How TfL came to claim that pedestrians want less time to cross at Oxford Circus

Oxford Street is a pedestrian hell. Everyone knows this.

The need of spending money

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.

Oxford Circus countdown

The clock is ticking...

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:

  1. The solution to London’s motor traffic congestion problems lies in changing pedestrian behaviour.
  2. 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.

I viewed the Synovate questionnaire through an FOI request. It contains plenty of content that I have not blogged about. To download it, click here. Fear not: plenty on the TRL research to come.

9 Responses to “How TfL came to claim that pedestrians want less time to cross at Oxford Circus”

  1. PaulM Says:

    Well, TfL has form when it comes to misleading statements. My favourite is the one from the TLRN Network Operating Strategy draft document (open to public consultation at the moment) about the motorbike in bus lane trial. Unsurprisingly, most motorcyclists love it. Also, apparently, “51% of cyclists and drivers of private cars, who were aware of the trial, approved”.

    If that were a sample taken from traffic across Blackfriars Bridge (more cyclists than private cars and taxis combined), the stat could actually be all car drivers plus about 10% of cyclists approved. Elsewhere, it could be 75% of car drivers and precisely zilch cyclists. If you exclude everyone who said “really? I didn’t know they allowed to do that”, who knows what the result would have been?

  2. Tommi Says:

    I feel the north side pedestrian crossing in junction of New Oxford Street and Bloomsbury Street is a good example of how much TfL really cares about pedestrians. It’s a pedestrian crossing over southbound one way road and even after the cars stop the pedestrian signal stays red until the next all-red phase a long long time later.

    I made a complaint to fixmystreet and the response was: “the way the current signal sequence is configured, it is not possible to run the pedestrian phase on Bloomsbury Street or any of the others independently. It must run at the same time as all the other crossings on the junction.”

    Now, fixing the timings for this crossing would have absolutely no effect on car traffic, so the only reason to not fix it is either TfL is being incompetent, or simply can’t be bothered to do their jobs. It would be interesting to know how much time and money is being lost every day due to such crossings. But conveniently pedestrian delays don’t matter so it’s not getting measured, is it?

    Oh well, nothing encourages more than knowing TfL cares about it deeply and will arrange nice little stops for you to catch your breath.

    On related note I find it funny how lots of pedestrians are following scandinavian timings on pedestrian crossings while the signals themselves do not. It would make for more smooth pedestrian traffic in many places, but I get the feeling the safety nutters around here would never consider that without years of research (ignoring the decades of use in many (most?) other countries.)

  3. People's Cycling Front of South Gloucestershire Says:

    Actually there’s something interesting here: if TfL said “they couldn’t alter crossing times without talking to Westminster”, and then went and lowered them, either they were lying or they discussed this with westminster council. either way, it’s useful to know

  4. David Hembrow Says:

    Clearly there are two rather different ideas about what countdown timers on crossings are supposed to achieve.

    In London they’re installing timers to tell pedestrians to speed up or they’ll get run over.

    On the other hand, ours are used to tell you how short a time remains until you get plenty of time to cross, but in some cases the lights just change immediately for you. i.e. this really does improve pedestrian and cyclist safety because it points out how pointless it would be to go through the red light.

    So what do they really have in Mallorca ? The same as in London or the same as in the Netherlands ?

    • Shiny Says:

      I like your videos. But probably different cultures or countries have different ways of doing this. I think in busy cities like London, sometimes we can hardly find a junction with short delay for pedestrians and cyclists and the cycle lanes are just set up in particular areas, not everywhere. I’ve seen the Japanese traffic light timer as well. They used a bar signal similar to your video. But would you think it’s kinda ambiguous as it’s not numerically clear and you can only see roughly how long you needa wait or how long you have to cross?

  5. James R Grinter Says:

    @David Hembrow: and, interestingly, they have the “Netherlands-type” in Glasgow.

    It’s a much better approach if what you are interested in is pedestrian safety, as it encourages pedestrians to wait the short time until the Green man reappears. (Obviously, if you have to wait a long time for the green man, because the lights are stacked against you: well, you can see why they might not favour that approach in London.)

    • Shiny Says:

      So do you have any suggestions on what TfL should do? Set the green time back to the original time period? Shroud the display from car drivers? or anything else? It seems that various modes of traffic are in a rival state… Don’t really know what the government should do

  6. Artificial road-user hierarchy imposed by a Conservative mayor: a closer analysis of Pedestrian Countdown « Cycle of Futility Says:

    […] Cycle of Futility In a world class cycling city… « How TfL came to claim that pedestrians want less time to cross at Oxford Circus […]

    • Shiny Says:

      I have to say that the Barclays bike system is rather appalling and disappointing. It almost fails every time I try to rent one. Sometimes it charges me and returns no receipt for accessing a bike. Pretty often docking a bike means you need to walk from then on as the system is down for peak hours. Is that the way Boris proposes the bike plan? Geez?

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