BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Monday, 14 January 2008, 13:00 GMT
The case against traffic lights
Would our roads be safer and less congested if we were free of traffic lights and free to filter in turn? Newsnight asked campaigner Martin Cassini why he thinks they would.

by Martin Cassini

Martin Cassini

They take our eyes off the road. They make us stop when it's safe to go. They increase journey times. They maximise congestion, which costs the economy 20bn a year. They maximise emissions and fuel use from the stop-start drive cycle. They deface streetscapes. They cost the earth to install and run.

"But Sir," wrote David Williams to the Times, "you forget the other function of traffic lights: they provide an opportunity to apply make-up, straighten one's tie, use the steering wheel as a drum kit, and, most importantly, explore the contents of one's nose."

Despite that folksy insight, gains in efficiency, safety, quality of life and the planet, would follow if we scrapped lights - the biggest gas-guzzlers of them all.

Civilised behaviour

Lights are a retrospective "cure" for the fatal flaw at the heart of the system: main road priority.

Priority makes roads dangerous by giving one set of road-users right-of-way over others - not because they had arrived first, which is the civilised way to behave, but because of the contrived distinction between major and minor roads.

To break the priority streams of traffic, lights are "needed".

The rules turn our roads into danger zones where we have to fight for gaps and green time. Over the years they have helped kill more people than died in two world wars.

Dr Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist from the University of Bath, says traffic controls developed piecemeal, with little or no testing.

Traffic lights also go against our natural inclinations. Professor Frank McKenna of Reading University says we have to suppress certain behaviours so the system works.

Shouldn't it be the other way round? Shouldn't the system conform to human nature?

Live and let live. Like a skateboard park, where teens of all stripes nod each other on and merge in harmony.

"Traffic lights are a metaphor for disenfranchisement," says Professor Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist and Director of the Royal Institution. So decision-making is increasingly usurped by systems, which inhibit individual development.

Shared space

When lights are out of action, do we start crashing into each other? Does traffic seize up?

No, we approach slowly and take it in turns. Courtesy thrives and congestion dissolves. Pedestrians are seen as fellow road-users rather than obstacles in the way of the next light.

In "shared space", a theory pioneered by the late Hans Monderman (1945-2008), traffic controls are removed, streets become civilised again.

Where once a green light licensed aggression, now there is peaceful coexistence between road-users.

Q. No rules? It would be anarchy.

A. Peaceful anarchy. Live and let live. Like a skateboard park, where teens of all stripes nod each other on and merge in harmony.

Blind safety

Professor Peter Barker, who was a professional engineer and has been blind since 1991, says that shared space, with modifications to help orientation, could even be safer for blind people, and should be trialled.

As for the planet, every litre of fuel burned releases 2.4kg of CO2.

Cutting time spent idling at lights could reduce CO2 emissions
Multiply the minutes of enforced idling at lights by the hours in the years, by the number of vehicles, and it is clear that policymakers are responsible for environmental damage on an astronomical scale.

The very cities that advocate use of public transport also make their high-polluting diesel buses wait at red. Transport for London refused to take part, which speaks volumes.

By all means introduce a programme of re-education. Phase in the advanced driving test to raise standards and help drivers meet the challenge.

But stop detaining us unnecessarily at lights!

At the very least, flashing lights that allow filtering on opportunity should replace mandatory lights that forbid it.

Watch Martin Cassini's report on Newsnight, 2230GMT on BBC Two, 14 January 2008, and online.

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