BRITAIN’S roads are being choked by a swarm of unnecessary, expensive, and damaging restrictions. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of traffic lights rose by over 30 per cent, boosted by an extra 1,800 imposed on London’s streets under former mayor Ken Livingstone. There are now over 30,000 signal-controlled junctions and 25,000 pelican crossings across the country.
The nature of these controls has also changed. Between 2007 and 2008, the number of signals giving priority to buses more than doubled to 8,500. Junctions with a full pedestrian crossing — when all vehicles are held at a complete standstill – have also become increasingly popular.
There has been little appreciation, however, of the economic costs associated with such controls. This is unsurprising given the absence of commercial incentives facing transport planners. With approximately 33m vehicles in the UK, unnecessary delays at junctions translate into major economic losses.
To give some idea of the scale, it has been estimated that just two minutes added to all vehicle trips costs £12bn annually. There is also the burden on taxpayers for installing and maintaining infrastructure and equipment. And traffic jams resulting from controls increase fuel use and pollution levels, while driver behaviour near traffic lights (speeding up to beat the green) heightens danger. The latest safety audit from Westminster City Council showed that no less than 44 per cent of personal injury accidents occurred at traffic lights.
A handful of local authorities have begun to recognise these negative effects. In 2009, lights were switched off at the Cabstand double junction in Portishead, near Bristol. Despite an increase in traffic, queues disappeared, journey times fell by over 50 per cent, and there was no decline in road safety.
A more recent and wider-ranging study suggests that the benefits of removing controls go further. In the biggest scheme seen in the UK so far, Poynton in Cheshire has removed traffic lights and highway clutter at Fountain Place, a major crossroads carrying 26,000 vehicles a day through the heart of the village. Now there is an attractive, open streetscape in which free-flowing traffic interacts sociably with pedestrians. Not only have delays dropped markedly, but since the scheme was unveiled six months ago, trading activity in local shops has doubled. This alternative approach to traffic management has brought substantial regeneration benefits as a result of reducing the delays and negative environmental effects associated with traffic controls.
The accumulating evidence from such studies strengthens the case for an about-turn on traffic policy. A first step would be to end the funding of new traffic control schemes, which threaten to increase further the costs imposed on road users, taxpayers and local residents. Policymakers should look closely at Poynton – a blueprint for delivering substantial economic and quality of life benefits stemming from a different approach to traffic.
Martin Cassini is a TV programme maker and traffic campaigner, and a writer for the Institute for Economic Affairs.