Environment

Scrapping traffic lights could make driving easier and help the environment

It's 150 years since the first traffic lights were trialled, and now dutiful road users are at the mercy of their technicolour tyranny. Is it time for a more egalitarian approach?

Traffic lights have always had an explosive impact on Britain’s roads – in fact, the first attempt did go boom, injuring a policeman.

Installed 150 years ago in Westminster at the junctions of Bridge Street, Abingdon Street and Parliament Street, the officer was tasked with controlling a red and green light and semaphore arms on a gas-powered, 22ft octagon pillar as part of a trial.

The incendiary incident overshadowed any efforts to clear up London’s streets and they would remain clogged up with horse-driven carriages, omnibuses and pedestrians for another five decades.

But it set the wheels in motion for a journey that has seen traffic lights become a familiar sight across the 8.3 billion passenger trips made every year in the UK – 80 per cent of which are by road.

It would take until 1914 across the Atlantic in Cleveland for the first electrical signal to be installed before the three-light system first pulled into view on Woodward and Michigan Avenues in Detroit six years later.

London saw the first fully automatic traffic lights at Piccadilly Circus in 1926 – more than half a century after the failures of that first experiment.

Traffilights_embed
Traffic chaos as Sweden switches to driving not he right in 1967. Image: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Since then, they have ruled the roads with barely a challenge – but for the first time in almost a century, all signs are pointing to an uncertain future. It’s not a moment too soon for broadcaster and Equality Streets campaigner Martin Cassini.

He has been on a head-on collision course with traffic lights for two decades, which even encompassed a heated discussion on the subject with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight 10 years ago.

As the name of his campaign implies, Cassini sees the signals as symbols of inequality in our transport system.

“Traffic lights are just the symbols of a dysfunctional system. It’s only a sign of a system where the rule of priority comes and the car comes above everything else,” he says. “Our interest in taking it in turns is clear in every other walk of life but on the roads we are a slave to this system. That is why the roads are a river of death.

“The disgusting rule of priority is why we have traffic lights, they don’t give us safety. It is absurd that we live with this system where the car comes before the pedestrian and other road users, and feels like they (car drivers) have a man-given right to do what they like.

“Whenever there is a child struck by a car while the light is green, we say ‘Oh well, that’s not the car driver’s fault.’ But the system is never questioned. We teach children to beware of cars but it should be the other way around. I don’t believe in priority, I believe in equality.”

His theories are not untested. A traffic lights failure at the Cabstand junction in Portishead in June 2009 provided the perfect example after Cassini convinced council bosses to leave the lights off.

The rush hour-busting results were clear for all to see – traffic flow was boosted from 1,700 to 2,000 vehicles per hour and queues were slashed by a half, while pedestrian crossing times and accident numbers remained unchanged. The lights remained out after the trial. 

But, for Cassini, it’s not just a numbers game. He also insists that the control system plays a big part in making drivers see red as well as promoting environmentally unfriendly dashes to beat the lights.

“Traffic lights cause us to speed up to beat the light when you would ordinarily carry on at the same speed or they may make us see red if we miss a green light,” says Cassini. “They contribute to creating a hostile environment on the roads when we should just be focusing on getting from A to B in one piece as quickly as possible.

“There is something about the system of control about them. I am not a politician or a conspiracy theorist, I’m just a normal guy who has seen the light about traffic lights and want to convince the powers-that-be that they are barking up the wrong tree. The priority rule puts us at war with each other when the roads should be an exchange, a place of give and take.”

Maybe Cassini’s utopian dream of seeing traffic lights consigned to the past might not be as far away as you may think.

waymo_steve_mahan_1
Google's Way autonomous car. Image: Waymo

Autonomous cars are slowly getting into gear, and although they are not ready to hit Britain’s roads just yet – an Arizona woman was killed testing one earlier this year – they have the power to change the shape of transport as we know it.

Global infrastructure innovators AECOM are just one of the tech firms trying to keep up, and they launched a project that tested technology to enable traffic signals to ‘talk’ to vehicles this year.

The project is up for a £50,000 National Infrastructure Commission and Highways England funding award and uses Green Light Optimised Speed Advisory (GLOSA) technology to tell autonomous vehicles to change speed to have a better chance of reaching the signal while it’s green.

AECOM built a micro-simulation of the A59 urban traffic corridor in York to test how the technology will work in theory. But director and head of technology Lee Street insists that Brits should expect technology to gradually move inside vehicles over the next few decades in practice.

“At the minute in cars and transportation there are two developments – delivering automated functions including self-driving vehicles and developing regulations and standards alongside them,” he says.

“Traffic lights are part of that infrastructure and in the future the way the car is going asks why would we need them, because vehicles will be talking to each other and they will have that sort of infrastructure without the need of a physical flashing light. But it will be a long time in the future and we could be anything from 20 to 40 years from getting to that point.

“But there are advantages to losing the physical light – it doesn’t have to be maintained and there are environmental savings too. I think that we will see more and more technology move inside vehicles. That’s where we are heading at the moment.

“I think the reality is that is going to be a very gradual change going forward. Traffic lights are certainly going to exist for a while yet because of the variety of vehicles in the road. What are people in classic cars or old bangers going to do if they don’t have the technology to be automated?”

@Lazergun_Nun

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Rewilding is bringing creatures great and small back to UK – but a lack of funds is holding it back
Rewilding

Rewilding is bringing creatures great and small back to UK – but a lack of funds is holding it back

Green transition: Help retrain gas workers or risk 'cliff edge' job losses, government warned
Green transition

Green transition: Help retrain gas workers or risk 'cliff edge' job losses, government warned

How London's history-making beavers are adapting to life in the capital: 'They have a right to exist'
beavers
Environment

How London's history-making beavers are adapting to life in the capital: 'They have a right to exist'

Shell just made £6.2bn in quarterly profit. Here's how that money could be better spent
Environment

Shell just made £6.2bn in quarterly profit. Here's how that money could be better spent

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know