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A Short History of the Crosswalk

Pedestrian crosswalks and roads have a complicated relationship

The Abbey Road crosswalk, which has been moved slightly since 1969, in modern times. (Pixabay)
smithsonian.com

On this day in 1951, the world’s first crosswalk was officially installed in Slough, England. There, because of its stripes, it was—and still is—known as a zebra crossing.

The zebra crossing quickly became popular, and was only in its teen years when the Beatles made their trip across Abbey Road for the cover of their album of the same name. The zebra crossing was a step forward in road safety, but it was neither the first nor the last innovation designed to help pedestrians cross the road. It wasn't even the last animal-named innovation.

In both England and the United States, attempts to control traffic so pedestrians could cross safely date back to the 1930s–about 30 years after America’s first pedestrian fatality in 1899. That fatality was far from the last, and officials across nations were trying to insert some order. 

In Britain, according to Historic England, pedestrian crossings also dated back to the 1930s. Originally, the website writes, pedestrian crossings were marked by metal studs in the road and poles on the side. Over time, however, the government experimented with different painted markings to help enhance safety, eventually landing on the easily recognized black and white stripes that were first installed in 1951, writes the National Archives. The zebra crossing at Abbey Road is estimated to have been installed in the late 1950s, around a decade before the Beatles shot their album cover there, writes Historic England. (Today, the Abbey Road crossing is a heritage site and major tourist attraction.)

The zebra crossing, which was supposedly named by a government official who remarked that the design resembled a zebra, was just the first animal-named crosswalk type in Britain. Just a few years later, in 1962, a short-lived pedestrian crossing known as a “panda crossing” was introduced in Britain, writes Joel Taylor for Metro UK. It was confusing to drivers, so it was replaced with the pelican crossing. Australia has wombat crossings. Tucson, AZ, has HAWKs

In the United States, too, crosswalk design is still changing. Finding the correct type of crosswalk for the type of road is important, architect Cindy Zerger told Bill Lindeke writing for Minn Post. As well, thinking about who should get priority on the road has shifted from the 1950s, when cars were given priority, writes Lindeke.

“We need to shift from accommodating pedestrians and cyclists to actually prioritizing them,” urban design consultant Sam Newberg told Lindeke.

In other words, crosswalk design is just a piece of the puzzle when it comes to road use.

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