Most Londoners will by now have come across one of the pedestrian countdown timers being piloted in London.
TfL inform us that,
Crossing the road at traffic lights is getting easier in London. Pedestrian Countdown counts down how long you have to cross the road after the green man light has gone out.
Ah, so they’re for the benefit of pedestrians, then? Well, you won’t find it on their website, but TfL have buried deep in their Network Operating Strategy that, other than their effect on pedestrians, countdown timers are considered advantageous for their
potential to improve the overall efficiency of the junction and reallocate a few seconds green time back to other modes. (p30)
No doubt taking green time away from pedestrians makes things “easier”. Perhaps the easiest thing of all would be to remove the green phase completely so pedestrians are never allowed to cross the road? This would avoid confusion, particularly for hard-to-reach groups like the visually impaired.
TfL have commissioned transport consultancy TRL to produce a report on the pedestrian countdown system, published 31st May 2011. It reveals the extent to which TfL have used the countdown system as a pretext for removing time from the pedestrian-crossing phase and “reallocating” it to motor traffic:
Yes, you’re reading it correctly, time has been moved away from pedestrians in every single case and by up to almost five minutes per hour in one location.
The effects of this are (A) making walking in London an even less appealing experience by rushing pedestrians, and (B) increasing pedestrian risk. And the data proves it.
Do pedestrians feel rushed?
While it is intuitive that pedestrians facing a countdown feel more rushed, TfL have shrugged this off. But look at the TRL results of average walking speed times before and after the installation of a countdown timer:
Now, remember this is measuring the average walking speed throughout the pedestrian phase. As a significant proportion of the cycle is the same under both trials – the green man – the real extent to which pedestrians are rushed by these timers is actually much greater than what is shown here.
Naturally, perceived pressure to cross the street particularly affects those groups already marginalised as pedestrians, such as older people, parents with children, and the physically less-able.
TRL have published the results at four sites for what they call “conflict”, an oddly neutral term defined as “when two people attempt to use the same space at the same time.”
When “conflicts” happen on “roads”, I would consider this “a car crash”. To each their own. The data (p33) shows the following:
- At Kingsway, Finsbury and Blackfriars, conflicts between pedestrians and traffic more than doubled from 152 to 342 conflicts.
- At Oxford Street, conflicts were reduced. However, the severity of the conflicts which did occur increased.
Interestingly, on a page which TfL have now taken down but which Google still has a cache of, TfL claims:
Crucially, the study showed that there were no negative impacts on safety during the trial.
So what to take from this? Pedestrians are more rushed and more at risk. On the above cached page, TfL says that in light of this report they are looking at:
how Pedestrian Countdown technology could be rolled out to a number of key road junctions across the TfL Road Network from early 2012.
Garrett Emmerson, Chief Operating Officer for London Streets at TfL said: “Pedestrian Countdown can deliver significant benefits not just to pedestrians, but to all road users.”
Except it is pretty clear that the new system reduces the amount of time pedestrians have to cross the road, bullies them while they do it, and actually increases their risk. So why are TfL so keen?
Look at this graph of vehicle delay after countdown timers have been installed:
A net reduction. TfL are pushing a project to decrease vehicle delays at the expense of pedestrian safety.
And, to be frank, they’re lying about it.