When considering all 32 boroughs of London, Westminster is undoubtedly the most packed with city-defining landmarks: Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster, Hyde Park, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and Oxford Street. Westminster also happens to be home to the world's most pop culture-famous pedestrian crossing — an otherwise unexceptional stretch of protected crosswalk with the standard longitudinal stripes located near the southeastern end of Abbey Road in the St. John's Wood neighborhood.
Deemed a Grade II listed historic site by English Heritage in 2010, Abbey Road Crossing — yes, the same one that John, Paul, George and Ringo famously ambled across — is more visited and photographed than any other single pedestrian crossing in London. There is, however, some freshly painted competition in the neighborhood.
Just blocks away from Abbey Road Studios and its iconic crosswalk, the City of Westminster has completed work on a short but highly distinctive new zebra crossing — the term used by most of the world, save for the United States, to refer to a run-of-the-mill white-striped crosswalk — that's likely to attract Instragrammers by the horde-full. Rendered in an eye-popping three-dimensional design, the crossing will also prompt motorists to take their feet off the pedal and proceed with extra caution, which is, in the end, the entire point.
One part snazzy optical illusion and one part traffic-slowly safety measure, 3D zebra crossings have replaced boring old flat zebra crossings in small towns and big cities in a growing handful of countries including China, India, Germany and France. In Iceland, a remote but tourist-y fishing village's decision to install (in lieu of speed bumps) a mind-bending 3D pedestrian right-of-way that appears to float above the asphalt garnered international headlines in 2017.
Per a news release issued by the City of Westminster, the 3D zebra crossing in St. John's Wood — it can be found where St. John's Wood High Street meets Wellington Place — is believed to be the first of its kind in the United Kingdom.
While the intersection in question isn't known for being particularly deadly for pedestrians, the location is deliberate: It's just steps away from a primary school. As the BBC reports, concerns from neighborhood residents about traffic safety as it relates to the school is what prompted the Westminster City Council to take action and (kind of) literally elevate the existing crosswalk.
Slower traffic but more distracted pedestrians?
Westminster City Council points out that while the 3D zebra crossing in St. John's Wood is being trialed for a nine- to 12-month span, there is the possibility that it could stick around for longer depending on how drivers react to it. If it proves successful, additional 3D zebra crossings could replace non-levitating crosswalks elsewhere across the borough and potentially beyond.
The council notes that a similar 3D zebra crossing pilot project in Delhi, India, lead to a sharp decline in average vehicle speeds from 31 mph to 19 mph.
"Our 3D zebra crossing could be the future of road safety across the country," says councillor Tim Mitchell, a cabinet member for Environment and City Management. "Far from being simply a brilliant innovation that makes the ordinary look eye-grabbing and modern — the 3D effect helps drivers to see the crossing easier."
Mitchell's colleague, councillor Robert Rigby, also acknowledges the fact that St. John's Wood is now home to not one but two crowd-drawing crosswalks.
"It's also wonderful that tourists who flock to St John's Wood to pay homage to The Beatles at Abbey Road studios and walk the famous zebra crossing will now have another world-famous crossing to visit."
A spokesperson for Britain's Automobile Association (AA) tells the BBC that employing an optical illusion to slow traffic and improve safety along a specific stretch of road is "worth a try," but that the approach shouldn't be viewed as feasible for all of London due to the city's street design. In other words, just because a 3D zebra crossings might prove effective in a Chinese city or a small Icelandic town, doesn't mean they'll necessarily work across the board for London. The AA also urges careful further monitoring of both driver and pedestrian safety.
Any effort to improve pedestrian safety is a positive. Floating zebra crossings do, however, present somewhat of a double-edged sword. While the somewhat disarming appearance of these crossings has proven effective in getting drivers to slow down, they can also attract a large number of people wanting to engage in an impromptu photo shoots in the middle of the street.
It's safe to assume that in St. John's Wood the novelty will wear off quickly for locals. But for tourists — many oblivious of their surroundings and the flow of local traffic — the opportunity to pose in front of an optical illusion embedded into a city street will never fade. So, in the end, you're potentially left with slower-moving cars but more people dawdling and fiddling with their phones in the middle of the street.
And, as mentioned, this particular area of London already has a crosswalk spanning a busy street that's often deluged with dazed and distracted out-of-towners. (Local walking tour companies recommend practicing utmost caution when paying homage to Abbey Road Crossing, urging visitors not to stop for too long in the middle of the road and "make it quick.")
The most optimal solution to this is, of course, to simply have far fewer cars on the road … and London's working on it.