When cupcakes mean more than children’s lives

On 1 Dec at the House of Commons is the launch of a 2-year study by Colin Davies which presents evidence from Poynton that since traffic control was removed and the streetscape redesigned, accidents have stopped happening and the local economy is booming. Despite repeated efforts at getting the success story in the press or TV, I’m still getting no interest, most bizarrely, from Newsnight who commissioned my 2008 “Case against traffic lights”. (Then the editor was Peter Barron; now it’s Ian Katz.) My efforts at getting a documentary commission are also falling on stony ground. Are BBC TV commissioners really more interested in baking cupcakes than making the public realm safe, efficient and congenial for all?

For the record, here is a transcript of my recent pitch to Newsnight and the brief reply.

A study of the transformational traffic light-free Poynton scheme, which I influenced and filmed, is being launched at the House of Commons on 1 December (see below). Could that provide the cue for a (long overdue) follow-up piece to my 2008 Newsnight report? Please note that my case against standard traffic control includes the revelation that reform promises beneficial cuts that dwarf the painful cuts in welfare and policing that government and media would have us believe are inevitable.

A traffic light costs £150,000 to install, 10% a year to maintain, and requires infrastructure replacements every 15 years. The DfT doesn’t know the number of traffic lights in the UK “because local traffic authorities are not required to tell us.” Nor does the National Audit Office know. Astonishingly, the NAO has never looked at the cost of traffic (mis)management. They suggested I ask the DfT!

A traffic engineer’s best estimate of the number of traffic lights is 45,000 (£7bn in installation costs alone) = a multi-billion gravy train for systems manufacturers and salespeople. As I’ve long maintained, and as is now shown by evidence, most traffic lights are an unnecessary evil. When we are free to use common courtesy, gains are dramatic: accidents stop happening, journey times and emissions fall, quality of life and space are transformed, local economies thrive.

While social benefits and policing are cut, the Treasury goes on pouring money into systems of control that are demonstrably bad for us. Traffic management is a gross public disservice, yet is immune from spending cuts. Is Ian going to commission an agenda-setting item from me? Please let me know ASAP either way.

[Reply from Forward planning producer, Newsnight]

Hi Martin

Thanks so much but we aren’t looking at this issue at the moment

Very best, Sam


Subject: Street Design for All


As discussed, you are invited to the House of Commons on Monday 1 December at 3.00 pm for the launch by the Minister for Transport of my study, Street Design for All. We now have the two year accident figures for Poynton. They show a sustained and dramatic reduction in accidents. The study records and explains the psychology behind it. Traffic lights give people a false sense of security. As you have always said, if there are no traffic lights, drivers approach junctions with care at low speeds, and respond safely to whatever is in front of them. You should go back on Newsnight and say “Told you so!”

All the best



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Clarkson’s not wrong

Clarkson says speed limits are “annoying”. Even worse, they are counterproductive. Traffic regulation treats us like simpletons, or automatons. We should learn to drive by context, not by numbers. Brake! would claim that freedom to choose our own speed would be a charter for driving without due care and attention. No, it’s a blueprint for driving with true care and attention.

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Missing the point again

To cut the deficit, the Govt is thinking of selling its stake in Eurostar, which could raise £20bn. Among other national assets it might flog is the Royal Mint. Meanwhile, traffic regulation, which acts to our detriment and costs tens of billions of public money every year, is overlooked.


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Grotesque government ignorance

To cut the deficit, the Govt is thinking of selling its stake in Eurostar, which could raise £20bn. Among other national assets it might flog is the Royal Mint. Meanwhile, traffic regulation, which acts to our detriment and costs tens of billions of public money every year, is overlooked.

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Priority no priority

I go on about priority being the fatal flaw at the heart of the traffic system – how it’s a diabolical basis for road-user relationships, how it sets the stage for neglect and danger, how it produces a doomed, retrospective “need” for expensive, inefficient regulation, how it treats symptoms instead of the cause, and how, by replacing priority with equality, we would see most of problems on the road disappear. For years I’ve pitched the ideas to TV, because a TV series would be the optimum way to communicate the perception shift that needs to underpin the reforms that are so scandalously overdue. But TV has always found reasons for not greenlighting the project, perhaps because they genuinely think that fairy cakes are more important than children’s lives, and therefore more deserving of airtime. For years I’ve lobbied governments. Nothing doing there either. So to their shame and our continued detriment, the broadcast and political establishments resist and fail to support change. The avoidable deaths and life-changing injuries of thousands of innocents in peacetime Britain are of no interest to them. With gruesome irony, they give the subject no priority. The Press, too, have proved useless and apathetic.


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Abuse of human nature

On the road, as in other travels in life, freedom+responsibility+education=empowerment. Most traffic regulation disempowers us, upsets our relationships with other road-users. If policymakers used instead of abused our social instinct for cooperation, things could be so simple. But the lords of misrule who populate traffic authorities make things needlessly difficult. They should face abuse or corporate manslaughter charges. With an apostrophe and a space, the term corporate manslaughter becomes corporate man’s laughter. They fuck us up, the engineers; they may not mean to, but they do. (It’s not exclusively engineers, of course, but that’s the only term that scans in the rhythm of Larkin’s poem.)

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Merchant bankers?

Are they all merchants!? Instead of making roads intrinsically safe – by replacing priority with equality – traffic authorities spend fortunes on retrospective “solutions” which are not solutions at all. Instead of integrating all modes in a mutually-tolerant mix, they segregate, corral, and put us at odds with each other! This links to an article outlining Boris’s plans for segregated cycle lanes in Westminster. I can see them rubbing their hands together as they contemplate more revenue from the ENFORCEMENT of yet more counterproductive REGULATION!

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My own backyard

Local press confirms Council rethink over pedestrianisation after hearing my Equality Streets presentation.

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A million miles

“We have to get away from the patronising view that the state knows better than the individual,” stated Chancellor, George Osborne, on 21 July 2014, “about how to spend its money.” He was referring to pensions reform, and is still a million miles away from applying that commonsense to traffic and road-user relationships.

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Buffoons in charge of transport

It seems a mark of the relatively low esteem in which transport is held in this country that Patrick McLoughlin, transport secretary, retained his role in the recent reshuffle. He thinks most if not all accidents are caused by people using mobile phones. I actually heard him say that last year at a UN conference on road safety which I was invited to attend. What a buffoon, I thought, but bit my lip. The reason roads are dangerous is because they are subject to the dysfunctional rule of priority, which promotes neglect and licenses aggression. If we lived by equality (“After you”) instead of lived and died by priority (“Get out of my way!”), most of our road safety problems would disappear. McLoughlin is no different from his predecessors, including Philip Hammond, now Foreign Secretary. All transport ministers are as bad as each other, and that includes Labour ones. McLoughlin is wedded to HS2, the spawn of Labour transport minister, Lord Adonis. The RSA says northern transport connectivity should be prioritised. So does poet, Simon Armitage. Instead of another conduit to London, siphoning off work and encouraging Northerners to head for the capital, says Armitage, the £50-odd billion should be spent on lateral links between northeast and northwest, creating a humming northern hub of social and economic activity. In addition to that sensible re-allocation of funds, of course, is the potential in traffic system reform for efficiency savings that would pay for roadway redesign that expresses a social instead of a traffic engineering context, as well as a programme of re-education that would change the culture of the road from priority and hostility to equality and empathy.

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