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.

Shared space in Portishead

Every journalist and cycling campaign group can cite one great example of a town where the simple switching off of every set of traffic lights has transformed it overnight into a transport utopia: Drachten, half way between Amsterdam and Groningen in the Netherlands.

Here in the UK, Drachten’s experiment is being repeated with reportedly great success in the nearest equivalent town that we have — Portishead in Somerset:

Portishead is a little smaller than Drachten, with a fast growing population currently at around 25,000, compared to the Dutch town’s 45,000.  But like Drachten, Portishead has no passenger railway line, and is bypassed by a motorway.  In Dracten, Phillips R&D employs thousands; in Portishead, Argos and Homebase employ literally tens of people.  But both towns also serve as dormitories for centres of employment nearby.  Drachten is just down the bike path from Groningen, the largest city in the Dutch north-east, and Europe’s cycling city, where cycling has a modal share of 57%.  Portishead is just down the NCN bike track from Bristol, the largest city in England’s south-west, and the UK’s cycling city, where cycling has a modal share of 5%.

In short, with so many controlled variables — such striking similarities between the two towns — there can be no reason why simply switching off the traffic lights won’t achieve in Portishead the same clean, friendly, decongested transport utopia as Drachten.  The gentlemen of Bristol Traffic might like to take their white van on a trip to the seaside, and tremble at the power of a dozen orange bin bags, a roll of duct tape, and a yellow “Signals Not In Use” sign.  They might even find themselves spontaneously showing other road users respect.

Only one person on the video questions whether ripping out the traffic management will, alone, solve Britain’s transport problems: it will only work if we also have driver education, to teach empathy and equality.  Ah, that must be what the Dutch have that we’re missing.