Light touch

I wrote a piece last month about the appropriate long-term response to people breaking the law while cycling – in short, it’s to fix the street they’re cycling on, so they’re not breaking the law anymore.

For instance – if people are cycling ‘the wrong way’ on a one-way street, well, the correct response is to make sure that two-way cycling is appropriately designed for on that street. If traffic is low enough, then that might amount to nothing more than just allowing it with a simple exemption. If there’s more traffic, then the solution will probably involve some engineering – or removal, or displacement, of that traffic – to make two-way cycling safe.

I also mentioned that – if there’s a problem with red light jumping – a proper long-term response is to look at how these signals are designed, and to assess whether they are even necessary.

Let me give a concrete example. In April this year, I made a short trip in the city of Utrecht.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 18.35.03

This was a distance of just over a mile, right through the centre of the city. On a heavy Dutch bike, it took me about five and a half minutes, in total – including any stops. That’s a very respectable overall average speed of 11 mph, given that I was stationary for 40 seconds at one signal.

The reason I was able to make such good progress is because, as we’ll see in the video, I only had to make that one stop. There was just one traffic light I had to deal with on this journey. The rest of it didn’t involve any stopping or waiting at all, mainly because there aren’t any other traffic signals on this trip.

With so few traffic lights – guess what! – there isn’t very much red light jumping by people cycling. Misbehaviour just evaporates when the street conditions are adapted to favour walking and cycling.

By complete contrast, the very next day, I arrived back in London, getting a train into Liverpool Street from the ferry terminal. Here’s the journey I made by bike, to Victoria –

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 19.31.21

This trip was just three and a half miles – only about three times as long as my Utrecht trip – but it included 32 traffic signals. That’s a signal roughly every 175 metres, and I estimate that I had to stop at roughly half of them.

It was hugely frustrating, coming, as I did, straight off the ferry from a country where traffic signals are much, much rarer in urban areas. Even where they do exist in the Netherlands, they will almost always exempt cycling from right turns (the equivalent of our left turn).

So it is possible to deal with red light jumping, not by clamping down on it, but by creating conditions where people cycling simply don’t have to deal with lights at all.

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11 Responses to Light touch

  1. “It was hugely frustrating, coming, as I did, straight off the ferry from a country where traffic signals are much, much rarer in urban areas. ”

    But as you allude to in the video, that’s because there’s very little motor traffic. Traffic lights are there govern the movement of lots of motor vehicles, where simple give-ways would result in vehicle back-up on non-priority routes. You don’t have traffic lights on minor rural junctions, and you don’t have traffic lights in the middle of parks to control even complicated pedestrian and cycle movements.

    Fewer traffic lights is one of many advantages of restricting urban motor traffic. But at current volumes of UK traffic you can’t remove a lot of the traffic lights to result in the same environment for cycling. The real take-away here is that by restricting through-routes for motor traffic, and making cities inconvenient for driving, you can reap the benefit of reduced signalling.

    Also, more vulnerable pedestrians can prefer traffic lights to, say, zebra crossings, because of the certainty that they feel like they confer (if drivers never jumped lights, which… yeah). The erosion of driver’s attitudes to zebra crossings has made lights for driver/pedestrian interactions more necessary.

  2. @angus_fx says:

    Very much agree with CambridgeVelocipedestrienne. Particularly where children are concerned, signalised crossings have simple rules; in London, enough are camera enforced that while plenty of drivers “amber gamble”, few will outright drive through on red.

    The problem with Zebras is that priority is not legally conferred, IIRC, until you actually set foot on the crossing (but kids are of course trained to not put a foot in the road til the traffic has stopped – they can’t judge approaching vehicle distance/speed); they are also legally more-or-less unenforceable, and the kind of selfish arseholes who think driving at 40mph is the right way to make two or three mile trip in town know this full well.

    In Central London, there’s also the sheer volume of pedestrians to consider. Signalised crossings are needed because the flow of people is pretty much continuous at the busiest times of day.

  3. Gonçalo Peres says:

    I agree. As a pedestrian and a cyclist, traffic lights are a very inefficient way to deal with urban mobility. Even for motor traffic. Everything will work smoother and safer with “20mph zones” proper infrastructure, keeping heavy and crossing traffic away from this places.
    Also, traffic lights often make streets more dangerous, than if they didn’t even exist. Motorists tend to speed more to catch the “green wave”, or yellow (full throttle). They stop paying attention at the surroundings (people). And red lights have the aggravated danger of joining motor traffic in herds, releasing them in a menacing pack, impatient to make up for the lost time, where the front cars are urged to speed. If there is a zebra 100 meters after, it’s a bloodshed (I’m being a little theatrical, but you get the picture). For pedestrians it’s frustrating to cross the road, where the green light just opens for a few seconds, making it impossible for a elderly to cross on time. Many traffic lights are on roads with no intersections, which makes me ignore them when commuting by bicycle, but always respecting pedestrians. Here in Portugal we face the same problems. Urban areas with lot’s of traffic signals and lack of political will and vision to make cities people friendly and sustainable.
    Great blog!

  4. In a wider context, it looks like the environment favours cycling largely because it has been designed to remove cars largely from the equation. One-way and permeability measures, as well as bus lanes and cycle paths, move the balance between car and non-car travel in urban environments. There really is no reason why London could not do much the same, to discourage motor vehicles, but especially private cars, from entering city centres without good reason. Possibly private cars are actually a minority of motor traffic in London, and goods, commercial and tradesmen’s vehicles which do actually need to be there are in the majority, but it doesn’t actually take much reduction in traffic volume to make a huge difference in traffic congestion – just look at the school holidays, when removal of an estimated 16-20% of traffic makes a measurable improvement in vehicle progress.

    The instinctive reaction by motoring lobbyists and business groups such as London First is to assume that the result will be really bad for traffic (ie motor traffic), but we know they are wrong. An excellent example of this is the 2012 Olympics, when the special officials’ lanes took away road capacity from most motor traffic. No-one died, the sky didn’t fall in, and in fact motorists gained an advantage – I took a taxi journey from Fleet St to Chelsea and was astonished at how quickly we made the journey. I saw almost no moving private cars (plenty parked) and evidently their owners managed, somehow.

    It might be assumed, by people who think that way, that the Dutch approach to roads is somehow anti-car, but it is not. A Dutch person is if anything more likely to own a car than a Brit, and will probably change his/her car more frequently. I have no idea what mileage they typically drive, except that they are less likely to drive short distances or across urban areas. The road system is designed so that some areas are clearly not intended for use by cars, and others are clearly not intended for use by bicycles or pedestrians. Each has their own provision. (I have also noticed that Dutch roads are likely to be in a much better state of repair than British ones, so less punishing on car suspensions, tyres and shock absorbers. They make more use of porous asphalt, which reduces road noise and spray in rain, whereas we use crappy tarmac bitumen-and-gravel surface dressing which kicks up lots of stones, is horrible to cycle on, and doesn’t last)

    There are many other elements of our road design which encourage bad behaviour. Why, for example, do we build central medians on London streets, where the speed limit is normally 30mph or less? We don’t have medians down our 60mph rural A roads, so why do we need them here? They must surely give motorists a sense of security which motivates them to speed? Couldn’t that road width be more usefully applied as cycle path? Similarly, why do we iron out the kinks in rural roads, increasing the turn radius so that cars can “safely” drive around them exceeding the speed limit? Why are we then surprised when all non-motorised traffic, and indeed small motorised, ie mopeds, will no longer use those roads?

    • @angus_fx says:

      “Goods, commercial and tradesmen’s vehicles which do actually need to be there are in the majority” – I do wonder how many of these trades vehicles would be needed if there were overwhelmingly strong economic incentives to get smart about resource pooling. A lot of tradesmen carry essentially their entire set of gear around all day in the van, which is mighty convenient if you don’t mind there being an awful lot of said vans on the road. The £10 C-charge is nothing to people who can get £150 per job and do six or eight such jobs in a day; cleaning firms bring all their gear in, instead of storing it in a cupboard at their workplace. I’d be willing to bet that, were the congestion charge £100 per day instead of £10, many of these firms would figure out alternatives – bring a single van in to an area to support multiple crews working within a mile or two; store essentials in lockers close to the work, etc.. not as efficient as the present arrangement, perhaps, but the city would figure out a way to keep functioning.

      The real point here though is that business has to figure out how to function within the legal and infrastructural framework laid down by the rest of society. If society as a whole decides that far fewer vehicles in Zone 1 is a good thing, business will adapt – whether that’s by getting a load of cargo bikes or relocating to Basingstoke. I note that the C-charge, the Olympic road closures, and all the rest, have not exactly depressed the London office rental market.

  5. Andrea says:

    The over-abundance of traffic lights in the UK is a typical masochistic British response to solving problems; rather than trying to find a neat solution that least impacts the victims (i.e. people walking and cycling) a sledge-hammer approach is used that impacts negatively everyone.

    [Another fine example are those idiotic train doors with no handle inside: only the British could have implemented something so stupid and customer unfriendly.]

    Our plan for the Clerkenwell Boulevard (which at the moment is burdened with 13 traffic lights on 2.7km, of road which add on average 55% of travel time to people on bikes) is to get rid of eight of them.

    • As I’ve just commented on Facebook, compared with New York City, where I now live, traffic lights look pretty sparse in the UK. Riding up north-south avenues, there are traffic lights every single block – that’s every 80 metres – and the lights are timed for motor vehicles, not bicycles. Anyone determined (like I) to wait for the lights ends up stopping and starting a great deal.

  6. Jitensha Oni says:

    This may be why there is a perennial call for cycle paths alongside railway lines in London. In principle, it’s not a bad idea given that the superhighways are just about the worst of the lot for traffic lights. Making connections with the existing network might be tricky though. Anyway, taking your lead, using StreetView, I counted the lights on my return from Freecycle to the A3 at Shannon Corner – my last cycle up to town and back. 51 sets in ca 15 km, but over half of those were in the 5 km between Birdcage Walk and Clapham Junction. After that I got fed up with CS8 and went onto my old commute route – much nicer, which brings me to…

    It is possible to “remove” traffic lights in a sense: by using Cyclestreets (or one’s own knowledge)! I rode one of their quiet/balanced routes from Surbiton to Wimbledon, which I’d being doing by the traffic-light festooned main roads for years, and it was a revelation how few lights I came across. At least for me, the slightly (and I mean slightly) longer time is more than made up by the smooth and relatively quiet (and unpolluted) progress one can make (aka rat-running on a bike). You might need tyres wider than 25c though. It’s the execrable signposting that is the big block here; as I say I’d no idea of the hidden network before Cyclestreets came on the scene (& no, I’ve no vested interest it, just a fan).

    That’s rambled a bit off-topic so let me say to Andrea – spot on! Brits love prohibitions far more than permissions and are surprised/outraged when they are ignored (which is more common: Cyclists Dismount or Cyclists Rejoin Carriageway? I rest my case) .

  7. Pingback: Exempting people cycling from signals, and how that can benefit people walking | As Easy As Riding A Bike

  8. Also applies to pedestrians. The fewer signals they have to deal with, the easier it is to walk. Changing many traffic light controlled pedestrian crossings to zebra crossings helps, the implementation of that would be aided by removing the zigzag requirements, the belisha beacons (which can still be used, but the continental sign for zebra crossings would be used instead for the most part) and the requirement that drivers stop if you look like you might want to cross.

    Adding socially safe underpasses under large roads aids too.

    And separate traffic light systems allows pedestrians to cross at more intervals, and capping the waiting time for pedestrians at remaining traffic lights also helps a lot.

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