Email to Karen Wightman, Editor, BBC Panorama, 18.4.23
May I offer a few observations about last night’s programme?
Justin Rowlatt stated that LTNs are “part of a push to improve air quality!” I waited for a fuller picture, but no, again he missed the elephant on the road. Am I the only one to see that a major cause of congestion, if not the major cause, is the traffic control system itself?
Traffic lights block natural flow. When lights are out of action, congestion vanishes into thin air. I’ve seen it many times, including across the whole of central London. Never was it more agreeable to cycle down Shaftesbury Avenue and through Piccadilly. Cab drivers smiled and waved you on. The confrontational system that usurps our judgement and makes us stop when we could go, that makes us see red and puts us on a war footing with other road-users – that system gives way to sociable give-and-take when we are free to use commonsense and common courtesy. When traffic lights break down, a sort of peaceful anarchy (in the original sense of the word, viz. self-government) breaks out. It allows the milk of human kindness, and traffic – on foot and on wheels – to flow. No longer at daggers drawn, we rediscover our humanity and make common cause.
The stop-restart motion caused by traffic lights multiplies emissions by a factor of at least four. By far the quickest, cheapest, most civilising way to cut emissions – not only of exhaust gases but lethal brake dust too – is to scrap most traffic lights, those weapons of mass distraction, danger and delay.
The idea that traffic lights improve safety is a myth. As Westminster City Council’s safety audit showed, 44% – nearly half – of personal injury “accidents” occur at traffic lights. How many of the remainder are due to the inherently dangerous rule of priority? “Get out of my way!” yells priority, as it denies infinite filtering opportunities and expressions of fellow feeling. “After you,” says equality – which should be the central rule of the road – as it stimulates empathy and spreads goodwill.
In the domestic sphere, coercive control is illegal. In the public realm, it’s rampant.
In your programme, Cllr Andrew Gant cited the “huge rise in car use”. No-one, least of all your presenter, pointed out that there is a corresponding rise in obstructive traffic regulation! In fact, it’s probably more an exponential rise – out of all proportion to need. The only useful traffic lights are at multi-lane intersections at peak times. Otherwise, we make a far better fist of things when left to our own cooperative devices.
As a cab driver in one of my videos puts it, when lights are out of action, “You’ve just got to be a bit more careful on the junction, that’s all.” Funny how when lights are out, we are advised to exercise caution; implying, of course, that as soon as the lights are “working” again, we may revert to norms of neglect.
I put “accidents” in inverted commas because most accidents are not accidents. They are events contrived by the misguided, dysfunctional rules of the road.
Public policy is retrograde. Your programme is fifteen years out-of-date. In a lights-off trial I instigated in 2009 in Portishead, traffic returned from back-street rat-runs to the now free-flowing main route.
Public policy, and most of the TV coverage I see of these matters, including your programme, choose confrontation and conflict, e.g. pitting those who want to stop people using streets for rat-runs against frustrated drivers. It’s about sticks instead of carrots, restrictive practice instead of commonsense and mutual tolerance. Gant deplores “vandalism” of bollards, but his policy is non-consensual and provocative. It allows occasional access for residents, but why not access for battery-powered vehicles that emit zero local pollution? It exposes the deceit at the heart of policy, which claims to be imposing restrictions in the service of cleaner air.
Rowlatt concludes that it’s a conflict between two views of freedom. One which wants freedom to drive anywhere, the other to be free of the pollution and congestion that cars cause. So the programme missed the role of traffic control in causing congestion and failing to make roads safe.
I have a city that is keen to rid its roads of traffic lights and trial my Equality Streets approach. Any chance of a commission? I’d be happy to work in-house.
Reply from Karen Wightman, BBC Panorama Editor, 18 April 2023
Thanks for getting in touch and your observations on last night’s programme. In a thirty-minute programme there isn’t the space to cover all the issues that might be relevant to a complex subject such as traffic management. However, as the government is investing hundreds of millions of pounds across England, we chose to look at the impact and efficacy of the schemes that are being put into place.
Having covered the expansion of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods we have no current plans to commission another programme on traffic in the near future.
My response, 19 April 2023
Dear Karen: thank you for your reply. May I make a few other points? I’m not ideologically opposed to LTNs, by the way. But I tend to think restrictive regulation is too often imposed before tolerant and unifying measures have been tried.
In traffic matters, the BBC seems to follow an agenda set by government, and to accept the system without question. But the system of engineered rights-of-way, with its unequal power balance that puts the vulnerable road-user at a dangerous disadvantage – the very word pedestrian expresses low status – has helped kill more people than died in two world wars. The rules of the road – with priority (for main roads, or to the right) at its core, regardless who arrived first – represent a dysfunctional system that subverts our social instinct to take it in turns.
Jump a supermarket or airport queue and you’d cause a riot. Ignore a mother at the roadside, rain or shine, with toddler in buggy at the ideal level to inhale the fumes that damage development, and no-one bats an eye. Why should we ditch our manners and behave so selfishly on the road? Because the rules tell us to. It’s not far-fetched to say they instil greater respect for a traffic light than for human life. If you “run over” a toddler but you had a green light and were within the limit, you are not guilty. Imagine approaching a green light when a child runs into your path but a ten-ton truck is on your tail, intent on beating the light. What do you do? It doesn’t bear thinking about, but it’s that kind of intolerable conflict which is conjured daily by the aggressive rule of priority and obedience to the traffic light.
Backed by the law of the land, the system grants superior rights-of-way to one set of road-users over others in defiance of common law principles of equal rights and responsibilities. From traffic lights to parking controls to speed enforcement, traffic control can be seen as a grotesque public disservice. The system maximises emissions and produces a “need” for the high-cost regulatory system that fails to keep us safe, and fails to keep traffic moving. Isn’t it part of the BBC’s remit to question public policy? Just as policymakers and managers fail in their duty to our time, health, quality of life and the planet, is the BBC failing in its duty to air new ideas and speak truth to power?
Traffic management is complex, you say. Hmm. Traffic managers like us to think it’s complex, and that we need their interventions to keep us safe. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Please see my website and consider the subject for a future edition. My blueprint for reform combines a critique of the system with proposals for change based on a trust in human nature rather than an obsession with controlling it. It would save lives, calm traffic, civilise our streets, cut emissions, save tens of billions annually for the public purse, and enhance the public realm. It’s a silver bullet for most of our road safety and many of our congestion problems.
Of course I’d invite opposing views and evidence, though in my experience, the arguments on the side of intrusive regulation are flimsy and self-serving. How, for example, can they defend a system which puts the onus on the child to beware the driver? Shouldn’t it be the other way round? To this day, the system by which we live and die requires children to learn age-inappropriate road safety drill to help them survive on roads made dangerous in the first place by the vicious rules of the road. Many of them do not survive! 20,000 human beings are killed or seriously hurt on our roads every year, but this unspeakable death and injury toll barely gets a mention. In Afghanistan in ten years, we lost 200 soldiers, which made headline news.
I’ve pitched this project numerous times to the BBC and been within a gnat’s whisker of a commission – once for a 3 x 1-hour documentary series with Roy Ackerman as co-producer. On one occasion, the department head overruled the commissioning editor. Later, I discovered, he (the department head) hadn’t read our treatment, so the amber light turned red instead of green. More recently, John (QI etc) Lloyd has been an enthusiastic supporter of this overdue project.
While it gathers dust, more toddlers and innocents will die or be permanently injured on the altar of the malign system.
Karen Wightman’s reply: still awaited. The cows will come home first.