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Traffic-light plague sweeps UK: Safety culture strangles Blighty

Stealthy 2005 gov rule favoured feet over wheels

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Analysis A massive increase in the number of traffic lights – and an un-discussed 2005 increase in the priority given to pedestrians – is gradually causing the roads to grind to a halt, according to a new report.

In London for instance, despite a large number of motorists having been permanently deterred from driving by congestion charging, congestion is back to pre-charge levels with no increases in traffic: according to the new analysis this is largely due to the fact that the city now has many more traffic lights and they are programmed to give more priority to pedestrians and buses.

The new perspective comes in a report written for the pro-motorist RAC Foundation, authored by veteran government transport bureaucrat Irving Yass. Titled Every Second Counts, it reveals that:

The number of sets of traffic lights in Britain has climbed by approximately 30 per cent – to more than 25,000 – in the eight years from 2000 to 2008.

In London, the area of densest traffic in the UK, the number of sets of lights rose by approximately a quarter in the same period to 6,000+. More than half of the capital's traffic lights are programmed to give priority to buses: around a quarter, elsewhere in Britain.

Approximately half of all UK traffic lights are at junctions, and thus potentially offer some benefits to wheeled traffic as well as pedestrians (though this may only be true at certain times of day, or in many instances not at any time for either motorists or pedestrians). The other 50 per cent of lights are purely for pedestrians' benefit, being situated at crossings.

According to Yass' analysis, based on figures obtained from the Department of Transport and local bodies such as councils and Transport for London, the increase in traffic lights – and perhaps even more so, the increasing trend to prioritise pedestrian movement through junctions by changing lights' programming – is seriously increasing congestion for wheeled road traffic (buses excepted in some cases, as they too are favoured by the lights).

The report indicates that a large fall in congestion was seen in London following introduction of the capital's congestion charging scheme introduced by the previous mayor Ken Livingstone. A noticeable proportion of motorists ceased to drive in the charging zone, and vehicle numbers in the zone remain well down on previous levels. Nonetheless, congestion is now back up to its old state:

Monitoring reports of the congestion charging zone show that, after an initial improvement, congestion has been increasing again and is back to pre-charge levels, even though the number of vehicles entering the zone has not increased.

How could this have happened?

According to Yass, the gains achieved by the congestion charge have been wiped out by Mayor Ken's parallel policy drive to cut down the time it takes to cross the road in London, and in particular to make the streets safer for the disabled. A large number of London's new traffic lights would seem to have been put in at new pedestrian crossings – "most junctions were already controlled by lights", writes Yass – and those at junctions now usually have "full pedestrian stages" where all traffic is held stopped in both directions.

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