Pedestrian countdown: TfL report shows it endangers pedestrians. Suggests city-wide roll out.

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.

Pedestrian Crossing Countdown Timer

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:

Page 28

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 need of spending money

Oxford Street, one of the pilot sites: do we need to make pedestrians less of a priority?

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:

People are walking considerably faster (page 26)

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.

Pedestrian safety

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.

24 Responses to “Pedestrian countdown: TfL report shows it endangers pedestrians. Suggests city-wide roll out.”

  1. Owen Says:

    Pedestrians crossing the road causes me hassle every day. TfL aren’t just reallocating time to motor vehicles, they are reallocating it to all traffic.

    Which we are. Cyclists suffer more from gratuitous red lights than motor vehicles because they find it harder to speed up afterwards.

    Not that I wish to undermine your good work generally. Keep it up, “pedestrian of futility”.

    • Robert Jarman Says:

      You would have a lot better London if there were fewer lights to begin with, and I imagine that a huge lorry or bus turning left is likely to be a bigger concern than how much time you have to cycle around London. The lights are almost guaranteed to not be timed to bicycles. How do you reduce the need for lights? Unbundle routes, IE separate the main routes for cars and the main routes for bikes, reduce the number of routes for the former, and change junctions into roundabouts or grade separated intersections, and even change some of the through routes for cars into collector or local access roads, and then you can just use signs to indicate the right of way. Then another thing that will reduce the number of lights for cars are separated cycle tracks (not the horrible shared use paths, like pavements you can cycle on, design them more like cycle paths you can walk on, or the type where cyclists are giving way to the most insignificant driveway), combined with the Dutch separated intersection. The type they use where they have signal intersections. Oh by the way get rid of repeater lights. Then, add a bypass where a pelican crossing is located, by having a traffic island between the cycle path and the motor lanes, with a zebra crossing for the cycle path, a pelican crossing for the motor lanes. This makes it so you do not have to stop for pedestrians at a red light, you simply give way to them. And with the Dutch solution to signal intersections, any turn you can make without crossing a lane of motor traffic is always free to make.

  2. stabiliser Says:

    Oxford Street is quite obviously the very last place in Britain where crossing time should be taken away from pedestrians and handed to motor vehicles. That TfL have chosen to do so demonstrates their absurd priorities.

  3. Kim Says:

    Pedestrians aren’t important as when they are not in cars…

  4. Futilitarian Says:

    Owen, this isn’t about whether you as a cyclist feel your interests are aligned with pedestrians or not. Personally, I feel we’re natural allies but that’s another discussion.

    My point with this post is to provide yet another recent example where TfL claims that their policies are in favour of vulnerable road users, and yet just a little bit of digging shows that in fact their underlying motive is to reduce congestion and waiting times for motor traffic.

  5. Tommi Says:

    Still claiming “Crucially, the study showed that there were no negative impacts on safety during the trial.

  6. Tommi Says:

    Haven’t gotten to the safety part yet, but the report is saying people feel less rushed and more people feel they have enough time to cross with the new signals. Makes sense, when you don’t know how long until the light is going to turn red the chances are much higher that you get caught in the middle when it does so, at which point you start feeling rushed to get clear and fast.

    Conversely when you can tell from the countdown you won’t be able to cross in time you pick up speed which leads to the increased average walking speed. As result there are less people left crossing by the time cars get the green signal so there’s less waiting time for cars.

    What I find missing is the timing between pedestrian signal turning red and car signal turning green. Seems to me it’s too short to begin with if cars need to wait for the crossing to clear – as I understood it even if the light turns red immediately after you started to cross you should still have enough to time to finish before other traffic gets green signal.

  7. Futilitarian Says:

    Hi Tommi,

    I agree that people can find pedestrian crossings confusing at the moment.

    However, there are various points to be made:

    1. I still see no justification for this particular rather anti-pedestrian solution.

    2. Even if pedestrian countdown is the way to go, this does not explain why you need to “reallocate” time away from pedestrians.

    3. Yes, TRL’s report does say that pedestrians don’t feel rushed, but they do not include the wording of the questions asked or the methodology used, simplying say that this is included in an (unpublished) appendix.
    In any case, I think the evidence that people are actually walking more quickly is far more persuasive than whatever fluffily-phrased question some marketing people asked.

    4. On this point, you may be pleased to find out that I have put in an FOI for the detailed appendix and I will publish it in full if/when I see it.

    Hope this clears things up.

  8. TfL’s ‘smoothing traffic flow’ ignores pedestrians, cyclists and even buses « Cycle of Futility Says:

    […] As ever with TfL, we shall see that there’s many a slip twixt press release and policy. […]

  9. Michael Says:

    Hmm. Forgive my skepticism, and I haven’t had a chance to look at the report yet, but I can’t help feeling that you’re cherrypicking your stats here to try to embellish your point.

    For instance, it takes a leap to suggest from an increase in walking speed of 0.1m/s in 3 out of 8 locations (what about the other 5?) that this is proof positive that “pedestrians are more rushed”.
    Tommi’s point about pedestrians having more information hence more knowledge about when to start walking is a good one, which I’m afraid your feelings and rhetoric don’t adequately address.

    The same is true of your accident data. Why pick those sites? Is it because they show the best support for your preconceived cynicism?

    Some information on the timing of measurements would be interesting too. Weather conditions could have as much influence on walking speeds and “conflict” rates as anything else.

    You could still be right, of course. I haven’t seen the report yet and these are my initial thoughts. But I would be more willing to accept your conclusions if you hadn’t indulged in such cherrypicking.

  10. Futilitarian Says:

    Michael, it’s not me who’s indulged in cherrypicking, it’s TRL.

    If you read the report, you’d see it’s them who has opted not to publish the walking speed data for the other 5 locations, or the other 4 conflict sites. I have actually asked for the rest of the data through an FOI request.

    But thanks for accusing me of being disingenuous before bothering to read the report.

  11. Michael Says:

    I have to say I get rather cross when bloggers demand of their critical readers (but not their supporters) that they have to read their source material in minute detail before commenting. Seems to defeat the purpose of you doing your summary. I was commenting on the impression your summary made when I read it, and some methodological “red flags” that came up. I don’t need to have read the full report to do that.

    OK, in any case, I’ve now read the report, and in my opinion, my initial skepticism is confirmed. I withdraw the concern about cherry-picking since, yes, fair play, you’ve only got TfL’s summary to go on, but I still think you’re over-egging your conclusions.

    You say:
    If you read the report, you’d see it’s them who has opted not to publish the walking speed data for the other 5 locations, or the other 4 conflict sites. I have actually asked for the rest of the data through an FOI request.

    Actually, it turns out they’ve given their reasons for that: either there simply aren’t enough observations in the data to make meaningful comparisons, or there was no statistical evidence of a difference in walking speeds, or the before/after groups weren’t comparable due to socio-demographic differences. This is important information.

    You also attach a rather emotionally hyped definition to “conflicts”:
    “When ‘conflicts’ happen on ‘roads’, I would consider this ‘a car crash’.”

    In fact, the report is very clear on the definitions (p.31). In fact, they state very clearly that “No actual collisions were observed during the surveys”. So what we had was an increase in the number of times people waited to let someone else past. OK, that might be cause for concern, but an “excuse me” is hardly the same as a “car crash”. In fact Figure 29 on p. 34 suggests that increases are due to increases in the number of pedestrian/bike conflicts rather than pedestrian/motor-vehicle conflicts.

    In any case, it’s all a bit moot, because only raw numbers are provided, not rates. But that’s TfL’s fault, not yours.

    Anyway, what I’m saying is I’m still struggling to see how you arrive at your rather conspiratorial conclusions that this whole exercise is about “pushing a project to decrease vehicle delays at the expense of pedestrian safety.”

    • Shiny Says:

      Hmm, I still think some points on their published report is not clearly justified. And also, the interaction between pedestrians and cyclists (to give way? to … I don’t know)… if people are pushing each other to get through, it wouldn’t be a pleasant journey, would it? I personally don’t like that… It’s about serviceability as well I suppose. If walking has become less appealing, then it’s probably worth criticising…

  12. Futilitarian Says:

    Thanks for withdrawing the cherry-picking comment.

    I suppose we’ll just have to disagree about the conclusions to draw from the report.

  13. How TfL came to claim that pedestrians want less time to cross at Oxford Circus « Cycle of Futility Says:

    […] 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 […]

  14. Shiny Says:

    hi there. Just wonder whether you could provide the whole set of docs for the research… as in this post you said “The reason for this is buried on page 73 of over 300 pages of unpublished technical appendices to this report produced for TfL:” But the link you provided at the end of the text is just a 100ish-page pdf. Any more files that I can have a look? Thx!

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  17. Camden Friends of the Earth » Power to the pedestrians Says:

    […] However we are worried that TfL’s plan to roll out pedestrian countdown crossings across the borough will reduce pedestrian crossing times in favour of motor vehicles – as seen at Oxford Circus. […]

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