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Traffic Triffids

Traffic lights are now 150 years old. Is it time to unplug them?

Are you sitting uncomfortably? In an endless queue for your local traffic lights? Lights that seem to multiply in numbers weekly? Good. Here’s a fairy tale that will brighten your dreary day.

Once upon a time in Wales, a set of lovely brand new traffic signals were installed by those clever wizards in the traffic engineering department at a tip-top cost of £800,000.

However, instead of thanking the council for their kindness and thoughtfulness, the ungrateful residents and businesses whinged and moaned about the severe congestion which descended on the town after this upgrade.

The council, naturally, took no notice and refused to admit any error on their part – until the lovely new lights failed for a few hours. And, like a bad dream fleeing with the arrival of the dawn, the traffic jams that had plagued the town, simply evaporated.

The council was forced to agree to something incredible. Something quite unheard of. A lights-off trial.

There was a miraculous and immediate drop in congestion and journey time, queues disappeared on all the approaches, and the predicted chaos and anarchy of the doom-merchants failed to materialise. Instead drivers were observed being courteous and slowing to allow pedestrians to cross.

It’s a lovely fairy tale isn’t it? We all know that it couldn’t happen in real life. Traffic lights once installed are never removed – they only breed.

Except it did actually happen, in Portishead, in 2009.

Similar successful schemes in Drachten in the Netherlands and Bohmte in Germany scrapped over 80% of their traffic lights.

‘Seeing Red’ a report by the Institute of Economic Affairs think tank claims that four in five sets of UK traffic lights should be removed. That along with speed bumps and bus lanes this mania for traffic lights damages the UK economy.

It estimates that a two minute delay to every car journey ends up costing the UK about £16B every year.

It also argues that traffic controls don’t increase road safety but have in fact the opposite effect, by making road-users rely on third-hand instructions rather than first-hand judgement: ‘The most obvious example is the traffic light: in taking our eyes off the road, it flouts the fundamental principle of road safety: to watch the road.’

While it should probably be remembered that the IEA has an right wing ideological axe to grind – and seems in its report to regard traffic lights and speed humps as Stalinist symptom of ‘command and control’ – they do have a point.

In the town where I live a key roundabout on the ring round was recently replaced – after enormous and year-long disruption caused by the roadworks – by a set of blindingly expensive, blindingly complicated and blindingly bright traffic lights.

There are so many of them – and of course they’re LED – that when you approach, even in what passes for daylight in the north east, all you can see is RED!!!!. Or GREEN!!!!. Or ACCELERATE!!!! (as some people seem to understand amber).

And naturally, traffic queues are much worse than they were before. You have to admire the council’s persistence. They introduced a universally-loathed ‘throughabout’ at another location a few years back. A throughabout is an ingenious piece of traffic engineering. Essentially, it’s a perfectly good roundabout ruined by an unnecessarily complicated layout and… traffic lights.

Traffic lights are the triffids of our road network, mushrooming regardless of utility or popularity, or the nightmares they can cause. From 2000 to 2014, when there was little growth in traffic volumes, the number of traffic lights increased by 25%. The number of junctions controlled by signals has risen to c. 15,000 with a further 18,000 pedestrian crossings.

The world’s first traffic light was installed in London in December 1868, near the Houses of Parliament. It was gas-powered and manually operated by a policeman. Based on railways signals (complete with semaphore arms), it was not a great success – it exploded after a month, injuring the policeman operating it.

The first (again manually operated) electric traffic light was installed in 1914 in Cleveland, Ohio – with two colours, red and green and a buzzer to warn of changes.

Los Angeles installed its first automated traffic signals in 1920. Manufactured by Acme, and immortalised in Looney Tunes cartoons, they combined semaphore ‘Stop’ ‘Go’ arms with red and green lights. A loud bell played the role of today’s ‘amber’.

Acme Semaphore Traffic Signal (Fully Restored Original)

In 1967 Toronto succeeded in computerising, with the help of pressure pads and the telephone network, all the city’s traffic lights, essentially inaugurating the modern system of traffic control. And our current traffic nightmares.

Perhaps though we’ve finally reached peak stop signal. As Hans Monderman, the famous Dutch traffic engineer pioneer of shared space schemes, said: ‘We only want traffic lights where they are useful and I haven’t found anywhere where they are useful yet.’

The IEA clearly agree with this sentiment. They advocate that a high proportion of traffic triffids should be replaced by filter-in-turn or all-way give-ways. ‘Many bus lanes, cycle lanes, speed cameras and parking restrictions should also go. Culling such traffic management infrastructure would deliver substantial economic and social benefits.’

Yes, that’s all very well. But one, vital question remains unaddressed: with all those traffic lights gone, where will we find the time to pick our noses?