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.
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.

The first pedestrian crossing

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.

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

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.
Examples of different crossings set out in a letter produced by the Swiss Council for Accident Prevention (Schweizerische Beratungsstelle für Unfallverhütung), 1952.
Examples of different crossings set out in a letter produced by the Swiss Council for Accident Prevention (Schweizerische Beratungsstelle für Unfallverhütung), 1952. Swiss Federal Archives
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:

At a pedestrian crossing motor vehicle drivers must slow down and, if necessary, stop to allow pedestrians already on the crossing to cross the road without hindrance.

Federal Motor Vehicle and Bicycle Traffic Act of 1932
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.
Pedestrian crossing
The stripes were intended to direct people to the right-hand side. Swiss Federal Archives
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Pedestrian crossing
Flow of people to the centre. Swiss Federal Archives
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Pedestrian crossing
Everything has to be in order. A crossing with two-way traffic… Swiss Federal Archives
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Pedestrian crossing
A design for better visibility. Including for car drivers. Swiss Federal Archives
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Pedestrian crossing
Here too, zigzag patterns for better visibility. Swiss Federal Archives
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Pedestrian crossing
A safety island for situations where there are more than three lanes. Swiss Federal Archives
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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’.
Article on the first «zebra pedestrian crossing» in Switzerland in the Automobil Revue, 1948.
Article on the first «zebra pedestrian crossing» in Switzerland in the Automobil Revue, 1948. Swiss Federal Archives
Pupils practising crossing the road, 1952.
Pupils practising crossing the road, 1952. Swiss National Museum / ASL
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.

The first time…

There’s always a first time. In this series, we will be looking at historic Swiss firsts. The topics covered are very diverse: from the first zebra crossing to the first ever popular initiative. The articles have been produced in cooperation with the Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv (Swiss Federal Archives).

Further posts

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Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).