Invisible, ignored, baleful

“£12bn in welfare cuts to come”, says Paul Johnson of the IFS, “and billions more in other public service cuts. This is not the end of austerity.” Like everyone else, this economic guru is ignorant of the case for kind cuts in traffic system reform. Oddly, the field is overlooked, and continues to get away with murder.

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We are victims of obsessive officialdom

Driving through Barnstaple yesterday (on electric), I think I surprised the driver behind me. At a pedestrian crossing where the lights had just changed against the people on foot, I waited at green for them to cross. They waved in surprised gratitude. Then the lights changed against me but the people had gone, so I went. At the next signalled crossing where the people on foot had crossed but the lights were still red against the traffic, I went through again. Then, past the roundabout, I stopped for people waiting at the side of the road (no crossing marked). A bit further on I stopped for a teen to cross and join his friends on the other side. I made the next set of lights on green. The distance between the four sets of lights? About 400 metres. All are entirely unnecessary, or would be, if the rules of the road were based on social values instead of obsessional, moronic regulation.

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Cuts, air quality, and how Sadiq Khan has it wrong

While the public spending axe falls left, right and centre – this week it was MoD cuts – a thick seam of beneficial cuts lies neglected. I’m talking about traffic control: a field of vast public expenditure which is vexatious, counterproductive, costs lives and costs the earth.

How often do we hear of congestion disappearing when traffic lights are out of action? Given freedom to use our own judgement, we use commonsense to approach carefully and common courtesy to merge more or less in turn. As soon as the lights are “working” again, the jams are back, with their concentrations of invisible, deadly pollution.

Traffic lights make us stop when we could go, wasting infinite filtering opportunities. They take our eyes off the road, flouting the fundamental principle of road safety. Nearly half of all personal injury “accidents” occur at traffic lights (Westminster City Council safety audit, 2013). By making us stop, re-start, stop and re-start, they maximise fuel use and emissions.

As I wrote 10 years ago in No Idle Matter, traffic control multiplies emissions and fuel use by a factor of 4. My estimate proved to be an under-estimate: lecturer in engineering, Prashant Kumar, says the multiple is as high as 29. So scrapping lights and letting traffic filter sociably at low speeds would reduce emissions in urban areas by at least 75% – with disadvantage to no-one except the traffic control industry which has been ruling our lives to our detriment and at our expense for too long.

I put “accidents” in inverted commas because most accidents are not accidents. They are events contrived by the misguided rules of the road. The biggest indictment of the current system? It puts the onus for road safety on the child. It could and should be the other way round.

Part of the vast sums saved by decommissioning traffic lights – those weapons of mass distraction, danger, delay and dirty air – could be used to fund a long overdue scrappage scheme for owners of high-polluting vehicles.

Sadiq Khan says taxing the most polluting vehicles is a no-brainer. Not for the businesses which as a result could go under. Moreover, it’s clear he is unaware that unfiltered modern GDI (gasoline direct injection) petrol engines emit ten times the volume of lethal particles than filtered diesels. It costs only £40 to fit a filter, which would trap 100% of the nasties from GDI engines, but manufacturers, including Audi, don’t bother. They won’t even retrofit them. Vorsprung durch Technik? Hardly. It’s more a case of Rücksprung durch neglect.

The real no-brainer – the massive quick win – is to scrap traffic lights and reform the rules of the road, so instead of living and dying by the vicious rule of priority – “Get out of my way!” – we live and let live by equality: “After you”. Gentle filtering at low revs would replace wasteful stop-restart. As congestion melted away, road safety, air quality and quality of life would see immediate improvements.

In the absence of a bridge or flyover, and apart from multi-lane intersections at peak times, all junctions, and roads for that matter, should be all-way give-ways, so all road-users can take it in turns as in other walks of life. Imagine jumping a cashpoint queue. You’d cause a riot. Yet on the road, we accept such delinquent behaviour without question. Reform is long overdue. Life on the road need not be a misery. It could be a pleasure.

Reform of the rules should be combined with a new driving test and streetscape redesign.

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Socially speaking

Socially speaking, road signs, road regulation and road markings are designed to make us do the wrong thing. You were there first? So what? The rules give me right of way over you, so tough! Thus pedestrians and toddlers in their buggies are forced to wait by the roadside or on traffic islands for traffic to clear or the lights to change. Meanwhile, they inhale toxic fumes that damage health, lung function and human development. Incredibly, this odious system is backed by transport ministries and the law of the land. They actively oppose the case for reforming the rules of the road and redesigning roads to express equality. Only this will make roads safe, civilised and efficient, as it will minimise emissions, and avoid the “need” for most traffic control, saving tens of billions in public expenditure.

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Booker winner and the traffic system

Booker winner, George Saunders, speaks of the human capacity for “infinite acts of decency”. By contrast, the traffic control system promotes infinite acts of indecency. Kinder Streets expands on the theme, as do other pages on this site.

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Enforcement or education?

Retrospective enforcement (apparently supported by Brake!), or preventative education? The government proposes stiffer sentences for drivers who kill. As is usual in the illiterate field of traffic policy, this is a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. The inadequate driving test unleashes platoons of potential killers schooled in the anti-social rules of the road. They are desensitised to the system’s inherent inequalites, its contrived conflicts and the consequences of misjudgment. A stiffer driving test is what’s needed, along with stiffer education, and reform of the grotesque rules of the road.

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Ignorance is no excuse; inaction is abuse

Opponents of my reforms are in effect supporters of the current system, which presides over an annual casualty toll of 24,000 souls, many of them children. Ministers, the DfT and local traffic authorities, who back the system, don’t even have the excuse of ignorance.  I’ve lobbied them all, repeatedly.

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In conversation …

… about transforming life on the roads with novelist, Karen Millie James, at lunchtime today on her radio show:

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Uglier than sin

These scenes of waste and neglect on the road in and out of Bideford by Morrisons, caused by traffic priority control, are duplicated up and down the land, every day of every year …

Traffic held at red, nothing happening on the junction

Now all road-users must wait, including the toddler, at the ideal level to inhale the invisible fumes that damage human health and development

Now the lights tell the traffic to go, to ignore the needs of the humans at the roadside, who must wait

And look at those unsightly railings. All this waste, neglect and ugliness stems from traffic control. Freedom to live sociably, instead of subjugation to a dysfunctional system, would transform our lives, health, the economy and the environment. (As mentioned elsewhere, those railed-in islands, where pedestrians have to wait, are known in traffic engineering jargon as “pens”. Yes, to traffic engineers and policymakers, we are no better than sheep.)

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Closing the stable door …

… after the horse has bolted. Presumably traffic authorities never learned that idiom. Their laws and regulations will remain futile and vexatious as long as they fail to treat the root cause of our problems on the road: priority, from which all evils stem. We need a new driving test and rulebook with equality, not priority at its heart. The hierarchy needs to change, with vulnerable road-users at the top. Priority-based regulation and deference to drivers be damned. Re the cyclist who killed the pedestrian: if pedestrians had priority, she could’ve crossed without looking; it would’ve been up to the cyclist to avoid her. Which he tried to do. But she hesitated. The infernal rule of priority made her think she was in the wrong. That hesitation, prompted by the vile rule of priority, was her death sentence. The rules are to blame. They tie us up in knots and make us act like psychopaths or morons.

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