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Bad News for Traffic Signal Manufacturers

From the Times of London, a story that seems “ripped from the pages” of Traffic.

The always good transpo correspondent Ben Webster asks:

What would happen if traffic lights were suddenly switched off? Would there be gridlock or would the queues of frustrated drivers miraculously disappear?

People in London are about to find out the answer in Britain’s first test of the theory that removing lights will cure congestion.

For six months, lights at up to seven junctions in Ealing will be concealed by bags and drivers will be left to negotiate their way across by establishing eye contact with pedestrians and other motorists.

The reason for the trial was pure accident:

Ealing found evidence to support its theory when the lights failed one day at a busy junction and traffic flowed better than before. Councillors have approved a report which recommended that they “experimentally remove signals since experience of signal failure showed that junction worked well.”

Of course, careful attention will have to paid to safety results, particularly with pedestrians (the piece refers to some new mid-block crossings but one has to entertain the idea that these treatments may reduce pedestrian’s perception of safety and thus, potentially, one’s inclination to walk). The one day of outage could have represented a novelty effect. But the interesting thing about these novel treatments is that they are often done with much more care and concern than the standard “out of the book” approach that is applied automatically.

Ealing Council believes that, far from improving the flow of traffic, lights cause delays and may even increase road danger. Drivers race towards green lights to make it across before they turn red. Confidence that they have right of way lulls them into a false sense of security, meaning that they fail to anticipate hazards coming from the side. The council hopes that drivers will learn to co-operate, crossing junctions on a first-come first-served basis rather than obeying robotic signals that have no sense of where people are waiting.

(Horn honk to Prashanth)

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This entry was posted on Saturday, May 2nd, 2009 at 3:22 pm and is filed under Risk, Roads, Traffic Culture, Traffic Psychology, Traffic Signals. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

8 Responses to “Bad News for Traffic Signal Manufacturers”

  1. Vagabondblogger Says:

    There are no lights here in Cairo, and my son seems to think traffic works better. He says it’s usually never at a total standstill, which is better than many of our encounters in the USA, where bumper to bumper idling seems to be the norm.

  2. Vincent Clement Says:

    I don’t recall there being any major issues when the power went out during the Northeast blackout of 2003. Traffic moved smoothly for the most part.

    It took me an extra 10 minutes to get home. I partly assign that to the fact that the blackout happened at 4:15 pm and that most workplaces let their employees go home shortly after that. There were way more vehicles on the road than normal.

  3. Matt Says:

    Some lights near me in Putney failed recently, and the traffic did seem to flow better. But, it was at the expense of pedestrians crossing the road — drivers ignored them, instead creeping forward into the junction, and the pedestrians were left to run across when they could.

  4. townmouse Says:

    I agree with Matt about the effect on pedestrians – maybe that’s why the traffic flows more smoothly as one whole stream of ‘traffic’ is removed from the equation. Perhaps combining no lights with zebra crossings for those on foot would be a fairer way to go about it?

  5. Lee Hanna Says:

    I’d have to go back and look it up, but I think traffic wasn’t awful when we lost 4 days of power in Columbus after Hurricane Ike’s remnants blew through here. Of course, I couldn’t see TV or radio news, and I didn’t go out much, so I could be wrong.

  6. Grant Johnson, PE, PTOE Says:

    This article was so amazing to me. It shows a lack of knowledge, and apparently, whoever is running the signal system over there is not communicating to the elected officials. Maybe there are two agendas at play there? Possibly an overly zealous traffic calming influence being applied by transportation departments to the signal systems to really slow things down (or negligence/incompetence?), combined with the impatience of those that want no part of that.

    If I had my input there, I would first see that the signals are equipped with detector loops so that they could sense the presence of approaching vehicles, let alone those that are already waiting at a stop bar. I would have the signals timed with programming so that they would favor the heavy movements of traffic so that the majority of drivers would experience the least amount of delay.

    I did a comparative analysis of three scenarios at an intersection. All the same volume of traffic, but with different traffic control. The first was a signal installation with a 75 second typical cycle. See my blog for results. It doesn’t favor chaos.

  7. aaron Says:

    The “no signals” strategy probably works very well in very pedestrian dense areas where the vehicle traffic is generally well above capacity and intersections are very close. But generally, for the other anecdotes, the reason there is better flow is because there are less people on the road, the economy is basically on stand-still.

    I think good solution for other situations is to get rid of “stop lights” and make them all yields, with stiff penalties for failure to yield accidents. One direction gets the priority signal, while the rest yield.

    How under-built roads are, average distance of travel, and distance between signals will be key in whether no signals works.

  8. townmouse Says:

    @Grant – councillors are the elected officials in UK local authorities, so clearly there is some communication going on there as they approved the plan

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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