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 are further painful reminders that politicians and media are missing something big, 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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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 cupcakes than making the public realm safe, efficient and congenial?

For the record, here is a transcript of my recent pitch to Newsnight and the reply. A subsequent email to Ian Katz went unanswered.

A study of the transformational traffic light-free Poynton scheme (which through the film and the Portishead trial I had a hand in) 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? Bear in mind 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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