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.

About Martin Cassini

Campaign founder and video producer, pursuing traffic system reform to make roads safe, civilised and efficient

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