Between 2000 and 2008 the number of traffic light installations in the UK rose by over 30%, boosted by an additional 1800 sets imposed on London’s streets under Ken Livingstone. There are now thought to be over 30,000 signal-controlled junctions and 25,000 pelican crossings. The nature of these controls has been changing too. Between 2007-2008, for example, the number of signals giving priority to buses more than doubled to 8,500. Junctions with a full pedestrian crossing stage – when all vehicles are held at a complete standstill whether or not a pedestrian is in sight – are also becoming increasingly popular with local authorities.
There has been little appreciation, however, of the economic costs associated with such controls, which is unsurprising given the absence of commercial incentives facing transport planners. With approximately 33 million road vehicles in the UK, unnecessary delays at junctions translate into major economic losses. To give some idea of the scale involved, it has been estimated that just two minutes added to all vehicle trips costs £12 billion annually. In addition to the cost to drivers there is the burden on taxpayers for installing and maintaining the infrastructure and equipment. Moreover, traffic jams resulting from traffic controls increase fuel use and pollution levels, while driver behaviour near traffic lights (e.g. speeding up to beat the green) heightens danger. The latest safety audit from Westminster City Council shows that no less than 44% of personal injury accidents occurred at traffic lights.
A handful of local authorities have begun to recognise the negative effects of traffic controls. In 2009, lights were switched off at the Cabstand double junction in Portishead. Despite an increase in traffic, queues disappeared, journey times fell by over 50%, and there was no decline in road safety.
A more recent and much wider-ranging case study suggests that the benefits of removing controls go far beyond time savings for motorists. In the biggest such scheme yet seen in the UK, Poynton in Cheshire has removed traffic lights and highway clutter at Fountain Place, a major crossroads carrying 26,000 vehicles a day through the heart of the village. Now there is an attractive, open streetscape in which free-flowing traffic interacts sociably with pedestrians. Not only have delays for through-traffic and pedestrians dropped markedly; since the scheme was unveiled six months ago, trading activity in local shops has doubled. This alternative approach to traffic management has therefore brought substantial regeneration benefits as a result of reducing the delays and negative environmental effects associated with traffic controls. A short film, available here, describes the evolution of this pioneering project.
The accumulating evidence from such case studies strengthens the case for an about-turn on traffic policy. A first step would be to end the funding of new traffic control schemes, which threaten to increase further the costs imposed on road users, taxpayers and local residents. Policymakers should look closely at Poynton – a blueprint for delivering substantial economic and quality of life benefits stemming from a different approach to traffic.