Traffic-light plague sweeps UK: Safety culture strangles Blighty
Stealthy 2005 gov rule favoured feet over wheels
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.
So, where can I get a special 'I'm a bus' transponder that makes the lights turn green?
Full pedestrian stages are now normal across the nation, a new measure which has been official policy since 2005, and the DfT itself admits that "of all the options it has the worst effect on junction capacity ... Also it can produce a long cycle time and a pedestrian arriving at the end of the invitation period has a lengthy wait".
The report says:
The introduction of full pedestrian crossing stages at traffic lights represents a major policy shift which has taken place without any analysis of the benefits in terms of accident reduction and time savings for pedestrians or the costs in terms of delay to traffic.
In London full pedestrian crossing stages generally happen only if a traffic-light button is pushed, but this isn't very helpful at busy junctions except in the middle of the night.
Yass notes that many other countries, including the USA and France, don't have quite such a rigid approach to pedestrian safety: in those nations there is much use of rules which let traffic turn across pedestrian crossings (giving priority to the pedestrian) and of blinking-amber traffic lights at times of low traffic, signalling that drivers may use their own judgement.
The report also goes into the interaction of traffic lights and buses or trams, noting that it's now very common for lights to be aware of bus movements via tracking systems and in many cases to hold a green until a bus is through or bring forward a green to suit an approaching bus. This might cause some motorists to grind their teeth (or alternatively, to try to obtain a fake bus transponder). However, Yass says that actually this is not a bad thing for other drivers, provided that the technology is used as part of an integrated network of interlinked traffic lights such as the SCOOT (split-cycle offset optimisation technique) net which governs many of London's lights and is also popular in urban areas elsewhere.
With SCOOT control bus priority need involve only minimal delay to other traffic: the signals can be set so that bus priority will be given only if subsequent signal stages can adjust automatically to give reasonable compensation to other traffic.
Yass is down, however, on recently seen plans where bus lanes get a green before other traffic does. According to his analysis this is simply a product of dogmatic "bus good, car/truck bad" thinking, perhaps much prevalent in some city governments in recent times.
And why can't cyclists turn left on red?
The report also covers the vexed question of cycles and traffic lights, noting that most serious accidents involving cyclists also involve heavy lorries, generally where the driver turns left and kills or injures a cyclist he (maybe she) was unaware of – especially where a pedestrian "safety" barrier is present along the kerb for the cyclist to be smeared against.
As Yass notes, "this problem should not occur where there are advanced cycle stop lines that allow cyclists to wait ahead of lorries". In fact such stop lines are almost universal: but they aren't universally obeyed by drivers, and it may be difficult for cyclists to get past large stationary vehicles to reach them.
The report points out that "allowing cyclists to turn left through red traffic lights might help to prevent some of these accidents", and indeed many cyclists have already taken the law into their own hands here. Again, though, the fact that "it is a fixed principle in the UK that no other traffic movements are allowed during a pedestrian stage" has prevented any experimentation along these lines – official experimentation, anyway. As anyone who's been outside lately knows, cyclists pay about as much attention to red lights as drivers do to advanced stop-lines and pedestrians to red-man signals.
But the issues of cyclists and buses – large though they loom, perhaps, in the average driver's mind – are sideshows to the main thrust of the report. This is broadly to the effect that the past decade's push to increase convenience and safety for pedestrians (especially disabled ones), while at the same time an effective UK moratorium on new road construction has crept in, is largely responsible for the escalating road congestion seen by motorists in recent years.
This might justifiably annoy motorists, as it is they who pay for the streets and roads. So far from helping pay for the infrastructure they use (and destroy, and block up), buses are heavily subsidised: cyclists and pedestrians use the facilities for free. But the roads budget (no more than £15bn annually) is dwarfed by the revenues received by the government from road tax and fuel duty (£46bn as of last year).
Building more roads may remain politically unrealistic given the dual pressures of nimbyism and the Green movement (and in urban areas, often enough, a lack of anywhere to build them). So what's to be done?
'It is time for the DfT to think again'
Yass and the RAC Foundation suggest the following measures:
- The DfT should consider carrying out trials of flashing amber lights at times when there is little traffic, which would allow drivers to proceed with caution at junctions, as is common in countries such as France and Italy.
- London trials of a reduction of the green-man phase (the invitation to cross) from 10 seconds to six seconds have increased traffic flow by six and a half per cent with no significant impact on safety. In the light of these findings, authorities should consider standardising the green man invitation to cross period at six seconds.
- It is not widely understood that the full length of time that pedestrians have to cross is not just the green man period but also includes the time when the pedestrian sign is blank. There are other forms of pedestrian signals – Pedestrian User-Friendly Intelligent (puffin) and countdown, currently being trialed at eight sites in London – that avoid this problem.
- The DfT should also allow for trialling of cyclists turning left at a red signal.
- More use should be made of ‘smart’ traffic lights systems, such as SCOOT, which respond to changes in traffic and congestion by altering the timing of lights.
- The most significant change in priorities over the past decade has been for the benefit of pedestrians, with a presumption – since 2005 – that at junctions there will be an all-round pedestrian stage, ie all vehicles are held at red while people cross. There should be a review of effectiveness of full pedestrian crossing stages and whether the benefits outweigh costs.
- Local authorities should review the lights they have and consider whether some could be removed and replaced with alternatives such as mini-roundabouts and shared space schemes, though not at disproportionate cost to taxpayers.
Or in other words a combination of smarter technology and a stopline in front of the creeping safety culture which is slowly strangling the nation's transport infrastructure – in large part by covering the land in traffic lights and adjusting them to be ever more troublesome.
The head of the RAC Foundation, Professor Stephen Glaister, adds this in a statement accompanying the report:
“Depending when and where you are, traffic lights can ease your journey or be a source of frustration. It is plain that lights have an important role to play but with ever more congested streets they need to be very finely tuned to ensure they are not doing more harm than good – and that means they must react to changing traffic conditions.
“The Department for Transport is nervous of introducing flashing amber signals on the grounds of safety, but they do seem to work in other countries. It is time for the DfT to think again.”
The RAC Foundation document can be read in full here in pdf. ®
Full disclosure: The author of this article is a regular pedestrian, cyclist, motorist and bus passenger in London and elsewhere. This has led him to detest pedestrians, cyclists, ordinary motorists and those who drive for a living equally.