3D Zebra Crossing in Ísafjörður. Image credit - Gústi Productions

Managing urban traffic: 3D zebra crossings spread across Europe

Urban traffic management is a challenge for cities across Europe. Even though the number of road accidents all over the continent has been declining — last year, 4,000 fewer people died on European roads, according to the European Commission, bringing the total number of deaths to 18,800 – the figure nevertheless continues to alarm authorities and mobilise them to find solutions.

That’s why in several cities, creative ways to reduce road accidents are being tested. They do so by forcing drivers and cyclists to reduce their speed and respect pedestrians. And particularly with the ease of COVID-19 restrictions, the concern is that numbers might rise once again as more people return to the roads, either to travel or to commute to and from work.

One such solution is 3D zebra crossings, a novelty designed to force drivers to reassess their speed.

2019 European Mobility Week. Via Laietana, Barcelona. Photo credit: © Ajuntament de Barcelona

Deployed for the first time in Europe by the small Icelandic town of Ísafjörður in 2017. Ralf Trylla, from the city’s environment office, told Quartz that he “was looking for other possibilities and different solutions to slow down traffic other than the regular speed bumps.” Studies show they contribute to an increase in air pollution, and drivers often complain they are also a nuisance and might damage car’s suspensions.

The inspiration for Ísafjörður came from India, where Shakuntala Pandya and her daughter Saumya Pandya Thakkar teamed up to redesign the traditional pedestrian zebra crossings in the city of Ahmedabad.

The idea behind the initiatives is straightforward – to create optical illusions that force drivers to slow down, reducing the risk of accidents involving pedestrians crossing the road – and the success on social media for many of these initiatives was immediate, leading several cities to copy the idea and implement their own versions, from Melbourne in Australia and Corfu in Greece to several cities in Belgium and Portugal.

In 2019, during EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK, the campaign message focused on walking (Walk with us!was the slogan) and some cities painted creative zebra crossings, including 3D ones. This year, the campaign celebrated its twentieth anniversary between 16 and 22 September and they are now calling for applications for the EU Urban Road Safety Award with a deadline of 31 October.

The next step in traffic safety?

Schaerbeek, in Brussels, was among the first places to have implemented 3D zebra crossings in 2017, and soon Antwerp, along with the small towns of Beersel and Bilzen, followed suit after being selected by the Flemish roads agency AWV to receive their own 3D Zebra Crossings. However, according to Sara Depauw, European Advisor for the City of Antwerp, “the experiment was found to be too demanding in maintenance.”

Schaerbeek, in the north of Brussels, found a similar problem. In 2017 they “took the initiative to implement a 3D pedestrian crossing to assess the feasibility of such markings. It turned out that this type of marking is too expensive, and the project has not been pursued,” explains Maria Giovanna Zamburlini, European Programs and Financing Officer of Schaerbeek’s Grants and Partnership Department.

Professor Paulo Noriega. Personal archive.

Paulo Noriega, Professor at the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Lisbon, has conducted studies focused on 3D pedestrian crossings. “For traffic speeds within limits set for urban areas, I would choose the 3D zebra crossing. However, as traffic speeds increase, the time variable, which translates into distance travelled, becomes more critical. So 2D crossings allowing a faster response will be more appropriate in these situations.”

We do not know if the reported effect of 3D zebra crossings causing more correct decisions is due to novelty, so it is legitimate to ask whether this effect will no longer hold with time and habituation to these 3D zebra crossings.
— Paulo Noriega

However, Noriega notes that more in-depth and extended studies are still lacking on the long term effects of this type of zebra crossing. For example, when they are no longer novelty, it is necessary to determine whether the beneficial effects will be maintained.

Besides the challenge of finding out whether the effectiveness of such zebra crossings is maintained in the long term, another primary concern for the experts is to find the best angle. Drivers should perceive the optical illusion with enough time to reduce their speed and also so that, when approaching, they understand that it is an optical illusion.

The calculation of speed and distance is fundamental to the success of the endeavour to avoid 3D zebra crossings becoming the cause of rather than preventing accidents. Maintenance, explains Noriega, is also a significant concern — as seen with Antwerp. It must be understood that these pedestrian crossings are more than just tourist attractions and backdrops for their photos. But it serves a real purpose and must be implemented after rigorous studies that prove the need for implementation and, of course, following precise rules.

Aarhus joins the party

In Denmark, Aarhus is the latest city to embark on the trendy 3D zebra crossings, with the project to deploy three such crossings on busy roads around the municipality. The second-largest city in the country, with just over 280,000 inhabitants, Aarhus has a lively cultural life, with many museums exhibitions and activities throughout the year. Not surprisingly, urban traffic is a constant concern, with locals and tourists alike moving through the city streets by car, bike, or on foot at all times and not always agreeing on who has priority.

According to Rikke Smeld Winding, Aarhus’ Project Leader and Engineer, the 3D zebra crossing aims at “giving pedestrians some security, and instead of a normal pedestrian crossing, the city hall decided to create something different”. In other words, she says, “giving security for pedestrians and trying something new.”

There are no similar initiatives in Denmark, says Winding. The process to implement it in Aarhus required a special dispensation from the Danish road direction that allowed for the implementation of the crossing on a trial basis.

“Because this kind of crossing is not a part of the traditional and approved road markings, we had to ask the Danish road direction for a dispensation to do these 3D marks on the road. They gave us the dispensation in Spring, saying we have to do some evaluation until 2024. If we have some accidents, because a cyclist stopped abruptly, for example, then the project will have to be stopped,” said Winding, adding that “the manufacturer of 3D crossings, GEVEKO, helped us to find the best solution for a small street such as Mejlgade.”

In Aarhus, the project will be set up in three different places. They’ll start for a few weeks in Mejlgade and then follow with the ones in Knudrisgade (in the intersection between Knudsrisgade and Nørreport) and another one in Mejlgade (close to Rosengade).

Aarhus 3D zebra Crossing project illustration. Photo: Aarhus Kommune

As a curiosity, the city’s primary concern is not with accidents involving cars but bicycles. The first lane to be installed in Mejlgade is intended to force cyclists to reduce speed and allow pedestrians to cross since vehicles on this one-way street often go slowly.

“The biggest concern is not cars, but bikes, especially electric bikes, that go really fast,” notes Winding.

Another big preoccupation of Aarhus’ city authorities at the moment is whether the tests will be a success, that is, if drivers and cyclists will respect the new zebra crossings and won’t be confused by them. The city hall’s idea is to install a camera in the first weeks to monitor the situation and the reaction of cyclists to the crosswalk. However, Winding says she’s “excited with the initiative” and doesn’t think they’ll have problems with maintenance. “We are using the same kinds of materials [of regular zebra crossings], and as long there aren’t many cars, I don’t think there’s going to be much difference”.

So as this trend spreads and more of us venture back onto the streets, and plan trips, perhaps there will be new markers on our roads to look out for.

Raphael Garcia Eurocities Writer