Smoothing the flow: pushing more kids into cars

We know that Boris Johnson’s fantasy of “smoothing traffic flow” will act as an incentive for people to get into their cars and, even more so, for businesses to move more stuff around. In a city like London there is much more potential demand for road space than could ever be supplied, because individuals and businesses who see an empty bit of road will always conjure some reason to fill it. An equilibrium is maintained by the tolerance that individuals have for sitting in traffic and the tolerance that businesses have for spending money doing business on the roads.  Add or remove capacity to London’s road network and it will not make the slightest difference to congestion or journey times. It’s not like we haven’t tried it enough time to be sure of that.

What is not so obvious is that in addition to pulling people into motor vehicles, it will push them in too. There are several reasons why. One of them is that the mayor is ripping out traffic lights and pedestrian crossings, making walking more difficult, dangerous, and time consuming.  There are a number of reasons why this will push people into cars, but I stumbled upon a nice one while skimming through Hume et al, Walking and cycling to school: predictors of increases among children and adolescents.

Hume et al looked at the variables that affected the success of a programme to encourage walking and cycling to school. They surveyed the opinions of the children and their parents on all sorts of aspects of their lifestyles and of their social and physical environments. Two variables were strongly associated with success: the perception that other children in the neighbourhood were walking to school*, and the provision of safe crossings.

Well, not exactly the provision of safe crossings, but the perceived provision of safe crossings. Specifically, the survey asked participants if they agree/disagree with the statements “there are no traffic lights / pedestrian crossings for my child to use” and “I am satisfied with the pedestrian crossings in my neighbourhood”. Parents, whose job it is to worry, are of course easily affected by perceptions of safety, and when they perceive safety to be compromised they do something about it — like put their child inside a big metal box.

Even if there is just about a sufficient provision of crossings to get their child to school, the provision of crossings in the wider neighbourhood will still affect whether a child is walked or driven to school for all sorts of reasons, including: the perception of how safe it is to walk to school is influenced by an environment wider than just the route to school; the number of other children in the neighbourhood walking to school will itself be influenced; and those living in less walkable neighbourhoods are more likely to own and frequently use cars, including over short distances, making driving to school seem like a less unusual thing to do.

Off course, none of this says anything certain about what the precise effects of the mayor’s removal of traffic lights and pedestrian crossings will be — quite the opposite. In the complex, chaotic, unstable and irrational world of travel choices, the mayor can’t hope to make isolated quick fix tweaks without sending unpredictable shocks through the system.

Further problems with the mayor’s traffic lights games are discussed by Cycle of Futility.

6 thoughts on “Smoothing the flow: pushing more kids into cars”

  1. Regarding the quest for segregated cycle paths (which I completely support), I’m just wondering what the authors’ positions on UK planning law are. I’m not sure how the Netherlands do it, but working in the planning system here it is obvious that there is so much red tape that merely acquiring land for fully segregated cycle paths is a nightmare, let alone the installation. I think this is a serious barrier to local councils getting in on the segregated cycle path system.

    In the ideal world we’d have enough space to simply install the paths, but nearly everywhere I look in my area, there is always one or many bottlenecks where private property directly abuts the carriageway and would inevitably need to be acquired. Putting myself in the shoes of a council cycling officer, I can just imagine things like this going in the too hard basket immediately. This is of course part of the root problem, but is it really any easier to install these things in the Netherlands? Or did they just have the foresight to reserve space in new developments from the start and therefore don’t have to deal with as much of this sort of thing?

  2. Jamie,

    I think your point about acquiring private land is moot. Most I believe that most campaigners for segregated facilities envision that it should be part of the road network infrastructure.

    To build a segregated cycle path you would have to convert a car lane into one. This side-steps your problem above, but also has the political problems with the “motorist vote”, and being seen as a “war on the motorist”.

    Many believe and have said that the main barrier to building segregated infrastructure is not money or red tape, it’s solely having the political will. Politicians don’t want to install it because it’s not seen as a vote-winner. Simple.

  3. Why do we need to acquire private land? There is plenty of space in most places, we just need to remove some of the on street parking and narrow the space for motor vehicles. The streets are public space which is often annexed for private use by people who think that by owning a car they have a greater right to road space then anyone else.

  4. I feel that traffic lights sometimes increases the myth that roads are for cars. Lights in certain places are only really there to stop people crossing, almost at the benefit of the motorist – I wish more people knew that you can cross on a red man and that a green man is not a requirement! Knowing this can actually help traffic too as often I can cross a road without needing the lights.

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