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Traffic Lights - Rip Them Out "Traffic lights are an unnecessary evil. We should let human nature take its competent course instead and cut down on stress and pollution."


By Martin Cassini
The Telegraph, 14 Oct 2006

'Why stop at traffic lights? Once you've seen one you've seen them all." An old joke, but why should we stop if it's safe to go? Observe a junction where the lights are out of action: no congestion. As soon as the lights are "working" again, the jams are back. We complain about traffic, but could it be traffic controls that are the problem?

Before regulations existed, all road-users had equal rights under common law. At junctions, people took it in turns to proceed. Then, in 1929, main road priority imposed inferior rights on minor roads and pedestrians. Main roads became dangerous to cross. To interrupt traffic streams, police on point duty appeared, then lights. A response to self-inflicted problems, traffic controls developed piecemeal, with no objective testing.

The rationale for lights is safety, but the Transport Research Laboratory says: "It is a myth that signals guarantee safety." The Department for Transport says: "Traffic lights should be avoided." The TRL asks: "Why traffic signals when mini-roundabouts work better?" The vice-chairman of TfL, Dave Wetzel, has an answer: "Councils pay for mini-roundabouts; we pay for lights." So the proliferation of lights, in London anyway, is a planning accident.

Traffic lights are inefficient: they make us wait at red even when no one is using the green. Time and again they interrupt our progress, often needlessly. Rooted in a misreading of human psychology, they override common sense. Busy cities already rely on universal cooperation; we don't have lights for pedestrians on pavements, yet even when they are packed with shoppers, everybody gets along. Traffic controls outlaw discretion, generate stress and provoke aggression. What happens when controls are absent? Left to its own devices at junctions where the lights are out of action, traffic disperses without incident or delay. Free of vexatious rules, we approach junctions slowly and filter. A London cabbie says: "You've just got to be a bit more careful, that's all."

In Jersey, this unregimented "system" is called filter-in-turn. It allows courtesy to flourish and traffic to flow. Pedestrians breathe cleaner air and are seen as fellow road-users rather than obstacles in the way of the next light. Filter-in-turn would cure the interminable delays endured by minor-road traffic, and transform traffic flow in cities. Mini-roundabouts are not needed. A dotted line across each road where it enters a junction is enough.

By all means introduce a programme of re-education. Phase in the advanced driving test to raise standards and help drivers meet the challenge. Use psychological traffic calming measures such as raised cobbles. Enforce the rule that drivers should use the nearside lane unless overtaking.

Filter-in-turn has never been tested. A Brent council traffic engineer agreed to a monitored trial, but TfL, the controlling authority, refused. In Drachten in Holland, "shared space" pioneer Hans Monderman removed traffic lights and signs. Streets and pavements were levelled and cobbled, street activity encouraged. Accidents, congestion and journey times fell, and now road-users smile. Shared space relies on interaction and drivers behaving well - which, in the absence of controls, they do. Given responsibility, they exercise meaningful self-control. Monderman walks into the road without looking, knowing that drivers, undistracted by lights, are watching the road.

UK policymakers are obsessed with segregating traffic. But it could be integrated, especially if vehicles were electric, which would reduce noise as well as air pollution. City centres and no-go zones could become civilised havens in which even blind people could move safely. The same is true of other forms of traffic control. In Montana, USA, scrapping speed limits brought a 7mph drop in average speeds and a 30 per cent reduction in accidents.

If policymakers harnessed human nature instead of hampering it, they might find that most of our congestion and road rage problems would disappear. Given the benefits of self-regulation, what do our highly-paid policymakers propose? Transport minister Douglas Alexander: "Road charging." Head of the Highways Agency, Derek Turner: "In-car speed limiters." In other words, more expensive technology to hamper human nature and expand the control industry.

Imperial College reports that air pollution in London exceeds all environmental and health guidelines - 4x4 drivers are demonised, but 4x4 emissions are insignificant compared with avoidable emissions produced by traffic controls. It has been suggested that vehicle emissions cause 10 times as many deaths as accidents.

Mandatory lights, permanent bus lanes, motorbikes banned from bus lanes, vicious parking controls, premature congestion charging, one-way systems that make you go via XYZ to get from A to B... when we're all driving electric cars, will we still be subject to all the oppressive regulation currently in force?

Having devised these obstacles in a bid to drive us on to public transport - where last year on the London Underground there were 2,011 violent incidents against the public - the guardians of our welfare are raising fares to cut overcrowding. The very cities that advocate use of public transport also make their diesel buses wait at red.

It's for the experts to prove controls necessary. Certainly traffic volume is a problem. People should try other ways to travel, and government should set a target date for phasing out petrol/diesel vehicles. But controls make volume worse. Dam a river and it floods. Block traffic flow and traffic jams.

People like to complain about cyclists ignoring traffic lights, but cyclists are simply filtering, like pedestrians on wheels.

Instead of being held in limbo by the tyranny of mandatory traffic lights, all road-users - on foot or on wheels - should be free to exercise intelligent discretion, and filter in turn.


# You can read a fuller version of this article in the December issue of Economic Affairs, the journal of the Institute of Economic Affairs.
# For information about the associated documentary feature film and how to get involved, go to START at www.goodfun.tv.