For years I’ve tried to tell cabinet ministers and the media that traffic system reform will not only make roads safe and less congested, it offers scope for beneficial spending cuts of £50bn a year. But apart from the North Devon Journal who recently published this piece, the response is apathy. Traffic regulation costs lives and costs the earth, causes untold injustice and harm, but it goes unquestioned. The traffic control gravy train has carte blanche to continue trammeling and endangering life, polluting the air, and enriching Siemens et al at public expense.


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Low-speed environments

Ben Hamilton-Baillie, who coined the term “shared space”, now prefers the term “low-speed environments”, partly because it avoids the confusion that arises between “shared space” and “shared surfaces”. While shared surfaces imply no pavement or kerbs, shared space retains the distinction between pavement and carriageway not least because it helps blind people orientate themselves.

I coined the term Equality Streets to express my thesis that road-user relationships would be transformed if we lived by equality instead of lived and died by priority. It would spell the end of the “need” for traffic lights, those weapons of mass distraction, danger and delay, which cost lives and cost the earth.


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There was a young man in Crewkerne

Who’s demanding the Council make U-turn
They want to scrap lights
It’s giving him frights
He’s raised a petition but (if he reads Equality Streets) he should learn.

OK, not my finest poetic hour. I drafted a comment but the local rag’s registration process is dire. I wanted to say: If the petitioner thinks traffic lights ensure safety, he is living in fantasy land. The latest safety audit from Westminster City Council shows that nearly half of personal injury accidents occurred at traffic lights. (How many of the remainder were due to priority? Compiled in the context of priority, the stats don’t tell us.) After Poynton removed its lights and designed the streetscape for a social rather than traffic engineering context, accidents simply stopped happening. The local economy is booming, noise and air pollution are down. Road-users are interacting and smiling rather than ignoring and snarling at each other.

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More painful reminders

The claims and counterclaims about austerity versus tax and spend are further painful reminders that politicians and media are missing a massive opportunity, as I tried to explain again in this piece for the NDJ.

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The 10-minute parking leeway announced today has been largely welcomed. My view is that parking policy still stinks, as most traffic control does. Why was inflexible parking control sanctioned in the first place? How many injustices have been perpetrated over the years in the name of the law? How many visitors to towns and cities, unfairly clamped or ticketed, have been deterred from visiting again? How much commerce and community spirit has been damaged? If parking control must be imposed (in my view only after at least a free hour), we should be able to pay on leaving, instead of fearing retribution if we miscalculated, got waylaid or needed more time shopping. The injustice has been allowed to rule for far too long, and now the relaxation is far too short. The imperative to “keep traffic moving” is dubious at best. If officials want to keep traffic moving, let them scrap traffic lights.


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Parallels (roads and books)

Last night I made this note: “Day in day out, year in year out, the state encourages endless deeds of anti-social behaviour”. Today I read an article by Sunili Govinnage who decided, over a period of a year, to read books by exclusively black writers. The experience opened her eyes in various ways. She was inspired by Lilit Marcus who in 2013 read only books written by women. Marcus wrote, “… opening myself up to a variety of female perspectives made me more aware of the female lives around me … And when we become more aware of the small injustices and tiny everyday tragedies around us, we become better people.”

Similarly, when as a driver you stop assuming priority, you become aware of the everyday injustices that characterise life on the roads. A classic case is the image imprinted on my memory of a mother pushing a toddler in a buggy across the Euston Road. First they had to wait interminably on one side of the road for the lights to change and the river of traffic to stop. The change only allowed her to reach the central reservation, when she had to wait further minutes while the green light allowed streams of fume-spurting lorries, taxis and cars to puff and chug, then she had to wait for a green filter. Only a full five minutes later was she able to get to the other side of the road. All the time, the toddler is inhaling toxic fumes containing damaging particles that cause asthma and will shorten its life. Not only are most drivers oblivious to the “small injustices and everyday tragedies” around them, for which, perhaps, they can be forgiven (because they are following rules and know not what they do), but our paid officials and policymakers pay scant if any attention to these injustices, for which they cannot be forgiven.

More from Govinnage (and another parallel with roads): “… my decision brought home just how white my reading world was. Whatever the reason and context, it took me until
I was 30 years old to learn that Octavia E. Butler existed – how embarrassing! I’m not blaming anyone or anything for this travesty, and we all know late is better than never … but I think we can do better. I shouldn’t have needed to undertake a 12-month project to discover world class authors. Slowly but surely, the world is noticing that ‘meritocracy’ in the arts and entertainment industries is as fictitious as Westeros. The inherent biases in publishing and book media are real, though; one study showed that only three out of the 124 authors who appeared on the New York Times’ bestsellers list during 2012 were people of colour, and that no African American authors made the Top 10 Bestsellers list in 2012.”

Substitute equality for meritocracy, apply the idea to the roads, and you’d get something along the lines of, ‘equality on the roads is as absent as it is in income. Bias is in favour of micro-management which supports a flawed system, so even the attempts to correct the bias are biased.’

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Lollipop men and women

The reason we “need” lollipop men and women is the same reason we “need” traffic lights: to mitigate the fallout from the rule of priority. If the rule of the road was equality, our roads would be safe, and lollipop men and women would be redundant.

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Reply to previous post

Reply from Dr Kumar, author of research from University of Surrey: “Martin, your numbers are still valid if we compare the average with the average – 29 is peak v/s average. I read your interesting piece and fully agree with your solution.”

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Traffic lights and air quality

In No Idle Matter (2007), I wrote that the stop-start motion caused by traffic lights multiplies emissions and fuel use by a factor of four. In this piece, Prashant Kumar (University of Surrey) says air quality at signal-controlled junctions is no less than 29x worse than elsewhere. Our proposed solutions are different, but in both cases, traffic policy stands indicted.

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Driverless cars

Driverless cars are presented as the answer to road safety. “Accidents” are blamed on human error. No. Roads are dangerous because of the unequal, intolerant priority system.

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