A cluster of traffic lights. © 123RF
A cluster of traffic lights. © 123RF

'Rip out 80% of traffic lights to generate £16bn'

28 January 2016

Around 80% of traffic lights in the UK should be removed to boost the economy and road safety, according to research.

A report by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has concluded that a proliferation of traffic regulations in the UK has imposed a heavy burden on the economy, had a detrimental effect on road safety and the environment and imposed huge costs on road users and taxpayers.

The study, Seeing Red: traffic controls and the economy, said that with 70% of freight traffic on roads and driving being the second largest area of consumer spending, as well as providing access to work, leisure facilities and shops, the economic importance of the road network should not be underestimated.

The IEA said that a two-minute delay to every car journey equates to a loss to the economy of around £16bn every year, and that faster journeys would lower the cost of trade, facilitate competition and enhance innovation and productivity.

According to the study, the number of traffic lights in England has increased by 25% since 2000, while vehicle traffic rose by 5%, and the road network grew by 1.3% in the same period.

The first speed camera started operating in 1992 but by 2012 their number had grown to around 2,300. There are now 60,000 speed humps while bus lanes trebled in distance to 172 miles in the 10 years between 1997 and 2007. More than 300,000 new road signs denoting parking restrictions were put up between 1993 and 2013, an increase of over 840%, the report said.

In the same period, signs indicating cycle routes grew by 1,175%, while the number of speed limit road signs in England increased to more than 440,000, a rise of nearly 100%.

The report, written by Martin Cassini and Richard Wellings, concluded that longer journey times reduce job opportunities. The IEA also argued that the growth of traffic management has had serious environmental costs, with traffic lights adding to fuel consumption as drivers brake and accelerate, increasing emissions and noise pollution. It also questioned the benefits of shifting to public transport, due to the noise and pollution of diesel buses.

Examining a number of case studies from the UK along with schemes in Holland and Germany, the IEA suggested approaches such as “shared space”, which remove conventional traffic infrastructure such as traffic lights, road markings and bollards, encourage drivers to behave with more consideration to other road users.

Case studies referred to the failure of traffic lights in Portishead in June 2009 which resulted in the disappearance of traffic jams.

The report said that schemes in Drachten in the Netherlands in 2002 and Bohmte in Germany in 2007, in which more than 80 per cent of traffic lights were scrapped, had been successful.

“Together with the Portishead experiment, this suggests a broadly similar proportion of signals could be removed in the UK,” the report said.

It concluded that a high proportion of traffic lights should be replaced by filter-in-turn or all-way give-way schemes. Many bus lanes, cycle lanes, speed cameras and parking restrictions should also be removed, it said.

Richard Wellings, head of transport at the IEA, said that policymakers had failed to make a cost-benefit analysis of a range of regulations.

“It’s quite clear that traffic management has spread far beyond the locations where it might be justified, to the detriment of the economy, environment and road safety,” he said.

“The evidence of shared space schemes shows the transformational benefits of a less regulated approach, while the removal of a high proportion of traffic lights would deliver substantial economic and social benefits”.

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