Pedestrians of Auckland unite! The Barnes dance is under threat from traffic engineers who see a citizen on foot as less important than one on wheels.

A week or two back, the diagonal crossings were surreptitiously abolished at intersections on Customs St to the east of Queen St. That, it seems, was just a start. The city traffic engineers have their beady eyes on Queen St and other city crossings as well.

"Big savings in delays and costs can be achieved by the removal of the diagonal crossings," said Auckland City's traffic signals manager Graeme Raynel. "Most other countries have already done it."


He said that he had no plans "in the short term" to remove the Queen St diagonal crossings. However, he added ominously, "there are others that certainly would like to see their removal".

The quotes come from a three-way e-mail conversation between aggrieved pedestrian and law professor Peter Watts, Mr Raynel and Auckland Regional Council planner Martin Dawe, convenor of something I'd never heard of before called the Pedestrian Power Group.

Professor Watts was rather put out when he discovered that the Barnes dance system had suddenly disappeared from the intersections with Gore, Commerce and Fort Sts. In its place he found he had to cross one street at a time, and to do that in competition with turning traffic.

He also found that instead of two crossings across Customs St at each intersection, there is now only one, forcing pedestrians in some instances to make three crossings to get to their destination.

Not surprisingly, his concerns were less than assuaged when, in telephone conversation with Mr Raynel, the engineer said that having to make three crossings instead of one to get to the other side would be "good exercise" for him.

Mr Raynel defended this flippancy in the e-mail exchange that followed.

Like Professor Watts, I like the Barnes dance. It's a novelty I grew up with, something that intrigues tourists and, more importantly, empowers all of us on foot. It is one place in a car-crazy city where the pedestrian can feel like a king - and, more to the point, feel safe.

It was introduced with great hoopla in 1958 as a way of improving pedestrian flow, an import from the United States. The inventor was Denver traffic engineer Henry Barnes who introduced it to his city in the late 1940s and took it with him when he moved to new jobs in Baltimore and New York.

Whatever our traffic engineers think of it, the Barnes dance is honoured in its place of birth where the Denver Visitors Bureau proclaims it one of Denver's top inventions, alongside the cheeseburger (1930s) and shredded wheat (1893).

Unfortunately, both here and in the US, it is now the target of experts obsessed with car flow rather than pedestrian flow. To them, pedestrians are like cholesterol in the blood stream and the Barnes dance, which brings all cars to a halt, a dreaded arterial blockage.

The fashion now is to let pedestrians and turning traffic simultaneously share the road space.

It's a practice obviously designed by people who never venture out on foot. They've never been intimidated by the impatient motorist slowly creeping towards a crossing half full of scurrying walkers.

I've written before about the totally scary environment around Victoria Park Markets, where they've gone one step further and provided no crossings or lights at all to protect the large numbers of visitors to the market, or for Ponsonby-bound walkers. At the bottom of, in succession, Wellesley St, Union St and Franklin Rd it's a case of pedestrian beware.

A check with the Land Transport Safety Authority confirms that pedestrianism in Auckland is a perilous business. Of the five fatal crashes from 1996 to 2000 in the CBD - for the LTSA this includes the downtown area stretching from Parnell across to Ponsonby Rd - four involved pedestrians.

Over that period, 289 pedestrians were skittled by cars, 84 during last year, by far the worst year of the five. Half were considered serious.

In that time, 93 pedestrians were struck at traffic signals. Most, it seems, involved bad behaviour on the part of the walker.

My guess is that abolishing Barnes dancing and increasing the gladiatorial stand-off between car and pedestrian is only going to make things worse.

Fellow pedestrians, consider yourselves warned.