An article by Charles Clover in the Sunday Times on 1 August was headed Putting hazards back on the road improves traffic. Its theme was the encouraging trend, at least by some highways authorities, towards removing the traffic lights, railings and other obstructions with which highways officers purport to minimise risk in urban streets. Recent developments include returning streets to two-way traffic and removing unnecessary obstructions.
Clover says this:
Motorists caught at traffic lights itch to floor their right foot. If you take away the channelling and, where possible, traffic lights, and introduce risk by making it clear that pedestrians and cyclists share space, motorists instantly behave better. Risk is good. And the paradox is that when you lower speeds, journey times improve because there are fewer stop-starts.
I have written before about the chances of this catching on in Oxford (see Traffic lights dawn on Keith Mitchell amongst other articles). It seems unlikely, somehow. There is more to it than the fact that these tiresome little people are risk-averse and see the lights and barriers as essential for protecting us from ourselves, with its paradoxical outcome that your thinking about road safety is being done for you by people whose judgement you would not trust about anything else.
It is also a matter of control, of very small people needing to feel important. Try and imagine what it must be like to be a county highways officer. There – you would want someone to take notice of you if you were like that, wouldn’t you? Insignificant, despised even by other council officers, you would take every opportunity to assert yourself. I’ll teach them to sneer at me, you would say. I’ll screw up their journeys to work, and force them to sit in queues. These streets which they think are beautiful – well, I don’t see it myself, but let’s stick up a few more sign-posts and railings and watch them moan. Those capitalist pigs who run shops – we’ll see how long they last when we stop people parking near them.
Another element is job-creationism – the more works the highways people can persuade gullible councillors to order, the bigger their budgets, the grander their teams and the longer they will all have jobs. That may, in fact, become a motive for moves towards the more open streets advocated by Charles Clover. Oxfordshire County Council has major schemes running in the city at the moment, none of them necessary by any standard, and a criminal waste of money when recession, and the need to pay for Gordon Brown’s expensive follies, means that there is no money anyway. But what about when those are finished? They will need more schemes to make sure they have jobs, and one possibility would be to start undoing all the work of past schemes – taking down lights, removing railings and signs, painting out existing white and yellow lines and replacing them with new ones.
We have had previews of this – speed bumps put in down Longwall and then taken up; expensively cobbled cycle lanes removed; lights put in, taken out and put back at the end of Cornmarket; lights replaced with a roundabout near the castle and then restored. There could be years of work for them in this. These people may be thick, but they are not stupid.