They’re a ubiquitous presence in every urban landscape. They’ve launched a million student parties (red for coupled up, yellow for potentially available, green for guaranteed regret). And many traffic engineers believe that they are vital for maintaining safer roads, too.
But the popularity of the humble traffic light is starting to slide. They’re been linked to road rage, explosions, humankind’s declining sense of social responsibility, and, in recent years, have even started to turn on each other. So is it time to get rid of traffic lights altogether?
The first, gas-fuelled, traffic light was installed outside the Houses of Parliament in London in 1868. Within a month, it had dramatically uninstalled itself by exploding.
Over 40 years later, a policeman called Lester Wire (yes, that’s his real name) developed the first electric traffic light in Salt Lake City, Utah. Wire’s invention must have sparked something (arf) because designers around the United States were soon clamouring to get in on the action (there was, apparently, not much fun to be had in the early 20th century). Soon cities across the US were bedecked with traffic lights that flashed, beeped, whistled and generally worked hard to raise the nation’s blood pressure.
Obviously, it’s not possible to blame all road rage on traffic lights (at least, not as long as Scott Mills is on Radio 1). But there is enough of a link that, in 2008, researchers developed “smart traffic lights”. This invention was prompted by studies which had found that incessant braking and accelerating caused a spike in road rage. Abrupt changes in speed, and uncertainty over when the lights would change, infuriated drivers and led to dangerous driving.
With this in mind, American and Romanian researchers developed talking traffic lights: a set of lights which would announce to drivers if they should be moving slower or braking. It’s a bit like having a backseat driver, but one which is peering into the front of your car, and is also a robot.
While their effectiveness is still up for debate, one city was impressed enough to install talking traffic lights in 20 locations around in 2015. Newcastle University collaborated teamed up with the city council to start trialling the lights. As Phil Blythe, the university’s professor of intelligent transport systems, explained to the International Business Times: "The system might advise a driver that if they travel at 24mph they will get the next four sets of traffic lights on green."
In other words, we’ve created a set of traffic lights to help us avoid traffic lights.
Legendary traffic engineer Hans Monderman once said: “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there's a problem with a road, they always try to add something. To my mind, it's much better to remove things.” He believed that people are losing their capacity for socially responsible behaviour and that light-free roads were the answer.
By making road users more responsible for their driving decisions, Monderman hoped to reduce the modern driver’s dependency on the accelerator. Forcing drivers to slow down in order to examine their surroundings, rather than just because a light on a pole ordered them to, would, he believed, help create safer and more harmonious roads.
Monderman’s influence can be seen at the bottom of my road in Amsterdam, where an intersection used by car drivers, vans, lorries, cyclists and pedestrians is completely light-free.
The first few times I tried to use this crossing I ended up getting off my bike and pushing it across. The road was too big, and there were too many lanes (eight; 12 if you count the bike lanes) to keep track off. This was a built-up, inner-city neighbourhood: giving cars free reign to barrel through unchecked was surely low-budget population control, if not an outright declaration of war.
My neighbourhood, I later realized, is covered in these naked intersections. It took a few weeks for me to feel comfortable with all this nudity. It took another six months before I realised how much they’ve improved my behaviour as a cyclist.
I normally race towards green traffic lights, desperate to avoid facing down a red-eyed cyclops. If anyone gets in my way, either they or I will end up picking gravel out of our vital organs. But these traffic-light-free intersections make me slow down, look around, and clock the elderly man attempting to cross the road while clutching a priceless Ming vase. They make me a better cyclist and turn my neighbours into more cautious drivers.
So, traffic lights. They encourage road rage; they allow drivers to become less responsible in their driving; and hackers could one day take control of the things. Why do we need them again?