05 October 2017

What If They Took Out The Traffic Lights?

Here's an experience that's in the "Don't Try This At Home" category:

Once, years ago, a NYPD officer pulled me over for riding through a red light on Broadway, just north of 23rd Street, in Manhattan.  He lectured me about how traffic lights are for everyone, and that I could endanger myself or others by not heeding them.  

At that time, I, as a cyclist, was even more of a minority than I am now.  Moreover, I was a messenger on duty that day, which made me even more of an outcast.  So I was not expecting that officer to understand what it was like to ride on city streets, let alone have any sympathy for me.

But I pointed out that I went through the red light ahead of two trucks that turned right when the light turned green.  Had I waited for the light, I could very well have ended up underneath one of those vehicles.

He put his pen down and looked at me.  I had the feeling he didn't trust me; after all, he'd probably heard all sorts of things from people who were trying to talk their way out of traffic summonses.  After what seemed like an endless silence, he said, "OK.  Just be careful."

"Good day, officer."

Now urban planners are starting, however slowly, something that cyclists have long known:  Following traffic signals doesn't always ensure a cyclist's, or a pedestrian's safety. If anything, at times--such as the situation I described--it can actually endanger us.  

Part of the reason for that is that, according to at least one study, signals can actually make drivers less attentive to their surroundings.  According to proponents of this idea, having fewer demarcations such as traffic lights, kerbs/curbs, traffic signs, road surface markings and regulations actually encourages cyclists, pedestrians and motorists to negotiate their movements with each other, usually through eye contact or hand signals.

The late Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman was one of the chief proponents of this urban planning concept, commonly known as "shared space".  His studies found that traffic safety and efficiency increased for all when public spaces were redesigned so that cyclists, motorists and pedestrians had to negotiate their movements with each other.  He went so far to say that the safest roads are those with the fewest marking, signs and traffic lights.

Meredith Glaser probably had his work in mind.  She's a researcher at the University of Amsterdam's Urban Cycling Institute (Can you imagine such a thing in the US?), which did a study of cycling in Alexanderplein, a busy intersection near the center of Amsterdam.  According to the study, about 40,000 cyclists ride through it every day--6000 an hour during peak times.  In addition, many pedestrians, automobiles and streetcars tranverse the crossroads every day.  

Institute researchers then asked 200 cyclists what they thought of the intersection.  "Chaotic" and "messy" were the most common responses.  Most said more traffic lights were necessary.

However, the researchers knew the city had a different plan:  The lights were shut off in May of last year.

While the lights were off,the researchers returned and asked another 150 cyclists for their thoughts.  About 60 percent said the intersection worked better without the signals.    The city's technical study found similar positive results, and no increase in the number of accidents.  In September, the city decided to remove the lights altogether, citing the fact that trams were not delayed and motor delays were cut in half.  In addition, bicycle traffic jams, usually caused by signals, were all but eliminated.

In the intervening year, the city has done similar things in other spots, with success.  Glaser thinks this could be a model for other cities in the world.  So does Dongho Chang, the Chief Traffic Engineer for the City of Seattle. "In an urban environment, you don't want a driver to be zoning out," he explains.  "You need them paying attention and looking for the unexpected."  He points out that only 8 percent of his city's intersections have traffic lights, but they account for 51 percent of accidents over the past 13 years.

Now, one obvious explanation is that the signalled intersections are the most heavily-trafficked and tend to have the most complex or complicated configurations.   Chang concedes as much, but also says that in such intersections, signals lead to dangerous behaviors such as speeding through a yellow light or accelerating quickly from a green.

Chang's, Glaser's and Monderman's points are well-taken.  However, they (perhaps surprisingly, in the case of Chang) fail to take into consideration something I, and other cyclists, know from experience:  Few American drivers have the level of awareness of cyclists most Dutch--or, for that matter, European--drivers have.  Seattle's drivers might be among the exceptions (I don't know:  I've never cycled there) but it's hard to imagine that even they have that level of awareness I found even in Montreal, less than an hour from the US, let alone cities in France, Belgium or the Netherlands.

Still, the work of the researchers and planners I've mentioned helps to indicate a greater truth:  Most cycling infrastructure, as it's currently planned, constructed and maintain doesn't make cycling--or walking or driving--safer.


  1. I have just returned from a trip which included a drive over the pyrenees from France into Spain. Crossing the border there was an almost complete absence of traffic lights and the town, Solsona, where we stayed was much like my local town in Scotland was 40 years ago with almost no lights. Here we now have random sets of lights every 100m or less which cause chaos and impatience!

  2. Coline--Your town is evidence of what Chang, Glaser and Monderman say. From what you've told me, drivers there aren't as conscious of cyclists as they were years ago.

    France into Spain, over the Pyrenees: I took such a tour, by bike, in the year 2000. It's one of my best experiences!