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Velo-City: Perth » Seeing red at traffic lights

Seeing red at traffic lights

Wellington Street, Perth

by Debra Mayrhofer

Cyclists are notorious for running reds – a study from New York City last year found that nearly 60 per cent of cyclists observed failed to stop at red lights – and pedestrians are just as bad. Another study found that even those who do stop tend not to wait for the green signal, with almost half the cyclists starting shortly before the light changed, especially in heavy traffic.


As a result, cyclists have a reputation for being arrogant, too focused on their own deadlines and thinking themselves above the law. In some cases this is true; in many cases, it seems that cyclists are ignoring traffic lights as a safety measure, because they feel that it allows them to distance themselves from following traffic. While it does little for the motoring public’s perception of us, a recent study by Transport for London’s road safety unit suggests they may be on to something. It seems that women cyclists are far more likely to be killed by trucks because, unlike men, they tend to obey red lights and thus find themselves at intersections in the driver’s blind spot, just in front of the vehicle. In more than half the fatal crashes, the truck turned left, straight over the cyclist. Women also tended to hug the kerb and be less assertive about claiming their space on the road.
One solution might be to get rid of most of the traffic lights. They diminish road safety, increase congestion and add to environmental pollution.
Contrary to the trend of 20th century planning, which assumed that efficient traffic flows and road safety depended on separating vehicles from the civic spaces, progressive cities around the world are removing traffic lights and gratuitous road signage. Planners are finding that rather than resulting in chaos, “naked” streets create shared spaces which produce lower speeds for motor traffic; shorter trip times; fewer serious crashes; and an increase in the number of pedestrians and cyclists out and about.

The logic behind “shared space” theory is that traffic lights make road users bow mindlessly to technology and lull them into a false sense of security, meaning that they pay less attention to pedestrians, cyclists and other such “movable hazardous objects”, as traffic engineers like to call us. On the other hand, if you create uncertainty on the roads they actually become safer because road users compensate for the perceived risk by behaving more cautiously and being more alert. Moreover, when road users start to acknowledge each other’s existence and make eye contact; to see othrs a human beings, not just traffic obstacles.

No one is suggesting doing away with every set of traffic lights. The shared space philosophy distinguishes between the slow network hubs and the fast network which uses traditional traffic engineering to allow traffic to reach outlying destinations quickly. But in a lot of cases we would be better off with nothing, or with a roundabout.
As well as the safety and congestion issues, traffic lights are also environmentally unsound because they force vehicles to stop and idle. A 2008 study from Kansas State University found that intersections with roundabouts, rather than traffic lights or stop signs, generated between 55 per cent and 61 per cent less carbon dioxide, depending on the time of day. Emissions of hydrocarbons dropped by more than two-thirds.
Next time you are at lights, notice how much time is spent waiting while an empty stretch of road has priority; and how much traffic could have moved through if logic prevailed.
The shared space theory can be seen in action, whether the cyclist is enjoying the harmony and space sharing of Amsterdam, where the bicycle is king, or the apparent anarchy of Phnom Penh, where bikes, scooters, tuk-tuks, trucks, buses and the odd car manage to swirl together harmlessly without the control of a traffic robot.
If schools of fish and flocks of birds can be trusted to yield and merge cooperatively, surely we can, too?

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