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Are People The Problem When It Comes To Crossing The Road?

Scally Mag Team

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Richard MacDonald  shares his thoughts on the ‘nudge’ crossings that have been implemented in the city…

You’ve probably heard of those new crossings in Liverpool at the bottom of Bold Street and in Old Swan, and how they are designed to ‘nudge’ pedestrians into better behaviour.

Nudge theory has been around for a long time and it’s probably happened to you, although under a different guise. You might recall comedian Peter Kay describing the time he worked in a supermarket: ‘Eye-level is buy-level!’ his manager would chirp. That’s nudge. Want to sell more product? Stick it where it is the first thing to be seen.

As an urban planner you learn a lot about how design can be made to ‘nudge people’ this way or that. Like how streets with trees and planting on them slow down cars[1], or how moving steps into more prominent positions encourages active living over using the escalator (looking at you Liverpool ONE Odeon). The point of nudge is that it doesn’t remove a choice or punish you for making or not making that decision, but rather subtly suggests the ‘better’ way.

As with any fashionable term it is often over-used, watered down and applied to things that aren’t really applicable. When discussing ‘nudge’ people often use the example of the annoying beep when you don’t plug your car seatbelt in. To me that is not a ‘nudge’ – it’s someone poking you in the ear until you do what they want, although understandably so in this scenario. 

This brings me back to the crossings: how ‘nudge’ are they They don’t punish you, but are they subtle? As subtle as a neon brick. You sell more product by moving it to eye level, not by keeping it where it is with added neon signs.

SO-MO, the behavioural science consultancy who designed and promoted the crossings, carried out some research before they did it. The outcome of their research begins from the premise that pedestrians who are not on the signalised crossing are in the wrong place.

It is hard to believe how pedestrians can be in the wrong place where two of Liverpool’s busiest pedestrianised streets meet, unless you think it is the right place for a 30mph road. No one today would ever design a street like this, with a 30mph road running through what is essentially a pedestrian square. Streets – particularly in city centre shopping areas- should be for people, not cars. It is people who should have priority here, not the licenced machinery operative.

I have been critical of this crossing from both its premise and its delivery, however I do believe nudge theory is valuable and useful. It all depends on a true understanding of how people use spaces and being unafraid to actually ask the question – who is the space for? There is no point forcing people to use systems if the systems themselves don’t work.

In 2012 Copenhagen launched their own traffic-light nudge experiment.[2]  They realised that a lot of the reasons people didn’t use the crossings – or crossed when the red man was showing – was because they were fed up waiting and getting bored. Nobody likes to wait and i’m sure we’ve all thought “I’ve waited 30 seconds now, traffic is clear, let’s dash across”.

Rather than slapping metres of garish paint onto the road (which confuses guide dogs and has other disability ramifications) along with emoji-style signage, they simply added a green man countdown clock. They discovered that rather than chancing a dash across the road, if the pedestrian knew they only had 5 or 10 seconds more to wait they would often, of their own volition, without signage or instruction, wait.

That is the art of the nudge.

Sadly I don’t think the implementers of this grand experiment in Liverpool and Hull have grasped either the problem or ironically the art. As an urban designer I look at this and see the problem as being the space and its use – one does not fit the other. This company, as a behavioural interventions agency see the problem as the people.




PHOTO CREDIT: Peter Byrne Media.