New Clause 5 — Traffic Lights

Traffic Management Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:00 pm on 16th March 2004.

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'In exercising their network management duty, a local traffic authority (or, in London, Transport for London) shall be required to monitor all traffic lights in operation in their area and shall—

(a) ensure that all traffic lights operate on a traffic sensitive basis during non-rush hour periods;

(b) require that traffic lights are set to achieve the most expeditious flow of traffic and pedestrians at all times they are operational;

(c) require that unless there are good reasons for not so doing that traffic lights at junctions with low traffic volumes operate in amber warning mode in all directions during non-rush hour periods.'.—[Mr. Greg Knight.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 8—Network management duty—

'In exercising their network management duty, the local traffic authority shall be required to ensure:

(a) that all traffic lights operate on a traffic sensitive basis during non rush hour periods,

(b) traffic lights are set to achieve the most expeditious flow of traffic and pedestrians at all times they are operational,

(c) that traffic lights give longer green phases to main roads than to side roads and give continuous green phases to main roads during quiet times of the day and night, save where the traffic sensors recognise traffic on approaching side roads.'.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I cannot think of a single factor that induces road hypertension more than having to stop at a set of traffic lights at a junction on a main road only for no traffic to emerge from a minor road and no pedestrians to seek to cross. Yet that happens in every city in the United Kingdom every day during non-rush hour periods—it certainly happens on the streets around this building. Traffic lights should be responsive to the flow of vehicles on our roads. If they are not, we end up with unnecessary tailbacks, which are far too common in our urban areas. Indeed, on most occasions when I leave this place at an early hour, I find that I am, along with other motorists, obliged to stop and wait at traffic lights that are showing red, only for no vehicles to cross the junction. There must be a better way of operating traffic lights. Unnecessary red lights add to pollution, add extra time to people's journeys and add to congestion.

Does the Minister know what percentage of traffic lights are capable of operating in traffic-sensitive mode? Wherever new traffic lights are installed or old ones refurbished, there should be some requirement on those responsible to install traffic lights that can operate on a traffic-sensitive basis.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I hope that my right hon. Friend would not limit traffic sensors to new traffic lights, but would want retrospective fitting to take place as soon possible, because many would benefit from it.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I agree with my right hon. Friend. I was trying, in the first instance, to find out from the Minister whether, as a matter of good practice, it is a requirement that all new traffic lights are capable of operating on a traffic-sensitive basis. I hope that he will confirm that that is the case.

I hope that the Minister agrees that traffic lights should never be operated in a fashion other than to ensure the most efficient movement of traffic and pedestrians at a road junction. A report that appeared in the Evening Standard on 2 February this year refers to a particular set of lights in London and challenges its readers:

"Have you found a worse set of lights? . . . Situated at the junction where The Mall meets Trafalgar Square, they are responsible for some of the most notorious tailbacks in town. The reason is obvious to anyone who has sat in the ever-lengthening queue of cars trying to get to Trafalgar Square: they simply do not stay green for long enough."

The report continues:

"We studied the lights on different working days, at different times, and found: the lights changed from red to green every one minute and eight seconds; the lights stayed on green for only eight seconds each time."

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I know that my right hon. Friend has driven quite a lot in the United States, as have I. He will know that in many states a driver is allowed to turn right at a red traffic light, provided that he is satisfied that the road is clear. Does my right hon. Friend think that we should carefully consider the idea of allowing people to turn left at red traffic lights in this country, to help partially to solve the problem that he describes?

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I agree. We floated that idea in Committee, and if my right hon. Friend examines new clause 5(c), he will see that it seeks to introduce another innovative measure from the United States: setting traffic lights that control low-density traffic flows to flash amber in all directions at non-rush hour periods, in effect signalling to motorists from all directions to cross the junction with care.

The report in the Evening Standard points out that those particular lights have caused such anger and frustration in the film director Michael Winner that he

"has pledged to stand for Mayor of London on the single issue of getting them changed."

The RAC Foundation, when asked to comment, said of the lights:

"Having just eight seconds for motorists to squeeze through means that they are so frustrated they end up jumping red lights."

I presume that that refers to other red lights.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

On that crucial point, would my right hon. Friend use his considerable powers of persuasion to suggest to the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London that if he took up that popular policy—both on the specific lights at the approach to Trafalgar square and on the more general problem—he would win many votes?

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I think that if I strayed too far into my conversations with the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London, you would call me to order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, may I just say that in all my conversations with Steven Norris on this matter, I have found him helpful and willing to listen? I think that he will take note of the points made in this debate.

A report in The Daily Telegraph on 10 February last year said:

"Traffic congestion in London is costing business about £3.4 million a day, according to calculations by the London Chamber of Commerce, and conditions are getting worse. But business analysts point out that the jams are not being caused by more vehicles coming into London. Indeed, the AA's figures suggest there are actually fewer cars in central London now than there were 20 years ago . . . There has, however, been a sharp increase in the number of traffic lights, and in some parts of central London they are now on average only 80 yards apart. In addition, the timing of 170 of the 562 traffic lights in the central ring has been altered to slow the traffic even further."

That is the main complaint that new clause 5 seeks to address.

I do not know whether the Minister has made any studies of the situation in America to which I have referred, but we should be prepared to look at schemes that are in place in other countries, and embrace those that work. I have seen no evidence that the amber flashing system, which the Americans use regularly in non-rush hours, has led to an increase in the number of accidents. I hope that the Minister will be prepared to reflect on that, and perhaps give the go-ahead to a pilot scheme somewhere in the United Kingdom if he does not feel able to accept new clause 5.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively to the new clause, whose sole aim is to reduce congestion. It does not seek to put pedestrians at risk, but has one aim only: congestion busting. I therefore hope that he will welcome it.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I rise to support new clause 5, tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends, and to speak to my parallel new clause 8. I shall highlight the differences between them, but there are also many similarities. Both are designed to get traffic flowing more freely again.

As my right hon. Friend Mr. Knight has ably pointed out, the position in London is particularly chronic. There has been a deliberate attempt by the highways authorities to block and slow the traffic. We have seen reduced green phases and increased red phases at many sets of traffic lights, and the introduction of a large number of additional traffic lights, some of which are unnecessary or undesirable. In the centre of London, we now also have traffic lights with the new feature of an all-red phase, which means that traffic coming to the junction from each direction has to sit there looking at all the other stationary traffic. Let us imagine the cost of that in terms of fumes, frustration, pollution and inconvenience. There are often no pedestrians wishing to cross those roads at the time of the all-red phase.

I am mainly a pedestrian in central London. I bring my car in on a Monday morning, and I leave it here until my duties are finished. I do not try to drive round the centre of London in my car. I normally walk, because I find that that is the quickest mode of travel, now that the traffic system has been wrecked and the underground functions so badly. So I look at this situation from a pedestrian's point of view, but I cannot say, as a pedestrian, that I want all-red phases. I often do not want to wait for the red phase at all, and I would not do so if it were safe for me to cross. It is perfectly reasonable for pedestrians at busy junctions to have to row in with the traffic light system, just as vehicles do, so that the pedestrians cross the road during the red phase. If they wished to cross again in a further direction, which is unusual, they would also have to wait for a red phase there, so that it would be safe to cross.

The new clauses are designed to deal with the inconvenience created by the prevalence of red phases over green phases, and particularly to tackle the new injustice of the all-red phase, which does not help or amuse me as a pedestrian and which is extremely frustrating to all those who need or have to drive around London. It is particularly frustrating to all those carrying out their trade, using a van, milk float or other commercial vehicle. They have to use their vehicles because the tools and stock of their trade are inside them. Those people now have to sit at traffic lights for a great deal of the day, which increases prices, reduces efficiency, annoys people who live near the road blocks, and increases the amount of pollution.

New clause 5 proposes that

"all traffic lights operate on a traffic sensitive basis during non-rush hour periods".

If properly implemented, that measure would make an immediate improvement. We all have experience of travelling round busy towns and cities in the evening or the early morning, and of having to sit at red traffic lights when there is nothing moving in the other direction. Proper traffic sensors on the lights would remove the inconvenience, the congestion, the pollution, the delays, and the extra noise and fumes for people living nearby.

The second part of the new clause proposes that

"traffic lights are set to achieve the most expeditious flow of traffic and pedestrians at all times they are operational".

That addresses directly the question of whether there should be all-red phases. The answer is that there should not, and that there should be a sensible balance between the needs of the different road users and roads coming into the junction. We need to balance the needs of pedestrians and vehicles, and to make a decision as to which is the major road and which is the minor, giving sensible priority in most cases to the major road.

The third part of new clause 5—which differs markedly from my proposal in new clause 8—proposes that, unless there are good reasons for not doing so,

"traffic lights at junctions with low traffic volumes operate in amber warning mode in all directions during non-rush hour periods."

I could live with that proposal. Traffic sensors changing the lights from red to green or green to red, as appropriate, in response to traffic demand would be even safer and easier, so I would favour that option. However, if my right hon. and hon. Friends want to press new clause 5 to a vote, I should be happy to support it, because the intention is good. People would, however, have to be a bit more careful, because there could be traffic approaching a junction on amber from both directions. We would also need a sensible definition of low volume, so that the opportunities for conflict were reduced. 5.15 pm

That brings me to my new clause 8, which contains the provisions

"that all traffic lights should operate on a traffic sensitive basis" and that all traffic lights should be

"set to achieve the most expeditious flow of traffic and pedestrians".

The other feature of my new clause, instead of the amber flashing mode, is that

"traffic lights give longer green phases to main roads than to side roads and give continuous green phases to main roads during quiet times of the day and night, save where the traffic sensors recognise traffic on approaching side roads."

I submit that that is a safer variant than the amber flashing lights.

In most cities and towns, there is a clear main road—the A-road, the trunk road or the main route that goes through the principal settlement or links the connected settlements that form a great city—and a series of side roads intersect with the main route. Where that is clear, surely the highways authority should programme the traffic lights to give priority off-peak, all the time, to the busier main road, with the proviso that there should be a traffic sensor so that people are not stranded on the intersecting side roads for ever. In many cases, they would get early change to green if the traffic flows permitted that on the main route. That would be much fairer: it would reduce frustration as well as the need to burn so much petrol, change down and come to a halt, often with the engine running, while people wait for what seems like a long time late at night for the lights to change.

There we have it. There are two parallel proposals on the table. One, influenced more by the United States, involves the amber flashing light; the other is influenced more by the British tradition of using the technology of traffic sensors. The Minister may argue that there would be a cost involved in installing traffic sensors in traffic lights. I quite agree, but it would be modest compared to the huge sums spent on obstacles and blocks to traffic in recent years. Most road users would think it was money well spent.

I recommend that it be assumed that, over a reasonable period, that cost would get us up to modern traffic management standards. The savings in terms of less congestion, less fuel burned, less frustration, less delay and less cost to business would be considerable.

The Minister may also say that he favours local autonomy in that respect as in others. I would find that easier to believe if we did not have before us this Bill in this shape. The Bill is about establishing national standards of traffic management and investigating how well local authorities do. It is about, in extreme cases, moving in and taking over traffic management duties if the local authority has failed.

I am offering the Minister a way to ensure that local authorities, in more cases than not, succeed in improving traffic flows and busting congestion so that he does not have to make a heavy-handed intervention, which he will be entitled to do if the Bill is passed. So, far from my proposals being an additional blow to local autonomy, they could be a buttress to sensible local autonomy, which would mean that fewer local authorities got into the danger zone on their traffic management practices and had to face the extreme intervention of the whole system being taken out of their hands to be run by somebody else.

The Government and local authorities seem to be interested in the use of technology to advise, warn, marshal and control traffic. I am recommending an old and well-established technology that would do the job at a relatively modest price and relatively simply. I have been trying to persuade my local authority, which is keen to get traffic moving and bust congestion, to change the phasing of lights. It has been obliging in many cases and is conducting an exercise at the moment, junction by junction.

The authority is discovering that it can improve the capacity of leading congested junctions in the district quite substantially, simply by changing the phasing and timing of lights. If traffic sensors are added, the effect is even better—particularly off-peak when there is no need to hold up the traffic on principal routes. I recommend that the Government adopt a scheme along the lines of new clause 8 and have pleasure in supporting my right hon. and hon. Friends in new clause 5.

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I cannot recall whether I raised the Mall-Whitehall issue in Committee but a greater propensity for green lights at that particular junction would only move the delay elsewhere. It is part of a network rather than an individual set of lights. In a network, one cannot look at each traffic light junction in isolation. That would be simplistic and unworkable. TFL informs me that pedestrian flows after the pedestrianisation of the northern part of Trafalgar square are rooted in road safety.

All the points made on both new clauses were germane and fair. I may agree with some but not with others. Mr. Redwood was ahead of me when he said that such matters are for local determination, not for the Bill in the first instance. New clause 5 seeks to extend the network management duties of local traffic authorities to the monitoring of all traffic lights in their areas—but ensuring that traffic light sets are working correctly to achieve the expeditious movement of all traffic would be one strand of a local traffic authority's management traffic duties, as set out in clause 16.

The term "traffic" explicitly includes pedestrian. We had that debate at length in Committee. Considering expeditious traffic flows in the context of traffic lights purely in isolation is not sufficient; that is a fundamental flaw in both new clauses. Traffic flows must be viewed in the wider context of the network management duties that permeate the entire Bill

At first, I inadvertently misled the Committee. I was still in pre-Greater London Authority mode when I stated that the transport operational command unit managed traffic lights in London—which it did before the GLA. Subsequently, that duty fell to TFL. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Christchurch for allowing me to correct that error.

New clause 5 would place a requirement on traffic authorities to ensure that all traffic lights be at optimum settings at all times during which they are operational. No one would disagree with that general objective, but we dispute the means. The majority of traffic lights in the UK are responsive to traffic flow changes and allocate green times proportionately to vehicle flow and the needs of pedestrians. Lights can also have different settings to cater for rush hour and non-rush hour periods, to achieve the expeditious and safe passage of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. We will include advice in the guidance on network management techniques that will be issued under clause 18, so there is no need to incorporate that requirement in the Bill.

There is mixed experience from America. I can say from my 18 months in America, principally as a student, that for every four-way flashing amber junction there are about 10 four-way stop junctions with no lights. That practice is rooted in America's highway culture, especially in urban areas. They eschew the need for roundabouts, and although there are examples of four-way-flashing amber junctions—to which I will return in moment—it must be pointed out that that is not the only model used, as four-way stops are a far more regular occurrence in those areas.

Furthermore, the new clause would make it a requirement that during non-rush-hour times traffic lights should operate on flashing amber warning mode at traffic junctions with low traffic volumes. As I think we said in relation to the wider context of traffic lights—not specifically on flashing amber warning mode—that proposal would seriously compromise vehicular and pedestrian safety, and it must be discussed in the context of pedestrians and their safety as well as that of vehicular flow. Flashing amber already has a specific meaning at pelican crossings—that a driver may proceed if no pedestrians are crossing—and such an amendment would cause danger and confusion if it had another meaning at a junction. Flashing amber would not in any case be suitable at many junctions where buildings or road layout prevent drivers from seeing whether other vehicles are approaching the junction.

As for pedestrians, although I cheerfully admit that the right hon. Member for Wokingham is fit, active and sprightly, not every pedestrian in a London context, or any other context, is, and we must legislate for safety for all, from the fittest to the most vulnerable, in terms of road safety. Pedestrians, especially the most vulnerable, will have no crossing facilities and will find crossing the road neither convenient nor safe at non-rush-hour times. As I am sure I said in Committee, blind and partially sighted pedestrians would no longer be able to rely on audible and tactile signals to cross safely, as flashing amber would necessitate removal of those facilities. It would be contrary to long-established UK practice, and unsafe, to signal pedestrians to cross when there are conflicting traffic movements. A better solution is to ensure that signals operate, wherever possible, in a responsive way so that drivers are only stopped when there is a conflict with other vehicle or pedestrian movements. At quiet times, signals need only operate to stop traffic if a pedestrian has operated the push button. I repeat, however, that all this needs to be seen—as we said constantly in Committee—in the wider context of the balance between pedestrians, safety considerations, vehicular flows and road traffic. Isolating this aspect will ultimately undermine the essence of the network management duty.

New clause 8 has been described as similar to new clause 5, but it omits—to be fair to it—the dangerous proposal that traffic lights should operate in flashing amber mode in all directions at traffic lights with low volumes of traffic during non-rush hour periods. The new clause proposes that traffic lights give longer green phases to main roads than to side roads and continuous green phases to main roads during quiet times of day and night, except where the traffic sensors recognise traffic on approaching side roads. That is essentially a description of how responsive traffic lights should operate in most situations, and it is generally what we want to happen in practice.

I repeat that I am not condemning right hon. and hon. Members on the Conservative Benches for the substance of what they suggest. Many of these things should be a matter of course in terms of achieving the network management duty, and should be reflected in the guidance indicated in the relevant clause—18, I think. As I said, however, it is an area best suited to guidance, not legislation, as local authorities are best placed to determine the operation of traffic lights in the light of local conditions, as I believe the right hon. Member for Wokingham was suggesting that his authority is now doing.

The proposal would, for example, prevent authorities from installing traffic light systems that revert to all-red in the absence of any demands, for example, late at night. In many instances, despite the complete aversion to all-red phases of the right hon. Member for Wokingham, they assist traffic flow—when they are traffic sensitive, they change as soon as a vehicle approaches, and they can do so within seconds. The balance must be struck in relation to starting at an all-red phase. In the context of road safety, therefore, if a pedestrian comes along, they can cross safety and take preference. It is therefore not always the case that all-red phases are counter to the needs, desires, freedoms—or whatever else one wants to suggest—of the motorist.

This type of system has been successful in reducing the incidence of certain kinds of accident, and is also very responsive when the first demand is received, whether from a vehicle or from a pedestrian. Where suitable, it enables whoever arrives at the lights first—motorist or pedestrian—to receive the fastest possible response.

The new clause would also have the immediate effect of making fixed-time systems unlawful during non-rush hour periods, including systems with varying times depending on the time of day. Local authorities with vehicle-activated traffic light systems could also be in breach of the provision if the vehicle detectors failed during non-rush hour periods, because such systems are designed to revert to fixed-time operation.

I am happy for the substance of the new clause to be discussed in more detail when we consider techniques relating to network management. As for a point that is not part of the substance but was raised in Committee, the ability to turn left at red lights—I see that being done successfully all the time when I am in France during the summer, and also in America, although of course those are right-hand turns—may have some merit at some junctions. Giving carte blanche at all junctions, however, could conflict with prevailing road safety systems.

Given the assurance that the substance of the new clauses—but not the four-way flashing amber phase—may be worthy of consideration, and the assurance that the network management duty and associated guidance will cover traffic light operation, I hope that, in the spirit of what has been a wonderful debate so far, Members will not press them to the vote following an extremely generous and forbearing double act on the Government Front Bench.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:30 pm, 16th March 2004

What a contrast between the two Ministers! Mr. Jamieson listened to, and accepted, most of our arguments. Mr. McNulty tried to get in on his hon. Friend's coat tails by pretending that he was Mr. Reasonable as well. He is not. He appeared still wearing his Government Whip's uniform, and I am afraid that merely saying that some of our points may be worthy of consideration is not good enough. We wanted him to give a commitment that he would look at our proposals as a matter of urgency. Of course we accept that just changing one traffic light will not solve the problem, but what we need is guidance that those who set the timing of the lights are obliged to follow, the intention being to improve traffic flows.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

The facts are simple. Before the lighting phases were changed, the traffic flowed well; as soon as they were changed, it did not. If the Minister is right in saying that other traffic lights are gummed up as well, we are not stopping him from changing them all—but he must change the really difficult one, which is the one identified by my right hon. Friend.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My right hon. Friend is correct, and we have heard no realistic indication from the Minister today that he appreciates the scale of the problem, or is willing to grasp it. I realise that in a moment he will probably look over his shoulder expecting salvation from his troops in the approaching Division, but let me tell him that there is a bigger army out there—an army of angry, over-taxed motorists sitting in congested queues of traffic that need not exist. It is that army, which is bigger than his parliamentary army, that will sweep this Government from office in 2005.

I wish to test the mood of the House.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 167, Noes 279.

Division number 91 Traffic Management Bill — New Clause 5 — Traffic Lights

Aye: 167 MPs

No: 279 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.