Transport for London’s Pedestrian Countdown at Traffic Signals [PCaTS] trial is one of the more visible parts of Boris Johnson’s agenda to smooth London’s traffic flow. TfL has claimed that Londoners are in favour of countdown timers for pedestrians, but has faced criticism for using the rollout as a pretext for cutting pedestrian time at busy crossings like Oxford Circus.
Green Party Assembly Member Jenny Jones has argued that “less agile Londoners and people with children, should not be expected to sprint across the road,” and that in fact TfL should be allocating more time to pedestrians.
The Pedestrian Countdown “package”
The Pedestrian Countdown trial actually masks a raft of changes which make walking a slightly less appealing choice than driving.
The reason for this is buried on page 73 of over 300 pages of unpublished technical appendices to this report produced for TfL:
The Green Man time was reduced on all sites with PCaTS, and the Countdown time provided was longer than the Blackout time in the ‘Before’ surveys.
The change in available crossing time was a limitation of the study. Any observed changes in behaviour will be a result of both the change to the signal timings and the introduction of PCaTS, that is, the effects are confounded.
TfL rolled out a number of changes to pedestrian crossings at once and then asked people what they thought of them – it is extremely difficult to discern which changes people are reacting to when they respond to the Pedestrian Countdown package.
What did the study actually do?
The following is a summary of the changes to crossing times made by TfL.
|Total pedestrian time||
|Road traffic phases|
- “Pedestrian red” is the grace period at the end of the pedestrian phase where the red man appears but road traffic signals are still red.
- “Blackout” is the period for pedestrians after the green man where there is no green or red man showing, and is the phase wholly replaced with Countdown.
Why are we being told pedestrians are given more time to cross?
Despite the above, it is argued in the report on Pedestrian Countdown by Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) that the crossing time for pedestrians is increased (e.g. p73). This defines “available crossing time” as “the sum of the Green Man time and the Blackout time.”
This seems just another attempt to steal time from pedestrians. The red period at the end of pedestrian crossing time, prior to a road traffic green signal, is still part of pedestrians’ time. Road traffic is legally not allowed to advance, whereas pedestrians face no such restrictions. People routinely finish crossing the road during this stage, particularly those who move less quickly. Cutting this time is cutting pedestrian time.
The following graph, composed with data extracted from TRL’s appendices, shows the average change in time across all trial sites:
(“After” here is the “After 1” trial, immediately after PcATS is installed. The appendices do not contain the figures for the tweaked “After 2” trial, three months later, though we are told the green time is the same.)
What about road traffic time?
On average across all sites and across both the “After 1” and “After 2” stages of the trial, this time which did belong to pedestrians is reallocated to green for road traffic:
How does this affect Jenny Jones’ pensioners?
When countdown was rolled out, Jenny Jones voiced her concerns that,
Pensioners in London are not necessarily fitter than ones in Birmingham or Manchester. The mayor will have a tricky job speeding up the flow of traffic while protecting these vulnerable road users.
The package of measures above seems to have two notable effects in this regard:
1. More people begin to cross the road and then dash back to the kerb. (p89)
2. Walking speeds go up – interestingly, particularly in people over 60. (pp103-4)
At all trial sites, fewer people felt rushed when crossing the road with Pedestrian Countdown, compared to without.
- This is a measure of questionnaire responses, rather than time taken to cross the road.
- This is not true of mobility impaired people (Appendix 1, pp30 – 34).
What about all the positive responses mentioned by TfL?
It seems likely that there is some good in the Pedestrian Countdown package – certainly in response to the questionnaires, people seemed to be saying they liked something. But because so many changes were introduced at once, we don’t know exactly what. Similarly, when we look at the change in behaviour at the trial sites, there are a number of negative outcomes, but it is difficult to work out why they occur.
We see, for example, an increase in conflicts between pedestrians and road traffic during the curtailed “pedestrian red” phase (p130). This might be because pedestrians are unable to accurately judge against the Countdown how long it takes to cross. It might be because that phase has been reduced in time. It might be for another reason. We don’t know, and there’s no way of knowing.
Let’s stick to what we do know. A timer counting down the seconds that people have to scurry across the road is implicitly hostile towards them. Cutting green man time is explicitly hostile. As is cutting overall pedestrian time.
After hundreds of pages of research, there’s still no clear evidence of any specific advantages, other than more green time for motor vehicles.
This is partly due to the methodology of the study. Given the multiplicity of measures introduced at once, it is very difficult to draw out which changes might advantage pedestrians. But the very fact that the study was conducted in this way suggests that Boris Johnson’s TfL do not really care about the effects of individual changes on pedestrians, provided that road traffic is delayed by them for less long.
Pedestrian Countdown is explicitly part of Boris Johnson’s Smoothing Traffic Flow policy. In reality, what this means is: pedestrians are seen not as people making journeys, but simply as a factor contributing to the impedance of road traffic.
Is deliberately slowing pedestrians for the benefit of others hierarchical?
In June 2011, the Conservative Party’s London Assembly Members wrote:
Neither the Mayor nor the Government should impose an artificial road user hierarchy as this inevitably has the effect of deliberately slowing down some users.
I think my hypocrisy-meter just exploded.