There is a set of traffic lights in Utrecht that must be amongst the most widely ignored in the city. They are located on Vredenburg, a new road layout right in the centre.
You can stand at this junction, and the people who stop at a red light will be in a definite minority.
Yet on the opposite side of the road – literally, only a few feet away – I managed to take this picture of about 60 people waiting patiently at a red light. The difference in behaviour could not be more stark.
What accounts for this difference? It can’t be the people – they are all residents in the same city, making the same journeys on this same road. People stopping at the red light when heading west along Vredenburg – as in the photograph above – will often cycle through the red light in the opposite direction when they make the return journey.
The most likely explanation is that the red signal people are ignoring doesn’t make a great deal of sense. The side street that is being crossed is a dead end; a place where taxis wait in the evening, and that is barely used during the day. People cycling along here know that the chance of a motor vehicle entering or exiting this area on the right is very small indeed.
Traffic signals are designed to manage interactions that wouldn’t work as well if they weren’t there; pedestrians crossing a busy road, for instance, or allowing two opposing streams of motor traffic to cross each other’s path when traffic volumes are too high for this to work informally at a normal ‘priority’ junction.
But the interactions at the junction in the video are rarely happening; no motor vehicles are coming in and out of the side road, and it just feels pointless to wait at this red signal.
The queue on the other side, however, does make sense. It does feel right to wait there, because you have to cross a relatively busy junction, with lots of buses coming in and out of it. I’m sure a small minority of people might take a chance and skip across when the signals are red, but the great majority won’t. And many will be crossing diagonally across the junction once the lights go green, which of course isn’t something that you would attempt to do when the signals are red. You are having to deal with multiple potential risks – the two lanes going in and out of the side road, and the two lanes on the main road, and pedestrians crossing the road. It’s much better to wait for the green.
So what I am driving at here is that compliance with traffic signals largely flows from whether they make sense or not. Signals that can be seen to be easily ignored without risk will be ignored by a larger proportion of people than those waiting at signals where the lights are obviously serving some useful purpose – where the traffic lights are actually on your side.
This is something that was touched upon in BicycleDutch’s latest post on technology that might potentially help people cycling to arrive at green signal more often. Mark quotes the city’s alderman for traffic and the environment –
“Utrecht is growing and we try to let the growth happen within the boundaries of the current city. That means it gets busier. It is a challenge for the traffic light guys… to guide all road users safely through the intersection in a time that also makes them a bit happy, at least happy enough to keep obeying these lights.”
Here an explicit link is made between compliance and the way traffic signals work. ‘Happiness’ means not keeping people waiting; if people find that a particular junction has a ridiculously long wait for the next green, then they will get restless, and be more likely to chance a red, especially if there are minimal risks involved in doing so.
We can see this connection between happiness and compliance at another junction in Utrecht, a much bigger one. As I arrive at the junction, people are already waiting to cross. After the lights have been red for at least 90 seconds, a man on a scooter jumps the signals. Everyone else waits.
After the lights have been red for over two minutes, the man on the scooter (who had been obeying the red light, all this time) also jumps the lights, while a woman cycling does so from the opposite direction.
After the lights have been red over three minutes, a woman cycling also gives up, and jumps the red light.
The full video is below; I’ve kept it in real time so you can see how frustrating it is to be waiting for so long. I could almost feel the annoyance and incomprehension rising around me; people looking at each other, people pushing the button repeatedly, and others just giving up and using common sense to cross in the gaps of traffic.
People who were law-abiding (nobody just blasted through the red signals without waiting) were converted into law breakers, simply because they felt the traffic signals no longer made sense, and in the absence of those traffic signals making sense, the balance shifted in favour of their own judgement. Precisely the same is true of the (much smaller) junction in the video at the start of the post; the traffic signals don’t make sense, so people exercise their own judgement.
And we can apply these lessons to Britain. The main reason traffic signals are perceived to be obeyed by drivers of motor vehicles is because they make sense. They work in your favour, stopping flows of large vehicles that you would otherwise have to negotiate your way through.
Traffic lights are all out on A30 Great South-West Road at A312 The Parkway. pic.twitter.com/aoyBPgg87s
— TfL Traffic News (@TfLTrafficNews) April 21, 2015
And of course (as I’ve observed before) it’s actually quite hard to jump lights in a motor vehicle. More often than not, you will stuck in a queue, surrounded by other motor vehicles – you couldn’t jump the lights even if you wanted to. And of course trying to sneak through the junction when lights have been red for some time (I’m not talking about ‘amber gambling’, or even ‘red gambling’, which I would argue is endemic) carries big risks, if you are in a large, bulky vehicle.
People cycling engage in a form of jumping that you rarely see drivers engaging in; creeping into the junction, looking around, seeing if it is clear, and progressing carefully across in stages.
It’s quite obvious why drivers don’t engage in this kind of behaviour, and again, it’s not because of number plates (because, again, that fails to explain why they’re jumping lights in vast numbers already). It’s because it’s risky to get yourself into the middle of a junction in a big bulky object, leaving yourself nowhere to retreat to, if things go wrong. You’re going to end up causing an obstruction.
It really doesn’t make sense to jump lights in this way when you are in a car, unless there’s a genuine emergency. You will get stuck, or come to grief. But on a bicycle it will often make a great deal of sense to jump a light, even if it is illegal, because your mode of transport is small, and flexible, you are more connected with your surroundings, and you can bail out a of problematic situation quite easily.
So the kind of red light jumping by people cycling in Britain actually takes the form of ‘red light jumping’ that is accommodated, both through design and law, in the Netherlands. Going ahead across a T-junction, where you won’t come into conflict with motor traffic, for instance. Or Just turning left, around the corner.
These are the kinds of manoeuvres that it doesn’t make sense to stop people cycling from performing, and so the Dutch design for it. We shouldn’t be surprised that these are the kinds of things people cycling do in Britain, regardless of law, just like we shouldn’t be surprised when people jump lights in Utrecht.
The difference is that the Dutch appear to recognise human behaviour, and adapt junctions in accordance with it, to minimise law breaking. The response to my second video would be to realise that there is something clearly wrong with the signals. The waits are so long that law-breaking is occurring.
In other words, law-breaking represents a failure of design, not of human behaviour. Sadly, I don’t think this is true in Britain, where law-breaking by people cycling is bizarrely seen as some innate condition of being a ‘cyclist’, rather than as a symptom of road system that very often doesn’t make sense to those who happen to be behind handlebars, instead of behind a steering wheel.