/ Motoring

Stop cluttering our streets with traffic lights

Traffic lights against cloudy sky

Transport for London (TfL) has angered safety campaigners with its proposal to remove 145 sets of traffic lights across the capital. But de-cluttering our streets can actually cut congestion and save lives.

We’ve all been there – stuck waiting at a red light when the road ahead is clear. Sitting at a red light wastes time, causes traffic tailbacks and increases pollution from car exhaust emissions.

Yet TfL’s eminently sensible plan to remove 145 traffic lights across London was met with howls of protest.

Jenny Jones of the Green Party protested: ‘This is all part of the Mayor’s agenda for speeding up traffic. It is not that I want traffic to move slowly, but I do want it to be safe and you can’t have both.’ Really Jenny? I beg to differ.

“You don’t have to put on the red light”

Most traffic lights operate on a simple timer system that takes no account of traffic flow. Or, in the case of pelican crossings, when a button is pressed.

This antiquated means of controlling road users has been with us since 1868, when the first traffic light was installed in London’s Parliament Square. But the best solution for modern cities is getting rid of most traffic lights and ‘street furniture’ altogether. People of Britain: it’s time to de-clutter our streets!

At present, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians are divided into separate areas – roads, cycle lanes and pavements respectively. We’re bombarded by a plethora of signs and signals telling us what to do at every stage of our journey.

This creates an ‘us and them’ mentality, causing people to act in a self-interested way that impedes overall traffic flow and causes accidents. Equally, it means we all go about our business on ‘auto pilot’, not paying proper attention to our surroundings.

Making contact with others

By removing traffic lights and other street furniture, road users must rely on common sense rather than blindly following signs. The lack of traditional boundaries forces us to engage our brains and make eye contact with others to signal our intentions.

But don’t take my word for it. The concept of ‘shared space’, where vehicles and pedestrians are free to mix without excessive regulation, has already proven successful in some cities.

The town of Drachten in Holland removed most of its street furniture back in 2003. Accidents and traffic congestion were both cut dramatically as a result. When Kensington High Street in London dispensed with kerbs, signs and other clutter, pedestrian casualties dropped by 40%.

Let’s ditch traffic lights and embrace ‘shared space’

I’m not saying that we should remove every street sign or traffic light. But I do believe that shared spaces can work in urban areas.

Town planners should credit people with some common sense and have the courage to ignore the knee-jerk reactions of safety campaigners who automatically oppose anything that could improve traffic flow.

Getting rid of clutter can make Britain’s streets safer, faster-moving and more attractive. It’s a win-win situation.

Should more traffic lights be removed from our streets?

Yes - there are too many (51%, 225 Votes)

Maybe - some areas could benefit (33%, 147 Votes)

No - this would cause chaos (16%, 73 Votes)

Total Voters: 445

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Fat Sam, Glos says:
13 October 2010

£90k?! I think the installation of traffic lights, under the guise of ‘elf ‘n’ safety’, really is a ploy by council officials to justify keeping jobs for people. There are better things to spend money on. A public flogging would be one.

My local council Ealing trialled removing a few sets of traffic lights (following a hissy fit from Boris Johnson) and found conditions for all road users and pedestrians to be improved. They’re now going to extend the scheme to a few more junctions, one of which is very near me so it should be fun to see ‘naked streets’ in action.

I think the fans of traffic lights in every situation rather overestimate TFL’s and the road planner’s competence.

I queried the benefits of a new set of lights on my commute which cause congestion in a position with very little cross traffic or pedestrian activity – here’s TFL’s reply:

‘These signals were installed as part of the planning agreement for the Grand Union Village development. Whilst the development is not fully complete yet, the signals have been commissioned and bought into operation, in order to deal with the rise in firstly construction traffic and secondly in both vehicular and pedestrian movements as the dwellings become occupied.’


For sure, traffic lights are often essential when traffic density is high, and I’d advocate installing part-time lights on some large roundabouts, for example, which otherwise simply cease to function properly when traffic is continuous.

But I also think that traffic lights are only needed for a few hours per day at many junctions. Outside peak times traffic lights are often redundant and serve only to delay, frustrate and increase air and noise pollution when traffic stops then accelerates noisily away again, wasting fuel in the process.

It seems to me that switching lights to flashing amber in off-peak hours such as is done in continental Europe is one highly desirable way forward. The lights then merely indicate that users of one road have to give way while users of the other can proceed unimpeded and thus without wasting fuel or causing undue noise or other pollution.

Frustrated Designer says:
27 December 2010

As someone involved in highway design, I recommend you all Google a chap called Hans Monderman.

Primarily, saying you can’t trust drivers is a little childish. The principle of shared space is that people are wary of their actions, and THIS IS PROVEN TO WORK IN THE UK, cutting congestion, improving flow and cutting accident rates (also see the rest of Europe: e.g. Denmark and Holland) so how can you possibly argue with it? The problem is that our streets are very car oriented in design, which is why we need to resort to authoritarian measures such as speed bumps and traffic lights.

Unfortunately people are afraid of change when they do not understand it, it’s obvious the detractors here are simply being reactionary. For more information, New Road in Brighton is a good example of a shared space in the UK, and there’s a town in the Netherlands called Drachten (I think) that was one of the earliest examples of the idea, and shows how going against the ‘conventional wisdom’ of rigid control and remembering our human nature can go a very very long way.

The Shared Space idea needs to be ripped up, banned and forgotten about. Ive encountered a few of these and its absolutely horrific. Pedestrians just mill around paying zero attention to anyone, walk out in front of you, cyclists going in all directions, no organisation, absolute CHAOS. Theres nothing wrong with the tried and tested method of pavement for people, road for cars, crossings for people to cross road. Very simple. Very safe. I want unneccessary traffic lights removed but a massive NO to shared spaces. Its so annoying when people say ‘the problem is our towns are car focused’ why is it a problem? Why are cars a problem all of a sudden? Shared Space is the solution to a problem which doesnt exist.I feel this way as both a motorist and pedestrian. Shared spaces cost millions to impliment even small sections, and all we end up with is the same as we had before but with no organisation and you cant park. So alot of money for something a bit worse than what we had, but hey it looks nice so that makes it worth it. Total nonsense. As a pedestrian i feel safer with a proper pavement, cars dont mount pavements and murder people so i know im fine on one.

Im sick of the ‘it works in Holland’ argument being forced down our throats. Why are we being forced to become Dutch? Why cant we be British? If you love Holland so much then move to Holland! And just because something works somewhere else doesnt justify spending millions to do it here. Stoning works well in Iran but ‘it works there’ isnt good enough to use it here. Other arguments in favour include ‘its cut accidents’ yes, because it stops people going there, i could make Afghanistan completely safe by removing people. ‘People will manage alright’ is ‘managing’ really good enough for something which costs so much money? Surely if you’re going to spend that it needs to be BETTER than what we had before, not ‘just as safe’ or ‘alright’.

Removing excessive lights can help, just as installing them in some areas can help ease flow. Its nothing to do with ‘speeding traffic up’ its about stopping traffic less often to create smoother flow. People like Jones assume all motorists speed through town at 90mph looking to murder pedestrians and use their bones as trophies, when all we want to do is get to where we’re going as easily as possible. You cannot tell pedestrians they have the right to walk in front of moving vehicles, somebody will be killed. Too many pedestrians are on phones, on ipods, talking and generally ignorant to their surroundings already, letting them mill about in the way of cars is dangerous. 58% of Pedestrians KSE last year were confirmed by the Police and DfT to have ‘not looked’ before walking into the road. I understand perfectly how a shared space is meant to work so dont roll out the old chesnut of ‘you dont understand’ because i do understand. The point is its based on nobody having right of way, but unfortunately its pedestrians who dont realise this and they think they have right of way, when in fact nobody does, so they just wander out without looking. Roads and pavements for me, lets end this madness. These European planners have butchered enough of our towns already and as MASSIVE cost to the taxpayer in an endless crusade against the motorist.

Its making my blood boil that a sensible point about removing unrequired traffic lights has turned into promotion for the horrific idea of ‘shared spaces’ when thats not what Transport For London said whatsoever.