In 1936 the Federal Council recommended that road crossings for pedestrians be laid out in yellow, in the style of Switzerland’s hiking trails, which were also marked in yellow. Illustration: Marco Heer.
Today, pedestrians almost always have right of way. That hasn’t always been the case. Since the first zebra crossing was installed in Basel in 1948, however, pedestrian road use has become a lot safer.
Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.
For centuries, human settlement has been centred on transport routes. That went reasonably well until a new vehicle was invented: the automobile. From then on, there was no going back. It was mainly the weaker pedestrians who were affected. Crossing the street was especially dangerous. For this reason, the possibility of markings was considered as early as the 1930s. With signs, studs on the road or other markings, attempts were made to direct the ‘foot traffic’ to the right places to cross the street. Interestingly, these efforts were aimed more at educating pedestrians, and were envisaged less as a safeguarding measure for them.In 1936 the Federal Council recommended that road crossings for pedestrians be laid out in yellow. The proposal was modelled on the country’s hiking trails, which had also been using the colour yellow since 1934. But for the time being, the Federal Council gave no thought to what these crossings should look like. Nor was there much discussion about who had the right of way. The law of 1932 applied:The possible design and appearance of the pedestrian crossings sent the members of the Association of Swiss Road and Traffic Engineers (Vereinigung schweizerischer Strassenfachmänner, VSS) on flights of highly organised fancy. VSS transport planners initiated numerous trials and made scores of recommendations. Often, psychological observations also played a part.Despite this diligent work, anyone who tried to cross a street in the 1940s and 1950s was living dangerously, in part because in many places the crossings were not very easy to see, and they looked a little different everywhere. Pedestrian crossings as we know them today didn’t appear until the late 1940s. Basel was the first to bring them in, in 1948. The yellow ‘zebra crossing’ was hailed a success by Automobil Revue magazine, because ‘pedestrians keep to their allocated sections much better’.Several months previously Die Tat, the Migros newspaper, had made fun of the pedestrian crossings in Paris: ‘In addition to various fashion fads, Paris has now also secured for itself the dernier cri in pedestrian crossings.’ For the sake of variety, the road crossing points could perhaps be painted like a zebra’s coat. But despite derision and mockery, the pedestrian crossing took hold, and when the pedestrian right of way was enshrined in law in 1962, there could be no more describing road crossings as just a fad.