn’t be standing over it.”

“We realise that it is going to take time to bring more crossings, and ideally all crossings up to that standard,” he says.

Horner, the Green Party councillor, says zebra crossings are needed to give greater priority to pedestrians, especially vulnerable pedestrians and road users.

Dublin’s road infrastructure prioritises car usage, traffic flow and ease for people driving, she says. “We have to reverse that trend at some point, and this is one step in the way to doing that.”

Dublin City Council hasn’t yet responded to queries sent Tuesday asking how they respond to the NCBI’s request that all pedestrian crossings be signalised.

Horner says Dublin also has a huge problem with drivers not obeying red lights at the signalised pedestrian crossings.

“That’s a behavioural issue for driving that needs to be clamped down across the city as a whole, and is definitely a bigger problem than just whether there are zebra crossings or not,” she says.

For zebra crossings to work, she says, drivers must always yield. “If they don’t, obviously they do become very hazardous.”

If the council trials zebra crossings, she said, it should monitor whether drivers obey the crossing and whether they have a traffic-calming effect.

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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]

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