Should we abolish our traffic lights to make the streets of Oxford safe?

Herald Series: Ben Hamilton-Baillie Ben Hamilton-Baillie

YES says Urban planner for Oxfordshire County Council Ben Hamilton-Baillie

IFyou need a real bodice-ripper, try Joe Moran’s Crossing the Road in Britain, 1931-1976. The paper illustrates how much of our attitude towards pedestrian and traffic controls, that zoological armoury of zebra, pelican, puffin and toucan crossings, are based on cultural values and untested assumptions. As someone fascinated by street design and traffic engineering, I can’t wait for the stage version.

The past 15 years have seen a dramatic shift in our understanding of traffic and safety.

For many years, transport officials assumed that streets would be more safe and efficient if the state could control our movement and decide for us where and when we could cross the road.

The traffic signal, first introduced into the UK in 1868, is the most familiar inheritance of this legacy.

It absolves the driver from having to think, to anticipate and to engage with his fellow citizens, and decides for him when to stop and go.

Despite the significant costs of installing, replacing, maintaining and powering traffic signals, there is a surprising lack of research to demonstrate that they do any good.

On the contrary, the only detailed studies by engineers in Canada and in Sweden suggest that traffic lights increase the risk of death or injury to pedestrians and to car occupants, and increase traffic congestion.

They also increase air pollution and noise. We assume they are necessary because, well, they must be.

There have been many examples in Britain where traffic signals have been removed without detriment to safety or traffic movement.

The Ashford Ring Road in Kent used to be a forest of traffic lights, until a scheme in 2007 removed six sets in a redesign to foster low-speed and continuous movement.

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Exhibition Road in West London followed, removing traffic lights, road markings and other features.

By far the most ambitious scheme has been the removal of traffic lights in Poynton, Cheshire on a town centre crossroads carrying over 26,000 vehicles per day.

This week it passes its second anniversary since completion, and congestion has been reduced, the junction has become safer and the town centre has sprung back to life.

Oxford could benefit from a similar cull. Frideswide Square would be a good starting point, together with Carfax and the lights at Worcester College and St Giles either end of Beaumont Street.

A city free of traffic lights would signal a change in emphasis away from control and vehicle dominance to a streetscape famous for natural movement patterns and civility. Get the angle grinders busy.

NO says Bob Price, Labour leader of Oxford City Council

Herald Series:

  • Bob Price

AS I cycle around the city, I see both the good and the bad things about traffic light regulated junctions. There are lots of junctions where you arrive and nothing is moving in any direction and it would be completely safe to ride on, but there is a red light, and as the leader of the council, I’m not keen on giving the Oxford Mail a cheap headline by riding through it.

Examples of places where traffic lights hinder the flow of traffic and should be replaced by mini-roundabouts are the Speedwell Street and Thames Street junctions with St Aldates and the Headley Way junction with London Road.

The plans for Frideswide Square which get rid of the complex traffic light system and create a series of roundabouts and shared surfaces are a big improvement over the current mess as was shown when the lights failed some months ago.

But it is too extreme a position to say that all traffic lights in a city should go.

At many junctions, the traffic lights allow for a ‘pedestrian phase’ – a short space of time which allows pedestrians to cross safely with full priority over vehicles. Without such a phase, pedestrians are at the mercy of the traffic.

For elderly and disabled people in particular, this is of critical importance.

There are, of course, lots of light controlled pedestrian crossings in Oxford – the ones at Carfax and the Brookes University London Road entrance are of particular significance because of the huge number of pedestrian movements that occur in these locations.

Without the lights, they would be much less safe.

The other important function of traffic lights is at the major road intersections such as the Green Road hamburger and the Kennington/Redbridge/ Heyford Hill section of the southern ring road.

The engineering success of those schemes in combining roads and light controlled flows is very clear and further improvements are underway currently.

So – my preference would be for there to be fewer lights, and to keep them where traffic flow and pedestrian safety are improved by having them rather than having a free for all.

Comments (5)

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5:52pm Wed 19 Feb 14

BigAlBiker says...

The only people who obey the traffic lights are people in cars and suchlike, seems to me that cycles ignore them anyways, and when the lights go out down by the Oxford railway station the traffic flows so much easier, bit of a no brainer for me, dump the lot.
The only people who obey the traffic lights are people in cars and suchlike, seems to me that cycles ignore them anyways, and when the lights go out down by the Oxford railway station the traffic flows so much easier, bit of a no brainer for me, dump the lot. BigAlBiker

6:52pm Wed 19 Feb 14

patjay says...

Within the bounds of safety, consideration for pedestrians, children, wheelchairs, prams, those with disabilities there are areas where traffic lights, the green man etc can be removed, modified or re-jigged.
I can never understand why in a traffic free road, like robots, the button is pressed for no reason at all, then wait to cross, in the meantime causing oncoming cars and buses to have to stop, halting the travel time, wasting energy and polluting the atmosphere.
With all the brilliant high-technology abounding, please invent and install a devise which indicates the road is clear to cross safely, keeping the traffic flow moving not stopping and starting.
Within the bounds of safety, consideration for pedestrians, children, wheelchairs, prams, those with disabilities there are areas where traffic lights, the green man etc can be removed, modified or re-jigged. I can never understand why in a traffic free road, like robots, the button is pressed for no reason at all, then wait to cross, in the meantime causing oncoming cars and buses to have to stop, halting the travel time, wasting energy and polluting the atmosphere. With all the brilliant high-technology abounding, please invent and install a devise which indicates the road is clear to cross safely, keeping the traffic flow moving not stopping and starting. patjay

8:34pm Wed 19 Feb 14

EMBOX2 says...

I've been saying we should ditch lights at certain places in Oxford for years. Ben is spot on. Get the angle grinders busy.

OCC have a habit of installing lights literally everywhere a new/revised junction is (e.g. Queen St - now removed, thankfully), so much so I always wonder if Siemens are paying backhanders to the council.

There are places where lights ARE useful, but all road users should be made to think for themselves. It will reduce accidents, as people will be more alert, and it will reduce pollution.
I've been saying we should ditch lights at certain places in Oxford for years. Ben is spot on. Get the angle grinders busy. OCC have a habit of installing lights literally everywhere a new/revised junction is (e.g. Queen St - now removed, thankfully), so much so I always wonder if Siemens are paying backhanders to the council. There are places where lights ARE useful, but all road users should be made to think for themselves. It will reduce accidents, as people will be more alert, and it will reduce pollution. EMBOX2

10:32pm Wed 19 Feb 14

Myron Blatz says...

Instead, why not save a massive £600,000 per annum by chopping the CEO and other four top-paid Oxfordshire County Council management? Instead, they could use a computer for 'executive decisions' and then pay the workers who actually do all the hard work, proper wages! Next, you chop all the allowances paid to County Councillors, and 'enable' them to do their voluntary stuff without the shackles of money - with some who are both City and County Councillors taking home £12,000 and other perks.
Instead, why not save a massive £600,000 per annum by chopping the CEO and other four top-paid Oxfordshire County Council management? Instead, they could use a computer for 'executive decisions' and then pay the workers who actually do all the hard work, proper wages! Next, you chop all the allowances paid to County Councillors, and 'enable' them to do their voluntary stuff without the shackles of money - with some who are both City and County Councillors taking home £12,000 and other perks. Myron Blatz

9:27am Thu 20 Feb 14

PCL says...

I'm sure many of the traffic lights could be removed. Look at the appalling traffic lights at the Cowley Retail Park near Tescos. To me they seem to cause more traffic congestion than they are supposed to solve! A few weeks ago they were out of action - and everything went really smoothly! Do people ever review these traffic lights at all?
I'm sure many of the traffic lights could be removed. Look at the appalling traffic lights at the Cowley Retail Park near Tescos. To me they seem to cause more traffic congestion than they are supposed to solve! A few weeks ago they were out of action - and everything went really smoothly! Do people ever review these traffic lights at all? PCL

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