Oxford Street is a pedestrian hell. Everyone knows this.
In February 2010, the London Assembly demanded more time for pedestrians to cross Oxford Street (p25). Transport for London (TfL) responded by denying that this was their responsibility, claiming that “service levels for pedestrians would have to be discussed with Westminster City Council” (p3).
Despite apparently having no power to give pedestrians more time to cross Oxford Street, TfL have miraculously managed since last year to cut around 25 minutes a day from pedestrians crossing at Oxford Circus.
This is through their Pedestrian Countdown trial, part of the Mayor’s Smoothing Traffic Flow agenda.
In his most recent report to the Board, TfL commissioner Peter Hendy said about Pedestrian Countdown,
A majority (83 per cent) of pedestrians surveyed liked the trial technology, as did 94 per cent of mobility impaired users and 79 per cent of children, with the majority of people surveyed feeling safer and less rushed. (p10)
This seems unlikely. Having a massive timer counting down the seconds until cars bear down on you seems likely to instil panic – or at least to make you feel rather harried. Indeed, when scoping attitudes to the idea in 2009, this is what even drivers told TfL:
“They have this in Mallorca. You have everyone pushing and shoving as the timer runs out.” [Private motorist, male, 36+, inner London, non-time critical]
What are TfL’s claims based on?
TfL have, it seems, used two pieces of research as the basis for their remarks here and in their press releases claiming that pedestrians love the countdown system. The first is a questionnaire by market research company Synovate called Smoothing Traffic Flow – Intervention Testing. The second is significantly more comprehensive research by transport consultancy TRL.
This is the question which people were asked about the countdown system in the Synovate research:
Some pedestrian crossings could have a countdown display. This display would show pedestrians how much time they have left to cross the road. This would make it easier for pedestrians to know when they can cross safely. It could also reduce the likelihood of people trying to cross the road when they should not do so. This would mean traffic would not be delayed further, and would make pedestrian crossings safer.
How do you rate this idea? (p43)
This question is about as loaded as a Primal Scream fan in a 1991 club. Let’s unpick it a little. It seems to me that the penultimate sentence in particular makes two extraordinary claims:
- The solution to London’s motor traffic congestion problems lies in changing pedestrian behaviour.
- Pedestrian countdown makes pedestrian crossings safer.
The first claim is so preposterous that I am not going to bother with it.
There does not seem to be any evidence to support the second claim. Indeed, the TRL report summary published by TfL shows that at three of the four sites with a statistically significant change in conflicts between pedestrians and traffic, conflicts increased hugely (more than doubled – p33). I see no basis for Peter Hendy claiming that Pedestrian Countdown is safer, and if anything the evidence seems to indicate the converse.
The Synovate research is no basis for claiming that anyone is in favour of Countdown. People were given, frankly, false information about what a new system might look like and then asked to how much they might like this fantasy system. Of course people are in favour a magical clock which increases safety, makes people feel calmer crossing the road, and significantly reduces traffic congestion – this is not what Pedestrian Countdown is, and it is duplicitous of TfL to claim that it is.