There’s too many traffic lights. That’s the message from the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in a new study into traffic controls and the economy. And for anyone who spends their daily commute crawling along the street at the pace of a geriatric tortoise, they’re likely to agree with them.
Traffic light numbers have increased 25 percent between 2000 and 2014. Many feel these extra controls have stymied movement and slowed journeys.
In the defence of the increase, the number of cars on the road has also increased, although only by 16 percent.
The proliferation of traffic lights, says the report, is not only detrimental to road safety, the economy and the environmental but also “imposes huge costs on road-users, taxpayers and communities.”
How costly exactly? Well, the study found that a simple two-minute delay to every car journey would equate to a £16 billion loss over the course of a year. Clearly this is not just a worry for time-strapped commuters.
So what should we do? Build more roads? Promote car sharing and public transport? Funnel money into self-driving cars? Nope. The study suggests we rip up the vast majority of traffic lights — 80 percent to be exact — and let motorists get on with it.
In lieu of traffic lights, the IEA recommends drivers use “voluntary cooperation” to navigate traffic light-free roads. And that’s not as crazy as it seems, either. Successful trials have been run in numerous UK cities, including Blairgowrie in Scotland, and abroad in Germany and the Netherlands, too. So there is evidence that drivers can be trusted to run their own system.
Portishead in England had long struggled to manage traffic around a notoriously bad road called the Cabstand Junction. In 2004, a new traffic lights system was installed to the tune of £800,000. Sadly, the new system resulted in severe congestion and delays.
The council persisted with this managed approach for years until, in 2009, the lights failed. After some initial moments of confusion, drivers started to navigate the junction and for a few hours, the traffic jams disappeared.
In a bid to model the accidental reduction, council planners decided to intentionally switch off the lights and leave motorists to their own traffic management system. Traffic jams instantly eased once again. The IEA study quotes traffic engineer Keith Firth on the Cabstand Junction:
“Within hours of hooding the signals, things were looking bleak for the traffic engineering fraternity. Up to 2000 vehicles per hour sailed through the junction with little, if any, delay and queues disappeared on all the approaches. Drivers were courteous to each other, a good proportion slowed to allow pedestrians to cross, and road users interviewed a few days before the trial who had said it would be chaos, now reported that they were prepared to have a three-course millinery delight.”
Whether we see a similar approach rolled out to Scottish roads remains to be seen but with positive results from England and abroad, we hope traffic planners will consider trials in Scotland.