In Lisbon, walk/don’t walk signs are mostly decorative

In Lisbon, walk/don't walk signs are mostly decorative. The real rule for crossing the street is look both ways and cross when safe. There's no requirement that you use a designated crosswalk. As long as the coast is clear, you can cross the street anywhere. When my host for the conference accompanied me to the conference center, we crossed the street and my host pointed out, "You know, we're actually using the official crosswalk this time."

I was talking with one of the faculty members of the computer science department at IST and mentioned that in Seattle, the police issue tickets for crossing the street incorrectly. The faculty member responded, "In Portugal, there is no such thing as crossing the street incorrectly."

(For what it's worth, people in Madrid restrict themselves to crossing at crosswalks and generally observe the walk/don't walk signs, although if the light says don't walk and there are no cars anywhere nearby, they will cross anyway. This evaluation of Madrid crosswalk behavior is probably skewed by the higher concentration of tourists.)

Comments (40)
  1. Spike says:

    Your description of road crossing in Madrid is true for the whole of the Uk and actually for most of Europe too.

    No touist bias required, we cross the road wherever and whenever we feel it’s safe.  Pedestrian crossings just give a little extra feeling of safety to those who otherwise lack the courage to cross without aid.

    I was surprised in Salt Lake City to see buckets of orange flags by the roadside for people to wave as they cross the road.  How cute.

  2. AndyC says:

    In the UK, it’s only crossing the street incorrectly if something hits you. At that point, it’s usually assumed you’ve suffered enough.

  3. Jack V. says:

    I was going to comment on the UK. I wouldn’t say pedestrian crossings (either as part of traffic lights at junctions, or stand-alone, with walk/don’t-walk equivalents) are decorative — on a busy road, they stop the traffic, so often you need them to cross.

    But there’s nothing to stop you crossing anywhere else. It always used to seem strange to me that you might not be able to. Most roads I meet are to a lesser or greater extent safe to cross by waiting for a gap, and why shouldn’t you be able to do so if you can?

    (FWIW, most roads I see are only two-lane and not too busy, the more main roads tucked away somehow. Busy four lane roads you plainly can’t cross anywhere, else you’d die, laws notwithstanding.)

    I don’t know for sure how it works in America. Presumably quiet residential streets without crossings, you can just cross? But on major ones you’re technically obliged to find a crossing?

  4. James says:

    How cute.

    That’s one way of putting it, I guess.  I much prefer what we have here in the UK: find a gap and go.

  5. Karellen says:

    TFA: "Spokeswoman Deanna Nollette said the [zero-tolerance] "emphasis" patrols downtown were started because crime appeared to be on the rise and residents were complaining. […] the Police Department wants people in the area to feel safe."

    Wow! I bet the residents sure felt safer with all those dangerous jaywalkers having been ticketed! I bet the crime rate dropped like a stone after that measure was implemented!

    Srsly – wtf?

    Obwiki –

  6. Every time I’m in the Washington DC area on business I’ve noticed people cross at the crosswalk whenever they feel like it.  Green light, red light, cars coming… it doesn’t seem to matter.  It’s so bad that I feel like I’m the only person actually obeying the law.

  7. George Jansen says:

    People in Washington, DC, cross against the light, cross mid-block, generally tend to please themselves. In the downtown area the volume of traffic does create its own enforcement to some degree.

    And in the several blocks of Connecticut Ave. NW nearest Chevy Chase Circle, there are buckets of orange flags. I don’t much trust the common sense of drivers, and prefer to wait on the lights, or at least a clear road there.

  8. Jon says:

    I live in a college town with a serious jaywalking problem. I wish the city cops would atleast enforce the idea that if it says "don’t walk" that you don’t cross. People will actually cross a street with traffic while that street has a green light. Drives me nuts.

    I used to live in a different college town that didn’t have this problem. I think the difference was that where I live now, if you get hit by a vehicle its probably a car doing 15 MPH and you broke a leg. Where I went to college it was probably a logging truck that had managed to slow down to 45 before it hit and killed you.

  9. SM says:

    >"I don’t know for sure how it works in America. Presumably quiet residential streets without crossings, you can just cross? But on major ones you’re technically obliged to find a crossing?"

    It’s different for every state, and often varies by locality as well. Although the laws may be in the books almost everywhere, I’ve only heard of a few cities (mainly on the west coast) where Jaywalking laws are actually enforced.

    Outside of major cities, and in quiet residential areas pretty much anything goes as far as crossing the street is concerned.

  10. Jonathan Wilson says:

    Here in australia, I dont know what the law says about jaywalking but its done and I have never seen any cop doing anything about it.

  11. Messiant R says:

    In Belgium you only have to use a crosswalk if there is one within a 50m radius (or was it 20m ..).

    Nobody really cares about that rule and most people just cross the street wherever it’s most convenient at the time.

    I’m pretty sure life in the city would grind to a halt if they’d start to enforce the law.

  12. As one might expect, the Germans are quite rigorous about this.  Little old ladies will tell you that you are "setting a bad example for the children" if you cross when there is a red man showing.

  13. MarcJ says:

    I’ve been on two trips to the US in the last couple of years.  The first was to Seattle (on Avanade induction) and I was completely unaware of the jaywalking laws.  As has been stated before, the UK is a lot more relaxed about this kind of thing, so I never gave it a second thought.  Fortunately, that was in ’06 and I wasn’t ticketed for it.

    The other trip I took was to Florida, and the whole street system around there seems to have its own laws – the most disturbing one seems to be  "A red light only becomes a red light 5 seconds after the light with colour ‘red’ is lit."  I was warned of this kind of Orlandan behaviour before I arrived, but had I not been there may well have been an RTA or two.

    I guess the key is getting some local knowledge rather than relying on the law as written.

  14. anonymous says:

    In Europa we have unified this stuff on the base of the German regulation:

    1. If you cross the street with a red ample and get into an accident, you’re taking full responsibility.
    2. If the ample is green, you’re still required to check if the street is free. Responsibility is decided on a case-by-case basis.

    Generally as a walker you’re pretty much the piss-off for any traffic regulation laws, even worse than bikers.

  15. ST says:

    In the UK, at one point they considered having "Walk/dont walk" signs rather than the red/green man we have now, but decided that "don’t walk" would not be legal as it goes against our right to walk wherever we please on whatever road we like – except motorways which are not technically rights of way and cars are only allowed because of special laws.

  16. Andy Simpson says:

    There’s at least one interesting crossing, at Hyde Park Corner in London, where there are two sets of buttons for operating the lights.

    One is at the normal height, and marked "Pedestrians" and the other is higher, and marked "Equestrians".

    That roundabout really needs it, though. The traffic there can get horrendous – it’s the route you need to take across the centre of London to avoid entering the Congestion Charge zone.

  17. Starfish says:

    In the UK, learning drivers, mopeds and bicycles aren’t allowed on motorways. If they can’t get on it, what chance does a pedestrian have?

    It does seem silly to us to have laws against crossing the street as you please, however – almost like the police telling us we aren’t allowed to have common sense. It ought to be one of the first things a travel agent tells most Europeans going to the parts of the USA strict on jaywalking.

  18. Puckdropper says:

    In small towns in the US, we cross wherever we please.  If a highway runs through town, we’re naturally more careful, but still cross where we need to.

    Where my sister went to college, there was a 4-lane road that students would cross to go to Walmart.  The school officials would urge students to use the cross walks, but if they used the crosswalks they’d never get a turn.  

  19. says:

    I always found it ridiculous that Americans can’t cross the road without a sign telling them they can. I’m from the UK, and as other commenters have pointed out, we just wait until there’s a gap in traffic and cross. When there’s a busy road there are crossings where the traffic has to stop if there’s anybody using them.

    When in Seattle I tend to last one day before I start disregarding all the silly "don’t walk" signs and cross when safe to do so. So far I’ve managed to avoid getting in trouble for this.

  20. anonymous says:

    Raymond, I’m commenting here because u’ve cut off all methods to contact u because of spam. The Taskbar article on Wikipedia is disputed and needs a helping hand. ( Can you once again clarify the “system tray” and “notification area” thing. AFAIK, somewhere down the line, the name changed to not. area contrary to your explaination which I feel is incorrect. And certainly, the whole taskbar was never called the tray. Only the sunken right side part which also appears like a tray with borders.

    [I’ve already made my position clear. As I noted in the base article, you need to run an early Windows 95 alpha build to see the “tray” in its original design. -Raymond]
  21. Adam says:

    What annoys me the most is how the pedestrian crossing signals don’t actually function unless you hit the button to signal that you want to cross. I see a lot of people that will walk up to a light where it is perfectly okay to cross and hit the button but won’t cross because the little man says don’t cross. In reality, if they had arrived before the traffic light had changed state and hit the button then, it would’ve said it was okay to cross.

  22. mikel says:

    I wondered why everybody in the Seattle downtown area seemed to wait for the lights before crossing. Even the tough looking blokes would wait for the light to change.

    I just did what I’m used to in Australia – looked both ways and crossed if it was safe – and the people waiting would look at me like I was retarded or something.

  23. Joe Butler says:

    Karellen, perhaps people that commit crime have compelling reasons to cross roads in haste and, if they do so, for the police to have an obvious and valid reason to stop and question them. Perhaps this leads to less crime in some way?  Police in the UK can stop drivers that are not wearing seatbelts.  I wonder, with all the stress that must go with committing a crime, such as a burglarly or such, that a driver or passenger may forget to put their seatbelt on, and therefore if the police feel someone in a car is acting suspiciously they have a reason other than a hunch or ‘sus’ to stop them.    

    I’m from the UK and as an older child, when I saw American shows that referred to being booked for ‘jaywalking’, the only thing I could imagine it was referring to was, curb crawling on foot.  Curb crawling is driving by looking for ‘business’ (hookers in the US) – I didn’t find out that it was crossing the road illegally until I was much much much older.    

    In the UK, pedestrians will cross wherever they want whenever they want, but sometimes forget that at night they can be virtually invisible to drivers due to glare from oncoming headlights, and also in the early morning and evening when the sun is low.

    The brits also have this thing that they will stop in their cars at a red light on road in the middle of nowhere, say at 3am when there is no one about at all with clear visibility and just wait it out until they get the green.  That is just like the US walker crossing the road, but no one really complains and will look at drivers that disregard that stop signal as if they were retarded.

  24. MadQ1 says:

    I’m surprised none of my fellow Europeans have mentiond the so-called zebra-stripes (fat white lines parallel to the curb all the way across the road.) They mean that road traffic must yield to pedestrians. I’ve seen these here in Ohio, but nobody seem to know what they mean.

    Incidentally, in downtown Munich, people just cross the road willy-nilly. On multi-lane roads, you just stop inbetween lanes and wait until it’s safe to cross again. My brother tried this in Hamburg once, causing a cacophony of horn-blowing, and almost giving his local friend a heart attack.

    Heh. My wife got a good laugh when I got confused the first time I came across a "DUCK XING" sign.

  25. steveg says:

    Wow! I knew New York enforced jaywalking, but I mean… really… we’re all adults. If you don’t make it across the road alive it’s just natural selection doing it’s thang.

    Most adults (excepting parents with kids) here in Australia just take the L[GR]M as advisory. When I lived in Europe I noticed northern Europeans are more likely to obey signals than UK denizens.

  26. Centaur says:

    In Soviet Russia, the road crosses YOU.

    Just kidding. In Russia, if you cross while the light is red and this is noticed, *or* if there is a crossing in direct visibility and you cross elsewhere, *and* this is noticed, you get fined. On the other hand, if you stand at a crosswalk and a car approaches and you try to give way to it, you get beeped at, like, “go cross already!”. Normally, if no cars are in the immediate vicinity and you don’t see any cops watching, you just cross.

  27. jcs says:

    MadQ: In the US, you can’t assume that Zebra crossings have the same meaning as they do in Europe. At least in Washington DC, the zebra stripes are for visibility only, and they don’t change the legal function of the crosswalk.

    A good rule of thumb:

    If a crosswalk is positioned away from a traffic light, pedestrians may always cross, zebra stripes or no zebra stripes.

    If a crosswalk is positioned at an intersection, pedestrians must wait for the "walk" signal, even if zebra stripes are present.

    Please obey the traffic signals at unfamiliar intersections. I’m not sure if Europe uses left-turn arrows like the US does, but in the US, a left-turn arrow gives turning cars precedence over pedestrians. Because the turn arrow may not be visible to pedestrians, it’s often difficult to determine if it’s safe to cross or not, until you memorize the sequence of signals.

  28. JamesW says:

    Here in India pedestrians are left to their own devices. The traffic lights are for vehicles only, at least the ones I’ve come across in Pune. They are purely advisory though. Red advises you to look for a policeman; if you can’t see one, then press on regardless. Pedestrians must use their wiles to cross safely. 360 degree vision is a must, as vehicles can, and will, approach from any direction. Driving on the left being as advisory as red lights. Using a cow as a bovine shield is always a good plan, but it does require the beast to be present, and moving in the required direction. Without such defensive equipment, pedestrians tend to walk slowly across the road, constantly scanning for traffic in all directions, whilst appearing to pat a large dog. This hand signal is meant to mean ‘Slow down. Please don’t kill me.’ As with all other signals aimed at motorists, this is purely advisory.

  29. Cheong says:

    In Hong Kong, there’s 2 sets of rules.

    If crossing/tunnel/footbridge within 50 meters, you should use them.

    If none is found, you may cross anywhere as long as there’s no railings (railings signals that road segment is not suitable for casual crossing).

  30. Drak says:

    In Holland there are two kinds of zebra crossings, like JCS says there are in DC. If there’s a traffic light (usually with a button, and sometimes ‘ticking’ for blind people), and you don’t know the intersection, you’d do well to wait for green, or cross in the middle of a pack of locals.

    On crossings without traffic lights the cars are obliged to stop if you are making indication that you are going to cross the road. So standing at a zebra, looking left and right (which is still a useful thing to do with all the idiot drivers around these days) means cars have to stop for you.

    Just don’t take it for granted that they will.

    Oh, and crossing the street within 25m of a zebra, but not on the zebra is technically finable.

  31. Nelson says:

    The IST member comment "In Portugal, there is no such thing as crossing the street incorrectly." isn’t at all true.

    By law if your have a zebra within 50m you are required to use it and you can be fined if you don’t, but the truth is the cops don’t enforce that law.

    Also if a car hits a pedestrian in a zebra while this was crossing under a red light its still the responsibility of the car driver to prove the pedestrian violated the law.

  32. MadQ1 says:

    jcs: Yes, I’m aware, but I’ve a tendency to the rethoric. BTW, I passed the Ohio driver’s licence test with 200 out of 200 points. Having obtained my first driver’s licence in Germany, I was totally stunned that quite a few people failed the written exam.

  33. Ismael says:

    In Uruguay, Argentina and Brasil, people cross wherever they want, whenever they want. Traffic lights are for cars, mostly.

    Crosswalks in Uruguay mean that if there’s someone waiting to cross, the cars have to stop and let people cross. In Argentina they’re just a hint, a "please cross here". I believe the same is true for Brasil.

  34. Dale says:

    the regular cross with the lights intersections we also have some where all traffic stops and peds can also cross diagonially.

    Called the Barnes Dance.

    Problem is they don’t mark which intersections Here in Auckland, New Zealand, in addition to are which so causes big problems for tourists

  35. Ricardo says:

    you were in IST? Maybe we bumped into each other…

    as for crossing the road i advise you to only cross the street when you can’t see any cars even if the light says don’t walk or when the cars fully stopped. Lisbon drivers are nuts indeed.

  36. ray says:

    I live in the Hartford area of Connecticut and basically always jaywalk unless there’s a huge volume of cars and I need the assistance of red lights to stop them. I actually have no idea how the law stands on this, but I’ve not ever been ticketed. (Or hit by a car.)

  37. Lesha says:

    The same is in Ukrain. Lights are used if there is too mach traffic. Onece I have seen a walkway on the grass between two roads at the place forbidden for crossing :)

  38. luca says:

    It’s very likely that you would be shocked after a visit to Italia :-)

  39. Daniel says:

    In theory, if there is a crosswalk within 50 meters, Swiss law also requires you to use it.

    Now, I only know one person who ever got fined for not using the cross walk: this friend of mine was asked to pay the fine of CHF 5 (~$5). Since he only had a CHF 10 bill, he gave it to the police officer and crossed the street a second time (but since he was now back on the wrong side of the road, he had to use the crosswalk…).

  40. Stephen says:

    Here in San Jose, California, the pedestrian lights are entirely decorative, too. That doesn’t mean the *pedestrians* don’t sometimes obey them – they often seem to – but the walk lights have no connection to the traffic flow! Thanks to the inexplicable ‘right turn on red’ law, there’s literally *nothing* that the traffic lights can say that means ‘stop, someone is crossing the road.’ So there’s no point I can see in pushing the button at all. The only sane strategy is to look for a gap and run.

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