Lights out: more ways people are being designed out of London’s streets

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.

Palace Road/Norwood Road in Lambeth – One junction examined in the study

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.)

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. “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.

Lights out

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.

Poland Street/Oxford Street - One junction set for signals removal

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.

*Some of the logical fallacies behind these ridiculous hourly figures are exposed here.
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5 Responses to “Lights out: more ways people are being designed out of London’s streets”

  1. southlondoncyclist Says:

    Maybe TFL should spend some time getting the existing lights working properly before they start messing around with timings again.

    3 times in the last week I’ve had to make a diversion to join the A24 as the lights at the junction with Bedford Hill didn’t appear to give us a green and just kept letting traffic through on the main stretch – this is easily done on a bicycle as I can turn around and use one of the side roads but cars I assume jumped the “red” and I’ve seen a few motorcyclists do through. I had a similar experience on Wyvil Road this morning where I’m sure it missed our phase. Not a massive holdup but still shows the current system needs some work….

  2. PaulM Says:

    Referring to one specific borough, the City of London, when we put to them that pedestrians* outnumber motorists by an order of magnitude, and that those pedestrians* are the lifeblood of the City and are frequently senior bankers, lawyers etc, they agreed, quite vehemently, and said that their priority is definitely with pedestrians*.

    I am not convinced that I can (yet) see that in their roads policies, and to some extent they are constrained by national rules because traffic passes through the city as well as entering or leaving, but we got the sense that what they really need to see is some encouragement in the form of more vocal grassroots support. They see that as something which is in the wind, so we just need to prove them right.

    * focussing on pedestrians makes sense for us because they outnumber cyclists as well, and our interests largely co-incide in terms of taming motor traffic. We just have to overcome the prejudice, unfortunately re-inforced by the way some people behave, that cyclists are all red light runners, or pavement cyclists, or otherwise “dangerous”. Cerrtainly that is a widely held sentiment among City councillors.

    • southlondoncyclist Says:

      It’s the whole a few rotten apples bit with cyclists that really gets me. I’m tired of hearing the usual RLJing/pavement riding/lycra lout arguments whenever I mention I’m a cyclists. I don’t automatically accuse everyone who tells me they drive of speeding or using their phone.
      As a fairly confident rider who rides within the law I can’t help but feel that those who do chose to ride through RL or ride on pavements do so not to make their journey quicker but because they “feel” it’s the safer option given the lack of any proper cycling infrastructure and the preference given to motorised traffic on our streets.

      At the end of the day it’s not cyclists who kill or maim a few thousand people a year. Maybe these city councillors should look at the statistics to see where the true danger lies.

  3. Luke M Says:

    From reading this and other blogs, I understand that in its decision making, Tfl values taxi users’ time higher than drivers’ time, and puts no value on cyclists’ or pedestrians’ time. That seems wrong as it ignores the value individuals place on their own time.

    Those who drive or take taxis (in central London at least) are, through their own free choice, using what is generally the slowest means of transport after buses. This applies particularly in rush hour. They could afford to use the tube or buy a bike, but they choose not to. However highly paid they may be, they clearly place a low value on their own time. Should transport planners not respect the judgment of such drivers/taxi takers? In other words, if such people (for what are presumably good reasons) do not care that it takes them ages to get to work, why should anyone else?

    Those on bikes choose the fastest method, at the cost of some physical risk and discomfort; they presumably value their time highly. Commuting by bike does not really save much money, so it is unlikely that is the reason they use bikes. (This leaves out the fact that, in central London, cyclists are probably disproportionately professional middle class and high earning – I am just looking at how people value their own time.)

    Pedestrians (again in central London) are generally also tube/train users. They are therefore prepared to put up with the unpleasantness of public transport to get around quickly, so their time should be valued highly. So cyclists’ and pedestrians’ time should be more highly valued than motorists’/taxi-users’ time.

    Bus passengers do not come out too well on my analysis. However, one bus, with lots of people who put a low value on their time, probably rates as more important than a car driver/taxi user who only puts a slightly higher value on their own time.

    Can anyone tell me why I’m wrong?

  4. London’s next big blackspot | At War With The Motorist Says:

    […] take an only slightly shorter detour to use the remaining marked crossings at this junction. Who could possibly have guessed that removing a pedestrian crossing would not stop the large number of […]

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