Friday, 21 October 2016

Time to switch off the traffic lights?

While reading the Daily Mail in our dentist's waiting room, a piece about useless traffic lights caught my eye. I haven't found it in the online version, but here are two quotes.

It's absolutely true that this country is rapidly becoming gridlocked. But we can't heap the blame solely on cycle lanes and van drivers.The main cause of congestion is an overabundance of traffic lights.

This certainly chimes with me. For over twenty years I commuted to Nottingham, passing through dozens of sets of traffic lights. Yet whenever the lights failed, traffic seemed to move just as quickly and just as smoothly. The optimum traffic flow sorted itself out, possibly because most drivers were experienced city drivers who knew when to go and when to give way. The writer of the Mail piece has a similar but more dramatic story.

I work as an agent for a consumables company, driving about 600 miles a week. I drive about five days a week, but lose the equivalent of almost one day every week just sitting in traffic waiting for the lights to change. In the past year or so, most people will have seen or read reports about the flooding here in Cumbria. It meant a lot of problems for most road users - but the damage also caused most of the traffic lights to break down. 

This resulted in traffic moving swiftly around towns without any jams or delays. Motorists managed to arrive at work on time and managed to get home earlier than usual. I was able to call on more customers and increase my earnings. Tradesmen reported they had more time to complete more jobs because they could get around more easily.   

There is an interesting question one could ask with wider ramifications than traffic lights. Assuming the above story reflects a genuine problem with traffic lights, how likely is it that any UK government would ever do something as radical as switching them off? Government is certainly aware of the issue.

Andrew Jones, the Road Safety minister, suggested he has noticed that traffic "flows more freely" when traffic lights are not working in his constituency.

He said he will consider calls for a pilot on the idea after Philip Hollobone, a Conservative MP, said that the move could relieve congestion.

But Mr Jones added the inevitable caveat -

"I will have a look at what you say but I think we should be very cautious about removing traffic lights because they're a key ingredient in road safety."

How did he know? His officials probably told him. As they do.


Sam Vega said...

It's possible that in some circumstances they are a time-wasting nuisance, and in others they promote greater safety. It might be that we notice the relative ease of moving around when they stop functioning, because it's a constant change involving lots of little variables. We might notice the increased danger less frequently, because one big thing goes wrong. Getting rid of them might mean faster moving but riskier traffic.

Michael said...

I agree with you on most of this, as when the single set in our village is on the blink, everyone uses caution and gets around quite comfortably!

The other consideration is for pedestrian crossings, where it's necessary to make drivers actually stop for footfall.

wiggiatlarge said...

Whilst traffic lights fall into the yes they do hold up traffic flow no they don't category, the real problem in this overcrowded island is the almost total lack of infrastructure in relation to new build that puts evermore pressure on the roads that do exist.
I could give two wonderful local examples of where building has been allowed without any extra infrastructure and can only conclude having seen similar elsewhere that there are an awful lot of brown envelopes passing to plannining authorities that wave these schemes through.
You only have to cross the channel to see the difference in the building of new infrastructure relating to actual needs and then come home and despair.

Mark Wadsworth said...

"Yet whenever the lights failed, traffic seemed to move just as quickly and just as smoothly."

Everybody notices that! When I lived in London I didn't have a car, but it was easier to cross the road, car drivers were not in a hurry to get to the next set of lights before they went red again, they were more relaxed about slowing down for a couple of seconds. If you were on a bus, things speeded up enormously etc.

Now I live outside London and drive a car again (occasionally - not to commute).

It is infuriating. There is a long road goes through our village with a roundabout at one end and traffic lights at the other. People commute along it in both directions.

But the long queue is always at the traffic light end, not the roundabout end, morning and afternoon, despite it is the same volume of traffic.

Turn the bloody things off, at least we could start at weekends, or between seven at night and seven in the morning or something, just as a test.

As to pedestrians wanting to cross, just declare every non-trunk road to be a zebra crossing so that people crossing have immediate right of way.

Demetrius said...

I like traffic lights, when driving they give me a chance to have a good scratch now and again. When walking and crossing at lights I like to point at the car in front with a grimace. This has the effect of causing the driver to get out to see what I was pointing at. Very often this is when the lights change and when he gets back in they go onto red again. All part of life's rich tapestry.

Flyinthesky said...

I seem to recall when I lived in Spain that a certain times the traffic lights went to steady amber, at such times the junction became a roundabout.

Traffic lights and cycle lanes, to my mind, are nudge mechanisms to get people out of cars. What the morons don't seen to understand is the greatest pollution comes from slow moving and standing traffic.

The way forward is for traffic to be facilitated not hampered at every opportunity.
Why do you want to control traffic? because we can and it promotes the agenda.

Henry Kaye said...

Traffic lights have been successfully removed in three locations in my area and it would suggest that a wider look might be advantageous!

A K Haart said...

Sam - they could make driving safer, but are we likely to find out which those are so the others can be dismantled?

Scrobs - yes we need pedestrian crossings.

Wiggia - whenever I see a big house being built in a beauty spot I think of brown envelopes. Cynical it may be, but some seem blatant to me.

Mark - Flyinthesky has left a comment with a neat idea - turn the lights to amber at certain periods and junctions become roundabouts.

Demetrius - sounds like fun. I'll try that.

Fly - I like the amber light idea and you are right, all these annoyances are to get people out of cars.

Henry - none have been removed round here as far as I know. I only see the effect when they fail.

Dan said...

A year or two back, Colne council had a brainwave, and put traffic lights onto an existing roundabout. It is now faster to use either the roads that this roundabout and road were intended to be a bypass for, or to go fifteen miles out of one's way to bypass the place entirely.

Nessimmersion said...

There is a rumour going around that traffic lights are put on roundabouts to slow down traffic. It is part of the mission to justify non-car travel, free flowing traffic and revealed preferences combine to massively outweigh public transport in all but our large cities.

A K Haart said...

Dan - the obvious thing to do is remove the lights. I wonder how long that will take?

Nessimmersion - I've heard that too. Sounds plausible to me.