Zebra crossing on Sutton Street

Puffin crossing on Sutton Street, Durham
The puffin crossing on Sutton Street, which replaced a zebra in 2020.

Until 2020 one of Durham City’s few zebra crossings crossed the A690 on what remains of Sutton Street south of the railway viaduct. The crossing, which has now been “upgraded” to a Puffin crossing, is just downhill of John Street. Before numbers 7 to 17 of Sutton Street were demolished to create the current A690, there would have been no need for a crossing here.

Why was the crossing converted to a Puffin crossing? It does not appear to have been for safety reasons as in the last ten years there has only been one collision at the crossing: the nearby junctions at John Street, Allergate and Hawthorn Terrace have seen more collisions. The reason lies in the preparations for the closure of the New Elvet Bridge for repairs. The Council was very concerned about the traffic that would be diverted round the west of the city centre as a result of the bridge closure. Quarryheads Lane was temporarily made one-way from Durham School to the Potters Bank roundabout. The Council put in place a Traffic Regulation Order (TRO) to prohibit right turns into Allergate and The Avenue, as they feared that right-turning vehicles would cause long queues which would add to the expected congestion.

In this context, it seems highly likely that the zebra crossing was converted in order to improve motor traffic flow. The lights of a Puffin crossing can be programmed to limit how frequently they will change to let pedestrians cross, whereas the zebra crossing is the ultimate in pedestrian convenience, actually giving pedestrians priority over vehicles. If the Council feared congestion from the occasional right-turning vehicles, they would certainly have been concerned about the effects of pedestrians crossing at the zebra.

In the end, the right-turn prohibitions were never activated, because with the unexpected lockdown for Covid 19 there was much less traffic on the roads anyway. The one-way system on Quarryheads Lane was taken out as soon as New Elvet Bridge reopened, the local councillors having no doubt been bombarded with complaints from motorists who had been fined. In its period of operation, the restriction had made cycling and walking along by Durham School much more pleasant. But the “upgrade” to a Puffin crossing remains: no longer can you quickly check over your shoulder and turn across the road without interrupting your stride.

The tragedy is that the Council missed the perfect opportunity to make a substantial improvement to the pedestrian facilities on this side of town. The experience of most residents of the area is that the crossing is actually in the wrong place. Where a crossing is really needed is between Hawthorn Terrace, opposite the Colpitts Hotel, and Allergate. The natural route into the town centre for the large number of people living in Hawthorn Terrace and its side streets is along Allergate and down Crossgate. You will often see people waiting to cross over to Allergate, but no crossing is provided.

Person nipping across the road by the Colpitts Hotel, Durham
Person nipping across the road by the Colpitts Hotel, Durham

The mouths of Allergate and Hawthorn Terrace are also unnecessarily wide, making crossing even just these side roads more dangerous for pedestrians. In many older streets in Durham the pavements were initially laid when the carriageways were cobbled or even unmade, and the widths of the pavements were a constant 4 or 5 feet, parallel to the property boundaries. This is still the case on the corners of Allergate. The northern corner of Hawthorn Terrace had the pavement widened at some stage, but this did not go far enough. The distance you need to walk across the mouth of this road is still over 16m, twice the distance to cross The Avenue further up the hill. Allergate comes in at about 15m, which is again excessive.

Mouth of Allergate (15m wide)
The mouth of Allergate (15m wide) is in the foreground. The widened pavement, with bollards to stop people parking on it, can be seen at the end of Hawthorn Terrace.

If the Council had consulted with local residents and prioritised pedestrian needs, then instead of part of the New Elvet Bridge capital budget going on an in-situ “upgrade” of the zebra crossing, perhaps we could have had the mouths of both streets remodelled and a convenient crossing located on the main desire line for the residents of Hawthorn Terrace. The relocation would hardly have inconvenienced users of the current crossing: almost all journeys would be just as easy crossing higher up the hill, and there are two further crossing points close by, downhill of the current one.

Pedestrian refuges downhill from the puffin crossing
Downhill from the Puffin crossing there are two separate pedestrian refuges.

Unfortunately, although the visibility on the main road approaches would be sufficient, the side roads present a challenge, as the rules discourage placing crossings near to conflict points like uncontrolled junctions. Paragraph of LTN 2/95 covers this situation. A “minimum distance of 20 metres is suggested for a signalled-controlled crossing“. Where it is hard to obtain a safe distance, engineers should “consider banning turning movements towards the crossing or make the side road one way away from the junction”. Allergate is mainly one-way away from the junction already. Most cars exiting Allergate will belong to students. Discouraging them from driving to the university by prohibiting the left turn would be a good thing: for a longer journey turning right and circling the roundabout if necessary would not be much hardship. Banning left turns out of Hawthorn Terrace would be less practical, but what should be prioritised? Should we favour the convenience of the car driver, or the safety of the pedestrian wishing to walk the most direct route into town?

Fortunately paragraph offers a way out. It is permitted to locate a crossing only 5m from a side road if it is a zebra crossing!

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