Does Removing Traffic Lights Improve Cyclist Safety?


The Law Of… Turning Off The Traffic Lights

Amsterdam, a city famous for its love of the pushbike, recently took a somewhat unconventional step in the effort to improve the flow of bicycle traffic through its streets. 

bicycle at traffic lights
Damian Ryder, a Road Traffic Accident Associate at Simpson Millar, looks at the bike-besotted capital's approach to safeguarding the journeys of its cycling citizens.

Amsterdam – A City Of Cyclists

The idea might sound crazy: reduce congestion and accidents by turning off the traffic lights, but it's one that's had surprising results.

The focus of what initially started out as an experiment is the Alexanderplein, a crossroads near to the centre of Amsterdam that hosts a significant amount of cyclists, cars, pedestrians and trams each and every day.

The reliance on the bicycle as the preferred form of transport is illustrated by the fact that almost 70% of the journeys through the city centre are taken on two wheels. This has necessitated the need to make more space for cyclists; the experiment with the traffic lights being just one of a number of measures.

Safe And Smooth Implementation

The presence of lights at the Alexanderplein intersection had long been an irritation to both cyclists and motorists alike. The Guardian reported it being described as 'chaotic' and 'messy', with 'no one obeying the lights'.

The decision to turn them off at this busy convergence of commuter routes was not one taken lightly. Along with the engineers responsible for devising the scheme, the involvement of, among others, politicians, police and the public transit authority was needed to ensure the safe and smooth implementation of the project. One that took 8 months of planning to set in place.

Did Cyclists And Motorists Show Behavioural Change?

The pilot scheme was launched and an almost immediate change in both attitude and behaviour was noted. The Urban Cycling Institute, an academic research group based at the University of Amsterdam, was on hand to record how traffic reacted to the change, as well as the observations of a proportion of the cyclists who passed through the now unregulated junction.

Without traffic lights it was found that cyclists and motorists naturally slowed down on their approach to the intersection. Instead of people waiting there disengaged, staring blankly at the lights and willing them to change, interaction with fellow cyclists and drivers became not just a necessity, but the norm.

Eye contact and hand gestures were employed as ways of signalling to fellow road users, along with facial expressions and verbal direction. This, according to those who'd experienced the live pilot, resulted in a much smoother passage through the intersection. People now paid more attention, fewer disliked it and a majority said that the traffic situation had improved.

As awareness is key to safe cycling on the roads, this could only be a good thing and one that going forward may reduce deadly and serious accidents involving cyclists.

Less Regulation, Safer Roads?

The psychological effect of removing the Alexanderplein's traffic lights clearly made those who used the intersection consider their habitual behaviour. The old signalling system had become something of a mental crutch that removed the need to think about how they engaged with their surroundings and other road users.

The pilot was deemed such a success that the lights were eventually removed altogether.  The scheme is now being extended to other parts of the city.

Amsterdam's vice mayor for traffic, Pieter Ltjens, who had ultimate sign-off on the project's go ahead, said of its outcome:

"This pilot showed that less regulation can lead to responsible and alert road users."

Damian Ryder comments: 

"The benefits of cycling to health, people's finances and the environment are well publicised. The NHS says that regular cycling can reduce the risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. It can also boost your mood and keep your weight under control."

"That said, according to the UK’s Department for Transport, only 3% of adults cycle more than 5 times per week."

"The relatively low uptake of cycling in the UK is often blamed on public perceptions of safety. There are often discussions within the media regarding specific aspects of cycling safety such as mandatory helmet use. I feel that these detract from the larger issue of the adequacy of the UK’s infrastructure when it comes to cycling."

"The idea behind the Alexanderplein experiment is not a new concept and road user psychology plays a huge part in road safety. By removing traffic lights, road users are forced to give more consideration to others. This consideration is particularly important when it comes to vulnerable road users."

"Hans Monderman, a Dutch innovator, pioneered an urban design approach which sought to minimise demarcations between pedestrians and vehicular traffic. He found that both the safety and the flow of traffic improved when the space was redesigned to encourage people to negotiate their movement with others."

"The UK has experimented with this approach in the past, including the shared space traffic management scheme on Kensington High Street, which reduced cycling deaths by 19%. While this approach is a utopian solution to easing congestion and improving road safety, the downside is that drivers may be ill prepared to manage these unfamiliar spaces safely."

"Even so, the concept as a whole is interesting and there is evidence (such as Kensington High Street) to show that this approach can work in heavily built up urban areas. Further research is needed to see if this approach could increase road safety for cyclists."

"Whether it will be enough to encourage more people to cycle instead of drive remains to be seen."

If you have been injured in a cycling accident that wasn't your fault, contact our Road Traffic Accident department today.

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