Experimenting with the Elimination of Traffic Lights

Today from the Streetsblog Network, Tom Vanderbilt writes on his How We Drive blog about an upcoming experiment in London. Traffic lights at seven intersections in the borough of Ealing will be covered with bags, and drivers will be expected to safely navigate by making eye contact with pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists. The move was inspired by an accidental signal failure that resulted in improved traffic flow, catching the eye of planners. Vanderbilt cautions:

157822087_5953f0434c_m.jpgPhoto by Ed Lawes via Flickr.

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.

Eliminating traffic lights is one element of the "shared spaces" planning approach advocated by the late Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman. However, without the other elements of Monderman-style design, for example the use of varied street surface texture and color, it remains to be seen if a street without signals serves pedestrians and cyclists as well as drivers.

Other food for thought from around the network: WashCycle enters the debate about what traffic laws merit the most vigorous enforcement; Fifty Car Pileup writes about the growing movement to eliminate urban highways; and Orphan Road argues that while $8 billion may not be much in the grand scheme of things, it does effectively change the national conversation on high-speed rail.

  • My guess is that implementing this on a piecemeal basis won’t be safe for pedestrians. Motorists and peds have, for better or worse, developed reflexes for a nanny-like traffic signaling system optimized for cars. Even when road users rebel against the system by disobeying the signals — to be fair, drivers aren’t the only ones who do this — it usually occurs in a ritualized and predictable fashion, however deadly the exceptions may be. It’s a bad system, but suspending the rules in a small zone won’t turn off driver and ped reflexes and might expose peds to even greater danger. It’s literally a matter of mixed signals. Modifications to driver behavior have to be encoded into the road surface in the form of speed bumps, bollards, narrower streets, and other forms of traffic calming. This would have more of an effect than a traffic-signal honor system in a world where some people have no honor.

  • RE: Urban highways

    It’s amazing that people can look at a picture of the destruction of the downtown of a city like Syracuse and see nothing out of the ordinary. I guess it resembles the suburbs that everyone grew up with. Except in the cities, all that land given to parking lots and highways used to have productive buildings on it, rather than nothing at all; yet people just don’t seem to care. Especially if only poor people live there any more anyway.

  • John Deere

    During the blackout a few years ago, every intersection I encountered there was a traffic jam because motorists didn’t know how to cooperate. It was every driver for him/herself. And they certainly weren’t cooperating with any pedestrians who wanted to cross. I actually had to momentarily cork an intersection so that a mom & couple small kids & an elderly woman could cross. While I generally believe that traffic signals get over-used to control the speed of traffic (which adds to incentives for cyclists to run red lights that are otherwise pointless), they still do serve a useful function of regulating traffic at busy intersections. There are too many “me-first” cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists for this idea (eliminating traffic lights) to work here.

  • For context’s sake, it should be pointed out that Ealing is more inner-ring suburb than urban. Its population density is about 14,000 per square mile, significantly less than Brooklyn or Queens or Hoboken, more than Staten Island or Nassau County overall, fairly comparable to New Hyde Park.

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