Saturday, 28 June 2008

Carbon rationing or freedom to move?

Colin Challen MP, Chair of the all-party climate change group, says: "we need to recognise that early carbon reductions are the most important step." He wants behavioural change through carbon rationing. I say we can save lives, time, money and emissions by rethinking misguided traffic controls.

Needless deaths

Traffic lights cause needless delay, and they cause needless death. Victoria Buchanan, 28, Emma Foa, 51, and Amelia Zollner, 24, were all killed on their bicycles as they waited at lights at minor junctions. If traffic had been moving and interacting instead of held in regimented queues, those women would be alive today, as would countless other victims of the unaccountable traffic control dictatorship. Transport for London tried to suppress a report which said that cyclists are safer NOT waiting at lights.

Thursday, 26 June 2008


ROSPA and the RAC welcome the news that 229 fewer people were killed on UK roads in 2007 than 2006. Hang on. Should we be congratulating anyone for 3,172 deaths on our roads?

"Today’s child road-death rate is not evidence that roads are safer," writes Professor John Adams. "Roads are seen as so dangerous that children are not allowed out anymore."

Most accidents are not accidents at all. They are events contrived by the rules of the road. Safety measures are doomed because they fail to address the fatal flaw at the heart of the system: priority. Priority makes roads dangerous in the first place. How? By conferring superior rights on main roads at the expense of minor road traffic and pedestrians. In all other walks of life we take our turn in the sequence in which we arrive. Not so on the roads, where main road traffic is licensed to plough on, regardless who was there first. To break the priority streams of traffic so that others can cross, in relative but not guaranteed safety, lights are "needed". Lights make us stop so we avoid the inconvenience of slowing down. They make us compete for green time. And they set up intolerable conflicts. What do you do if you’re approaching a green light at a legal 30mph and a child appears in your path but an unsighted 10-ton truck is on your tail? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Traffic lights flout basic safety principles by taking our eyes off the road. They encourage us to speed as we try to avoid another red. They defy commonsense by making us stop when it's safe to go. They conjure congestion by making us queue consecutively instead of allowing us to filter simultaneously. They maximise fuel use and emissions by the stop-start drive cycle. All-in-all, traffic lights spell trouble.

Remove priority and you remove the "need" for lights, freeing everyone to follow their better nature and simply filter in turn. Filter in turn is how this system (or joyful absence of system) is known in the Channel Islands. In the US it is known as the all-way yield. What could be fairer, safer, or more efficient as a form of junction control?

"One thing we know for sure," says the US Best Highway Safety Practices Institute, "is that when given a choice, the vast majority act in a co-operative manner."

The trouble is, the current system deprives us of choice. In dictating our conduct, it negates our innate ability to negotiate movement. It interferes with our primary task of watching the road. It puts the onus on children to beware vehicles. Is that reasonable? No, it's unspeakable. When lights are out of action, or in "shared space" towns such as Drachten in Holland, the onus shifts to where it belongs: drivers beware pedestrians. A new hierarchy emerges with vulnerable road-users at the top. Even blind people can go in safety, because on roads free of counterproductive traffic controls, people can act on commonsense, courtesy and context.

If policymakers harnessed human nature instead of hampering it, they would see most of road safety (and congestion) problems disappear.

Although it’s not up to us to prove traffic lights are unnecessary but for the authorities to prove otherwise – something they have never done - FiT Roads is currently preparing a proposal for a lights-off trial to test the case. To be continued.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Using our own judgement

Traffic regulation based on fear and enforcement benefits no-one except the unaccountable traffic control dictatorship. People behave better, and life is sweeter, when we are free to use our own judgement.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Lights in Northern Michigan

At is a heartfelt cry against traffic lights, particularly inefficient phasing. As noted before, anyone can see that most lights are ineptly phased except, perhaps, the experts who phase them. But, of course, traffic lights are bad news per se. A simple solution exists: in the Channel Islands it's called filter in turn; in the States, the all-way yield.

Why the system of priority is dangerous

The worst safety feature of the current system of priority is that it multiplies conflict points. What happens when you come to a T-junction at a main road? You have to look both ways and wait for a big enough gap in two traffic streams, one from the right, one from the left. Main road traffic is licensed to ignore side road traffic and pedestrians. The advantage with right-side priority is that at least you only have to worry about traffic coming at you from one side. But best of all is natural first-come first-served priority, or filter-in-turn. With everyone approaching slowly, instead of dangerous conflicts, you get civilised interaction.

Shared space in Germany is about Bohmte, which followed Drachten in scrapping lights and introducing shared space, and solved its congestion and road safety problems. I posted a comment (not showing yet) to the effect that where others lead, UK policymakers fail to follow.

Mini-roundabouts is an obituary of Frank Blackmore, inventor of the mini-roundabout. My comment is that although mini-roundabouts are a vast improvement on traffic lights, the offside priority rule isn’t the optimum solution, because it allows traffic from the right to dominate, and can cause other traffic to back up. My hunch is that temporal rather than directional priority, i.e. the natural interaction of filter in turn, is the best answer to congestion and safety on our roads.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

The spirit of H&S

One for Prof John (risk compensation) Adams. On the News Quiz, Andy Hamilton described an incident on location when yellow Health & Safety vests were handed out to the crew. What happened next? They all stood in the middle of the road.

Not just me

I joined Cezary Bednarski, nominee, at the British Home Awards last night. Sat next to Deborah Pullen of the MBE KTN (Modern Built Environment Knowledge Transfer Network). She was spot on regarding traffic lights, e.g. the pointless waiting, stopping and re-starting. She mentioned lights at the A1/M25 which cause huge hold-ups except when they are out of action and she sails through without incident or delay. I've seen that same signal-infested roundabout (and others) cause tailbacks beyond the slip-roads for miles up and down the motorway. In today's Guardian there is an item about Derek Turner, operations director at the Highways Agency (lampooned in the long version of In Your Car No-one Can Hear You Scream! [Google finds it]). Why are the defects in the system obvious to us, but not to the highly-paid experts who run it? Vested interests? Currently I'm drafting a pitch for a lights-off trial. One of the sponsors of last night's event was Velux. Its founder, Villum Kann Rasmussen, was quoted thus: "One experiment is worth a thousand experts."

Friday, 13 June 2008

Kensington High Street - shared space?

Kensington High Street is often cited as an example of shared space. It's certainly tidier, but unfortunately it is still plagued by traffic lights that conjure congestion. Apparently it's the best that was achievable in the teeth of opposition from traffic engineers. Ironically, it's even less fit for cyclists than before, because the wider pavements and centre islands leave no gap between kerbs and traffic for cycling up, either on the inside or the outside.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Musings on MPG

My current piece for Traffic Technology International is about steps being taken by car makers to reduce fuel consumption and emissions. Today I took delivery of a Skoda Fabia Greenline (same 1.4 diesel engine, "taller" gears and aerodynamic modifications as VW Polo Bluemotion or Seat Ibiza Ecomotive). Fuel consumption showed 54.6 mpg when I started my journey from Bicester. By the time I reached Staines (driving gently), it was reading 75.8mpg.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

More or fewer accidents at lights? & are very good. A propos, the DfT doesn't distinguish between "accidents" at junctions with or without signal control. A London policeman once told me that at least half the accidents he attends occur at signal controlled junctions. To my mind, accidents are rarely accidents. More often than not they are events contrived by the rules of the road.

When is it legal to distract drivers?

If it’s against the law to drive and use a mobile phone on the ground that it distracts us from watching the road, should lights, limits and cameras be outlawed for the same reason? The extent to which our concentration is fragmented and road safety compromised by traffic controls is worthy of study.

Road safety and speed

The ‘road safety’ ad where the film is reversed and the dead girl comes back to life is specious. The message is that she might have survived if the driver had been doing 30mph instead of 40. But look closely and you’ll see it’s a residential street where 30 is equally inappropriate. A limit implies a universally-applicable safe speed. No such thing. One-size-fits-all limits can't fit all circumstances. They distract us from watching the road and acting according to the context. One-size-fits-all regulation might be fit for policymakers (who make roads unsafe, then leave us to pick up the pieces), but it is not fit for people.

Are warning signs irrelevant?

Who is the better judge of appropriate speed – you and me at the time and the place, or limits fixed by absent regulators? Once I was caught in a cloudburst on the M4. Everyone had slowed to a crawl. Twenty minutes and ten miles later, after the storm had cleared and we had long since picked up speed, a gantry sign warned: SPRAY! SLOW DOWN! That's how irrelevant signs are to the needs of the moment.

Road signs

The roads are littered with instructional signs – but where are the directional signs when you need them!?

Monday, 9 June 2008

Cameras! Lights! Tension!

We perform best when we're in a state of relaxed alert. Lights, limits, cameras, bus lanes - the whole apparatus of control puts us on edge and at odds with our surroundings. Driving should be an organic activity, informed by commonsense, courtesy, context. But we are reduced by the battery of controls into a state of frustration and fear.

Grand prix

Was it a coincidence that Lewis Hamilton had his prang at a traffic light?

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Sicilian traffic

From Sam Llewellyn: Saw your Newsnight film, sneered a bit, thinking, this might work in Scandinavia, but never in London let alone points south. Then went to Sicily, where there are many traffic lights and road signs, but no-one pays them a blind bit of notice. Town traffic flows at a calm, steady 15 mph. Seemed to me the system was based not on Scandinavian altruism but on a Latin reluctance to lose dignity and get your car wrecked. Worked like a dream.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Climate change

Official advice about climate change is all about cutting car use or changing lightbulbs. Of course we need to find other ways of getting about, work more from home, do our bit. But the powers are in a position to make a real difference. Stiffer taxes for high-polluting vehicles are overdue (though it's unfair to impose them retrospectively), but what about high-polluting buses? What about the array of 24-hour traffic lights that treat us like zombies, cost the earth to install and run, and maximise emissions from the stop-start drive cycle? The authorities preach and dodge blame, but they are the ones who need to act. Meanwhile, the waste and carnage go on.

Road safety

According to The Commission for Global Road Safety, the roads kill more people than malaria or diabetes. "Make Roads Safe" is its slogan. But apart from vague talk about safer roads, it doesn't say how. The answer is to turn unfit roads into FiT roads by scrapping main road priority, which contrives conflict, and restoring natural rights-of-way so that all road-users can filter in turn.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Safer for pedestrians with or without lights?

Bruce Rosar via Eric Britton (New Mobility, The Commons):

Q: Are marked crosswalks safer than unmarked crosswalks?
A: The City of San Diego conducted a study in the 1970s, and the report conclusions are often cited as the first comprehensive study of crosswalk safety. Investigators in San Diego observed over 400 intersections during a five-year period. The study reported that "... more pedestrian accidents occur on marked crosswalks than unmarked ones by a ratio of approximately 6:1. Furthermore, comparison of the volume of pedestrians using the marked and unmarked crosswalks shows that the use ratio is approximately 3:1. This indicates, in terms of usage, that approximately twice as many pedestrian accidents occur on marked crosswalks as unmarked crosswalks. Evidence suggests that this poor accident record is not due to the crosswalk being marked as much as it is a reflection on the pedestrians' attitude and behavior when using the marked crosswalk..." Bruce Rosar

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Towards a new Highway Code

This poignant passage from The Magical Child by Joseph Chilton Pearce is relevant to our call for freedom to use our innate abilities on the road. "The early child cannot knowingly disobey a parent or wilfully misbehave. He can only obey the inborn intent that moves him, much as a puppet is moved by its strings. Arising from programmed, autonomic brain controls, a child’s intent literally impels his body into interaction with the physical world. Intelligence, like the body, can be injured or nurtured, stimulated or starved. What we as parents are called upon to do is to nurture, not supplant, the genetic plan which programmes the child’s development. In so doing we will find that most of our problems with children will never materialise. From infant psychosis to the generation gap, our problems with children are largely man-made, caused by ignoring nature’s plan." - Similarly, most traffic controls interrupt our concentration, demand our attention, force us to act against our better nature. If they just let us get on with it, they might find that most of our problems on the road would disappear. Same with referees on the football field. Most decisions can be made by players, in a spirit of fair play. If clarification is needed, let them use the instant technology upstairs.