Why I stopped for no walk to avoid traffic lights



‘If the wobble is from scaffolding, I take extra precautions to avoid the siren because I fear a row of wires will fall on me’

From early morning on the week after Christmas, the traffic lights on the footpath above a new phase of apartment development turned yellow.

I walked past the development last month with my child. The traffic light dimmed and went out of sync; and in its place, the new finish of the scaffolding draped across the railings above the crossing. The traffic light in its absence was not so clearly visible. It was a 2D variation on a standard traffic light, visible to a stranger when the scaffolding was down but obscured by the new plywood. The light’s design would allow pedestrians and drivers on either side to see it, making it rather unappealing to those who walk only by chance and ignore the sign below. On Monday, the electronic screen showed a red circle while on Tuesday, the same sign flashed the word “NO” twice.

I took precautions to be seen by drivers. I walked between two lanes of traffic, trying to avoid them. Sometimes, I took the opportunity to cross early, at two-way turns. Occasionally, when I was on a corner and a traffic light was out for the moment, I would swim against the tide, dodging traffic that crept in on its left, reaching the point where it terminated. Twice, I swam across two lines of oncoming traffic while there was nothing except empty road and a light shining out. A third time, a car brushed my arm while it passed a set of traffic lights showing, switched off, turning green, returning to signal two-way traffic.

And I watched. Several times, I recalled vividly an incident a few years ago, during the summer of 2013, in Ascot, where the pavement – already notorious for its problematic painting – was sprayed with clear and protective paint. The problem was simple: my arm and the palm of my hand were exposed to paint and both would need to be covered. For some reason, though, the housing association could not use car paint for the job, and they flunked the failed samples too – and painted the problem on the pavement with paint so thick the line paint would not be able to cover it up. The irony of the purple, yellow and red colours painted on Ascot’s raised pavement seems not to have crossed the minds of anyone in the housing association’s organisation, which is based in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

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For all that I’m trying to be observant and only alert when a problem exists, it’s only possible because of the skilled, enthusiastic work of the many consultants who fitted the handrail for me. Without that, I’d see this and think: Wait a minute! If a pedestrian and a driver are both seeing that the raised pavement can be safe to cross, they should make common sense judgments. Of course they want to cross the level crossing. But the pedestrians should have a higher degree of confidence in the controller’s commitment to a good crossing. And the controller – someone who spends the time to put a proper plan together, allocate the resources and design the building with pedestrians in mind – should make sure that every formality and detail is understood and respected. A rush of traffic through a pedestrianised area is not good for pedestrians, either.

The postcode north of Newcastle is primarily populated by the North East Black Community. The highest concentration of black people in this country live in this one postcode. Durham crown court recently apologised for a racist attack that took place in a stop-and-search estate some years ago, but it is hardly surprising that a new burst of development might make people upset. The Guardian has been working with Durham county council and police to try to encourage more people to voice their opinions about the new developments, and to ensure that there is a balance of public voices in shaping the areas they’re moving into and through.

I stood there for a few minutes watching the light behind the putty. It went on a low hum all morning, as if in a dryer. It has been red twice since. But the recently installed indication did the trick. All I know now is that it was right. I have to be prepared to rise to the occasion, with a dash of gum and a good sweat.

• Lucy O’Callaghan is head

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