In January 2011 Enrique Peñalosa, the inspiring former Mayor of Bogota, asked at the London School of Economics,
If road space is the most valuable resource in the city, how do we distribute it? To the many, or for the few?
Designing public space around cars is one answer. Designing space around people is another.
TfL are systemically engaged in the former. One policy which has received some attention is that they are explicitly reducing pedestrian time at existing crossings through Pedestrian Countdown.
But this is just the beginning. They are also removing puffin, pelican and toucan crossings all over London. And they are making changes to thousands of sets of traffic lights without considering the effect on pedestrians at all.
This is all quite explicitly in the name of “smoothing traffic flow” – the Mayor’s policy to design London for the convenience motor vehicles.
What are pedestrians worth?
To see the value attributed to people who walk in London, look no further than a 2009 report commissioned by the Greater London Authority, entitled The Economic Impact of Traffic Signals.
The study calculates the value of time gained by road users at specific junctions if traffic lights were removed.
The analysis comes up with remarkably precise conclusions, such as: the removal of traffic signals between 10am and 4pm at the above junction would save around £9000 per annum (p37).
It also says quite baldly on page 43:
The results do not include the net economic cost or benefit to pedestrians who are assumed to cross at gaps in traffic or at stand alone pedestrian crossings.
Just to be explicit: If you’re driving a car, your time is considered to be worth £26 an hour. As a taxi passenger, £45. Pedestrians’ time, however, is worth nothing.
In the above image there is one van, two cars and seven pedestrians. Prioritising the motor vehicles over the pedestrians is simply perverse.*
How is this affecting London’s streets?
This stuff is real. Ideas become policy, policy becomes practice and right now that practice is being installed on our streets in metal, concrete and stone.
Other than Pedestrian Countdown, Transport for London is rolling out a number of changes to traffic signals, without any regard to pedestrians. (Warning: this bit is a bit technical.)
- SCOOT (Split Cycle Offset Optimisation Technique) – sensors in the road detect when traffic is building up and change traffic lights accordingly. TfL’s are committed to installing SCOOT at 3000 of London’s 6000 traffic signals by March 2012. The effect on pedestrians is not measured – despite the London Assembly calling for it to be (p9).
- SASS (System Activated Strategy Selection) – SASS uses “network intelligence” to change signal timings in order to pre-empt traffic problems. It does not measure its effect on pedestrians.
- “21st Century Traffic Signals” – This is a new initiative by TfL, which is expected cost £17m. Its first and only public appearance is in their July Finance Policy Committee minutes (p5). It aims to “optimise signal settings between adjacent sets of signals from a central control source.” Does it account for pedestrians? I seriously doubt it – I have put in some FOI requests to find out more.
It’s not just light timings. This is not to mention the dozens of puffin, pelican and toucan crossings that Transport for London are removing all over London.
In one of their most laughable attempts at spin, TfL have claimed that the removal of pedestrian lights will lead to “fewer obstacles for pedestrians”.
Places for people
My friends have asked me why I keep banging on about traffic lights, when even in the world of street design there must be bigger fish to fry. But these small changes are harmful in so many ways:
Safety: increasing the ease of travelling by car at the expense of everyone else – which is what all this does – is dangerous for the people who are maimed and killed by them.
Accessibility: Reducing pedestrian time makes life harder for mobility impaired people. Removing crossings can kill blind and partially sighted people. Everyone from Guide Dogs to the Equality and Human Rights Commission notes that pedestrian crossings are lifesavers due to being able to hear when it’s safe to cross – but TfL are scrapping them.
Play: Why have we seen such a decline in children playing out? According to childhood experts, the increase of cars over the last generation is a significant factor: streets don’t feel safe anymore. Policies like this which reduce pedestrian time, priority and, basically, presence cause this.
Air quality: Road traffic is responsible for 80% of London’s particulate emissions, which a report commissioned by the Mayor estimates causes the premature death of over 4,000 people a year. The Mayor’s current strategy is to let the emissions into the air and then spend millions of pounds (literally) trying to suppress them. Guess what? Policies which encourage driving will just make this worse.
Cycling: None of these traffic light changes account for cyclists at all – technology could be used to encourage cycling, with all the according benefits. Like in The Netherlands, where traffic lights default to green for bikes.
Environment: Streets designed around cars are just not pleasant. Who wants to sit on a café on the pavement next to a motorway?
Boris Johnson’s justice
In a sense, of course, my friends are right. The changes I’ve mentioned in this post are basically quite small. Each individual change on its own is harmful, but maybe not disastrous for people in London.
But as the GLA study shows, this is not isolated. This is a pattern where people are simply not counted if they’re not in a car. Look at this quote from Boris Johnson about rephasing traffic signals:
There is surely not a single Londoner who has not waited at a red light at two in the morning on a deserted street and wondered why on earth they are being delayed.
To conflate Londoner with driver is an astonishing sleight-of-hand, and betrays Boris’s prejudices. In London, 43% of households do not have access to a car. And many of those of us who do, even if we find the odd 2am red light annoying, will actually still be adversely affected by policies which prioritise road traffic over pedestrians.
Enrique Peñalosa said about planning for cars,
Often, injustice is right before our noses but we are so used to seeing it we don’t even notice it.
Under Boris Johnson, TfL are incrementally and systemically driving people off London’s streets. Worryingly, for them, it looks like London might be beginning to notice.