Improperganda

The initial idea of this page was to record number plates of drivers who treat the middle lane as the default lane. Using the inside lane except when overtaking, which is Highway Code, would release a third or more of road capacity, thereby reducing congestion, stress and “accidents”. But publishing number plates could be tricky, so this will be a file for examples of negligence, hypocrisy and “improperganda” (not in date order) …

1) In 2004, I had the backing of Brent Council for a lights-off trial at Staples Corner. David Brown, MD of TfL, vetoed it. (Correspondence archived.)

2) Inaction amounting to negligence in Reading (posted at Free to Move in 2010):

£750,000 spent re-modelling the Shinfield Rd junction in Reading, which included new signals, has made matters worse (story here). To a degree, solutions are location-specific, but in most cases, equality will solve the conflicts contrived by priority. Isn’t it time we changed the engineering model (priority, encouraging vehicle domination) to a social model (equality, allowing all road-users to interact sociably)? Following the debacle at Shinfield Rd, Head of Transport, Pat Baxter, said, “Doing nothing is not an option”. So she commissioned the Transport Research Laboratory to assess 17 proposals for re-thinking the junction. Where on the list was the equal-priority solution we had tabled two years earlier, which worked wonders at a similar staggered junction in Portishead? Nowhere.

3) From The Times, Feb 2008: “About a week ago, mains power failed at the western end of Fleet Street and on the Aldwych. All the traffic lights were out of action. At 9 in the morning, the Aldwych would usually be a scrunched up mass of motionless cars: not so – they moved fluidly and without stopping. All day long, there was barely a moment when the traffic was brought to a standstill. As a pedestrian, too, it was a dream: even the cabbies drove slower and paid attention. Next day, the power was back, and with it the traditional, fume-spurting traffic jams. I found all this rather surprising but it does go to show that the way drivers actually behave without any signals – at one of the busiest junctions in London, with a total of 11 lanes crossing, no less – is not necessarily what we’d expect.” David Rees, London, UK.

I emailed a contact at TfL for his comments. This came back from one of his officers: “My understanding of this event was that LTCC [London Traffic Control Centre] and particularly the Police on the ground effectively established a cordon around the affected area, limiting access in order to keep roads safe and traffic moving inside.” A supporting email came from a TFL press officer: “The traffic was reduced by actions taken by the police and our London Traffic Control Centre. It is this that allowed the remaining traffic to flow and avoid locking up the roads.” – I emailed a Chief Inspector contact at the Met, who replied: “I have had someone look at all the related messages as a power cut sets off alarms, causes ATS to fail, etc, and as such can generate a lot of associated messages. From the original message and linked incidents there is no record of any cordons being put in. I have also looked at my team’s de-briefing sheets and spoken to my congestion team supervisors who have no knowledge of any significant deployments to that area.” Is this another example of TfL’s improperganda? Hardly surprising they would varnish the truth, as it threatens their raison d’être.

4) Correspondence with TfL chief, Peter Hendy (one-sided as he never replied. Funny how years later he takes the credit for considering – though still not acting on – signal switch-off).

Sent: 05 May 2005 10:51
To: ‘Peterhendy@tfl.gov.uk’
Subject: FW: Congestion Challenge

I’m developing a film about congestion: its causes, consequences and solutions. A core proposal is to replace mandatory traffic lights with discretionary (amber-flashing) lights.  The rationale: with current regulation, vehicles are forced to wait at red – high polluting diesel buses included – whether a junction is busy or not, thereby reducing road capacity, causing needless delay, fuel waste, unnecessary air pollution, damage to our health and the economy. Accident risk is also heightened, because instead of watching other road-users,  drivers watch the lights. When lights are out of action, motorists self-regulate like pedestrians. Congestion dissolves. Traffic disperses freely. As soon as the lights are working again, the jams are back. Practice in Holland shows that removal of lights solves congestion and reduces accidents by 30%. Pedestrians are safer on de-regulated roads because they are perceived as fellow road-users rather than obstacles in the way of the next time-consuming light. Would you be interested in collaborating on an experiment in de-regulation involving switching off the lights, or switching to amber-flashing lights across selected areas? I would also like to look at all-day bus lanes, which also reduce capacity and aggravate pollution with (as far as I can see) no compensating benefits. We would monitor the results for air quality, accidents, congestion, journey times, driver opinion. A publicity campaign would prepare the public – though experience shows that when adults are treated as adults and left to their own devices, the natural common law principle of mutual forbearance re-emerges and flourishes.

Regards, Martin Cassini

5) Correspondence with Camden Council, who for the SEVEN years that Midland Road was closed for work on the Tunnel link, failed to switch off or even adjust traffic light timings outside their own Town Hall on Euston Road.

From: Martin Cassini Sent: 29 March 2005 18:26
To: courtney.western@camden.gov.uk
Subject: reminder

Courtney,

I’ve been reviewing emails about the issues I raised with Environment Chief, John Thane, back in March (repeated below). Your email below of 6 April is the only one I can trace or, indeed, ever received. I sent my email three times and then had to chase by telephone at least twice before getting only a verbal answer from you saying John Thane was not interested in discussing the matter (apart from your last resort email below in response to my demand under the Freedom of Information Act). So I don’t know what you mean by suggesting I did not receive a “written reply”. Perhaps you could forward a copy.

I have no beef with you. I reserve my contempt for your superiors. My original email to John Thane was written 6 months ago, yet the lights at Euston Road/Midland Road, right outside Camden Town Hall, still operate full-time, despite Midland Road being closed for work on the tunnel link. Euston Road carries 98% of the traffic but gets less than 50% green time. Invisible, overpaid regulators like Thane blame congestion on volume of traffic, yet it is obvious that volume is rarely a problem until flow is interrupted, as it is, continually, illogically, by mandatory traffic lights. How does he justify 24-hour lights at a junction which carries hardly, if any, cross traffic? We are faced with cataclysmic climate change, yet he presides over policy that generates rivers of polluting traffic held in suspended animation by the tyranny of traffic lights. If he took the trouble, he could do something to alleviate it.

The Metro/Evening Standard reported on 24 May 05: “air pollution levels in London are breaking EU laws. Amounts of fine particles at a monitoring site on Marylebone Road exceeded standards for the 36th day this year. Under EU law, levels should not exceed standards on more than 35 days. Friends of the Earth said the government could be prosecuted.”

Thane, Camden and TfL all have blood on their hands.

Martin Cassini

Email 11.3.05 to John Thane, Camden Environment Chief

Good to read about the Car Plus scheme. I am interested in subscribing and have asked for details. There is another reason for writing. I am developing a TV series about solutions to congestion, and wonder if you would be interested in collaborating in some way. Ideas such as Car Plus could certainly feature, but my central theme is that the main (unreported) cause of congestion is regulation itself, particularly in the form of mandatory traffic lights; and that many of our man-made congestion problems could be solved virtually overnight by replacing compulsion with discretion.

Observe a junction where the lights are out of action: no congestion. When left to their own devices, motorists filter and self-regulate without incident. As soon as the lights are working again, the jams are back. Once upon a time, the principle of “mutual forbearance” was at the heart of traffic policy. But with dire consequences for the economy, our health and the environment, it was replaced by regulation. Lights at roundabouts – designed for filtering – epitomise over-regulation.

Congestion is routinely blamed on volume of traffic, but volume is only a problem when flow is interrupted – as it is, continually, outside your very own building. (What is the sense of fully-operational, round-the-clock lights at Judd Street when Midland Road is closed?) You and I and babies in prams have to suffer the vastly increased pollution levels that result from over-regulation. Moreover, heavily-regulated roads are more dangerous: drivers watch the lights instead of other road-users. On de-regulated roads, drivers relax in the knowledge that they are not subject to endless arbitrary interruptions to their progress; they watch other road-users – safer for everyone. Road rage disappears, courtesy returns, mutual forbearance flourishes.

Another object lesson in traffic flow mismanagement (apart from Judd Street and most of the lights along Euston Rd) is King’s Cross Bridge. When vehicles finally make it to the end of Caledonian Road, most of them are unable to get across Pentonville Road because of the superfluous lights at Gray’s Inn Road. There shouldn’t be any lights from King’s Cross Bridge into one-way Gray’s Inn Road – all that is needed is a Give Way or Filter sign. Ironically, the very cities that advocate use of public transport also make their high-polluting diesel buses wait at red.  Indeed, buses trying to turn into King’s Cross Bridge from Pentonville Road cause congestion problems because they get stopped by those same ludicrous lights at KX Bridge/Gray’s Inn Rd.

And, of course, all the extra congestion caused by over-regulation produces astronomical volumes of extra greenhouse gas emissions.

Would you work with me on a monitored experiment? The idea would be to film selected streets and junctions with the lights on and the lights off, each for a period of a few days and nights. We would monitor and compare traffic flow, journey times, accidents, air quality and driver opinion. Just as we shudder at the memory of multiple queues in post offices, we would wonder how we ever put up with mandatory lights, and how, in view of their diabolical inefficiency, anyone could dream of imposing them.

From: Western, Courtney [mailto:courtney.western@camden.gov.uk]
Sent: 06 April 2005 16:54
To: ‘Martin Cassini’
Cc: Saul, Clare
Subject: RE: reminder

Thank you for your email. I gather from this that you did not receive my reply on the 24 March. As discussed on this occasion we will decline your offer to be involved in this production. As I mentioned in our conversations, if you have any specific questions about traffic management and what we do in the borough I can address these in a statement from Camden Council. Please let me know if you have any specific questions which you would like me to respond to. I understand that you have recently filed a Freedom of Information request for research and information on our traffic management policies and that within this you mention that I have not responded to you, I was surprised to hear this because we have had a number of telephone conversations about this issue, however I apologise if you did not receive my written reply. If you do have any further concerns about this issue please contact my manager Clare Saul who is copied in to this email.

From: Martin Cassini Sent: 24 March 2005 06:58
To: ‘courtney.western@camden.gov.uk’
Subject: as discussed

Further to our telephone conversation on the 22nd, and as agreed, please confirm by email the reasons John Thane [Camden’s Head of Environment] declined my invitation to discuss ways to reduce carbon emissions.

Regards, Martin Cassini

6) On 8 April 2009, head of transportation at Westminster City Council, Martin Low, saw my video, “The case for a no-lights trial”. Fired with enthusiasm, he agreed to seven trial junctions. He said he’d commission my traffic engineering associate to set up the trials, and me to document them on film as part of a public awareness campaign. He asked me not to talk to the Press. So I turned down an interview with The Times and the chance of a paid article. Then he “forgot” his promise, partly, it seems, because TfL got involved. (In a 2006 article for the IEA, I had accused TfL of negligence and hypocrisy over their traffic mismanagement.) Later in 2009, the Sunday Times interviewed me about the proposed Westminster trials (the 7 junctions agreed with Low had been cut by TfL to two minor ones). But The Times cancelled the story because it was leaked to The Telegraph. The Telegraph article was a glorified TfL press release claiming credit for the idea with Westminster CC and Boris/the GLA. Ironic, because Boris/the GLA had turned down our proposal for lights-off trials a year earlier. In their “innovative” proposal to cull 145 sets of lights across London, the tricky triumvirate soon encountered problems, because they failed to appreciate or explain the bigger picture to vulnerable road-user groups. Under Livingstone, London gained 1800 new sets of traffic lights, even at tiny junctions such as Eastcastle St/Berwick St, conjuring congestion where there was none before, and bringing the total nuber of signal-controlled junctions in London to nearly 6000. Given Equality Streets, it’s conceivable that those figures could be reversed, so that only 145 sets of lights were left in operation.

7) The Highways Agency, TfL, DfT, 150 local traffic authorities, and generations of transport ministers support a system which puts the onus on children to beware motorists when it could and should be the other way round. They fail to replace the lethal priority system with a live-and-let-live approach based on equality. They squander tens of billions of taxpayers’ money on a fiendishly expensive, anti-social system that is a vain attempt to solve problems of their own making, which has had a hand in killing more people in peacetime than died in two world wars.

8) Three times in the last 14 years, twice with the BBC and once with C4, my proposed TV series about traffic system reform – under various titles such as The Jam Busters, or One Flew over the Traffic Light - has been within a gnat’s crotchet of a commission. In 2005, in association with Roy Ackerman (then of Diverse), it was amber lit, but head of current affairs, Peter Horrocks (later Head of World Service ), kyboshed it, because he didn’t think “switching off traffic lights would work.” Two years later, after a re-pitch in which I cited the shared space transformation of Bohmte in Germany, I discovered that Horrocks hadn’t read our 2005 treatment, at least not properly, because he expressed surprise at shared space, which of course was covered in the original treatment. In the same way that traffic authorities are failing in their duty of care to our time, health, quality of life and the planet, is the BBC failing in its duty to air new ideas?

9) 12 March 2009: the date of an Evening Standard article criticising traffic lights, in which Andrew Gilligan manages to quote me without crediting me. I emailed next day to say it was good that he had read and viewed my stuff. He got straight back promising to commission an article from me (he went on to edit The Telegraph). I’m still waiting.

10) 6 May 2009: the date of a Guardian article in which Harry Phibbs quoted me with only a peripheral credit towards the end (he even opens his piece with a line from one of my videos). I got in touch. He is connected to Hammersmith & Chelsea council and promised a reply to my proposal for lights-off trials in the borough. Still waiting.