Should we remove all the traffic lights from our city centres?

The old enemy. Image: Getty.

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?

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.