John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
There are more animals in the U.K.'s pedestrian infrastructure than there are in the London Zoo.
Look at this. In America, this is called a crosswalk or a pedestrian signal:
In the U.K., though, things aren't that easy. Rather than deem this key part of roadway architecture a crosswalk, because it helps people walk across the street, the U.K. Department for (but really "of") Transportation calls it a puffin crossing.
And in the realm of British transpo terminology, that's actually a fairly normal name. Stroll along the sidewalks of London and you'll bump into crosswalks of the species pelican, panda, Pegasus and toucan. Tigers and zebras add an African flavor to the zoological menagerie.
But first, the puffin. These are Arctic birds that nest on cliffsides and glide low over the water like "flying cigars." But in England, they're also a type of pedestrian thoroughfare that relies on pressure pads and glowing icons. I find the first reference to a puffin crossing in the 1997 screed, "Zebra, Pelican and Puffin Pedestrian Crossing Regulations and General Directions." Puffins were an attempt by the Department for (of) Transportation to standardize and simplify the country's myriad signaling devices, which sometimes cause "confusion and conflict" among the British populace.
Puffin, if you're wondering, stands for a "Pedestrian User-Friendly INtelligent" crosswalk, geekoid language that wouldn't sound out of place coming from the metal mouth of a T-800:
How do these doohickeys work? Let's start with their unique placement. Unlike standard walk signals, the screen with the red/green human icons is placed on the near side of the street, so even legally blind folks can tell when it's time to cross. They are also faced diagonally from the curb so that pedestrians who check out the walk signals also have to look at approaching traffic, a built-in safety measure.
A pad or some other kind of sensing device lets the puffin know when somebody is waiting impatiently to cross. The equipment also keeps the do-not-walk signal up when somebody has pushed the walk button and then fled the scene, which is meant to "remove the irritation some drivers feel when stopped needlessly at existing crossings when there are no pedestrians waiting to cross," says the DF/O/T.
The puffin can intuit any pedestrian in the crossing zone who is walking at a speed of half a meter per second or above, and will keep the walking signal green to allow sluggish people more time to cross. Drivers may not like this feature, but hey, the puffin rules supreme.
Some folks claim that puffin crossings have minds of their own, and will toy mercilessly with blokes they don't like, but that could also just be the result of a malfunctioning sensor.
That's enough with the puffins. Now, what about all the other animals in the zoo? Here's a brief field guide:
Panda crossing: These are older-model crossings used in the U.K. in the 1960s under the reign of crack transpo director Marples, Ernest Marples. They employed triangle-shaped markings on the street rather than striped markings, because pandas are well-known for the perfectly triangular patterns all over their luxurious coats. After somebody pushed a button, the word "Cross" lit up on a board. There was no "Don't cross" signal, because litigious pedestrians could argue that the imperative tone of the phrase violates British right-of-way laws.
Pelican crossings: Derived from PELICON, an acronym of pedestrian light controlled, these appeared in 1969 and were the first successful crosswalks to employ traffic lights to stop cars. There was a light-up green man to indicate it's crossing time, although when that man was flashing pedestrians were not supposed to start their journey across the road, as explained in this '60s-era educational film:
Toucan crossings: As can be effortlessly guessed by the name – "two-can" cross, see? – this type of crosswalk is meant for both pedestrians and bicycle riders. Here's a photo of one from Wikipedia user man vyi:
Zebra crossing: A generic name for any kind of crosswalk that uses striped lines of paint on the pavement. A bunch of hippies made the zebra crossing world famous when they put one on the cover of some old album. Trivia No. 1: The first zebra crossings in the U.K., rolled out in the late 1940s were blue and yellow. Trivia No. 2: Zebra crossing guards are sometimes referred to as lollipop men. England: It's like a real-life Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory!
Pegasus crossing: A crosswalk meant for horses, compete with a button located several meters above the ground, because by law every British citizen must own at least one flying Pegasi.