A report from the Institute of Economic Affairs says that the the number of traffic lights in the country has risen by a quarter since 2000.

What have been the consequences? Delaying journeys has a cost to the economy, the report says:

“Just a two-minute delay to every car journey equates to a loss of approximately £16 billion every year, equivalent to almost 1 per cent of GDP.”

The cost are environmental as well as economic:

“A 2006 study estimated that traffic lights in the UK consumed 102 million kwh of electricity a year, equivalent to around 30,000 homes (UKERC 2006). As a result, approximately 50,000 tonnes of CO2 entered the atmosphere….

“On top of the cost of delays, traffic policy increases fuel consumption, emissions and vehicle maintenance. Traffic signals require frequent braking and acceleration. Road humps and other obstacles may increase wear on tyres and suspensions, and damage bodywork and exhausts. With effects hard to isolate, it is difficult to quantify such costs, but with over 30 million vehicles on UK roads even a small percentage increase in annual fuel and maintenance costs translates into a substantial sum.”

Last year the Conservatives on the London Assembly proposed that traffic lights be turned off at night. I hope that Zac Goldsmith will take up this proposal which is modest but also sensible and eco-friendly.

But we should also have local authorities showing greater willingness to experiment with turning off traffic lights in the day time. This experiment took place at the Cabstand Junction Portishead in Somerset – by accident but with great success:

“In June 2009, the lights failed for a few hours and the traffic jams disappeared. Cassini spotted the story and lobbied the Council, who agreed to a lights-off trial. It started on 14 September 2009. The results were instantaneous. Despite a return from back-street rat-runs and greater numbers using the now free-flowing main route, there was a dramatic drop in congestion and journey time, as
confirmed by monitoring of the trial.”

In the words of traffic engineer Keith Firth:

‘Within hours of hooding the signals, things were looking bleak for the traffic engineering fraternity. Up to 2000 vehicles per hour sailed
through the junction with little, if any, delay and queues disappeared on all the approaches. Drivers were courteous to each other, a good proportion slowed to allow pedestrians to cross, and road users interviewed a few days before the trial who had said it would be chaos, now reported that they were prepared to have a three-course millinery delight.’

The report adds:

The benefits were so obvious that after ten months the council decided to make the trial permanent and removed the traffic lights altogether. The Portishead experiment has been marked by a very low accident rate, although small sample sizes make statistical analysis problematic. Firth concludes that ‘removing all forms of conventional junction control resulted in less traffic congestion, fewer delays and queues, and greater capacity, with little impact on pedestrian amenity.”

So why are there not more trials with removing traffic lights? The difficulty is the vested interests of all the highways engineers and bureaucrats whose salaries rely on complexity and intervention. What is needed is for the elected councillors to insist on the alternative approach being given a chance.

19 comments for: Councils should experiment with turning off traffic lights

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.