Institute of Economic Affairs’ article proposes the abolition of traffic lights


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In an article published by the Institute of Economic Affairs*, Martin Cassini** argues that traffic lights are unnecessary and dangerous and increase road congestion.

Traffic lights were introduced because the common law principles that governed road use before government regulation were discarded and superior rights given to traffic on main roads, at the expense of minor road traffic and pedestrians. Main roads then became dangerous to cross thus “necessitating” lights.

Traffic lights, the author argues, are a retrospective cure for a government-made problem. They are inefficient at managing congestion and have no safety benefits. By taking our eyes off other road users and making drivers speed up, they make roads dangerous. They make traffic stop at red lights when no-one is using the green light, thus causing needless delay. They increase journey times and congestion. They minimise filtering opportunities and outlaw intelligent discretion.

Martin Cassini commented, “Removing lights removes barriers to traffic flow and improves behaviour. If you observe a junction where the lights are out of action there is rarely congestion. People approach slowly, wave each other on and filter in turn. In Dutch cities where lights have been scrapped, accidents and congestion have all but disappeared.”

The solution, the article argues, is a return to the common law principle of “first-in, first-out”. That way, we simply take our turn at junctions in the sequence in which we arrive. UK policymakers and engineers continue to inflict lights and other controls that hamper instead of harness human nature, causing untold delay and harm. In London, this is partly because of government incentives. The boroughs pay for roundabouts – which, though themselves inefficient, are much more efficient than traffic lights – whereas Transport for London pay for lights.

“Traffic is like liquid”, comments Cassini, “dam up a river and it floods. Block traffic flow with lights and traffic jams. It should not be for us to prove controls are unnecessary, but for the government bureaucracies to prove they are necessary. The government must demonstrate a need. But no government body has shown a need for detaining us at lights when there is no conflicting traffic.”

* ‘In your car no one can hear you scream! Are traffic controls in cities a necessary evil?’ by Martin Cassini, Economic Affairs, Vol. 26, No. 4, December 2006, p76-78.

** Martin Cassini is an independent producer and a member of the International Advisory Council of the Kyoto World Cities New Mobility Programme.