Thursday, 3 September 2009

Pedestrians Cause Congestion - Official

Now and again little insights into the 'thinking' of Bristol City Council's highway engineers emerge into the public realm, despite the ever burgeoning PR operation designed to make us all think the council are wonderful. This latest gem emerges through the Cycling City project's marginally more open governance arrangements (which perhaps explains why council officers are generally opposed to more openness).

Bristol's pedestrian crossings (Pelicans and Puffins) have long been notorious for the excessive delays that they impose on pedestrians wanting to cross the road in order to minimise the inconvenience to motorists. For example the crossing of Queen's Road outside the Museum (above) gives a ridiculously short green phase and the crossing of Baldwin St where it joins the Centre (below) imposes long delays.

But now a City Council project is underway to review each pedestrian crossing in Bristol and reduce the wait times for pedestrians "without causing unacceptable congestion for traffic". Despite the lack of any definition of what constitutes 'unacceptable congestion for traffic' (and aren't pedestrians 'traffic' too?) the progress report on the pedestrian crossings 'improvement' project goes on to state -
During times of peak traffic flow, some pedestrian crossings in the city cause heavy congestion, therefore they are brought onto the traffic control system ‘Scoot’ during these times of day so that the ‘green man’ time which causes the congestion is restricted to the part of the traffic signal cycle where it will cause the least delay. This project has reviewed the way that the crossings are brought under scoot control and the times of day this control is needed. The pedestrian crossings reviewed are now brought under control by using live traffic flow data rather than fixed times, the flow level at which the crossings cause congestion has been worked out for each site, and when this trigger level is reached they are brought under Scoot control until the traffic flow level drops off again. The type of Scoot control in use has also been reviewed and where possible the cycle times for the crossings have been reduced.
As the bold text indicates I was struck by the repeated assumption that it's pedestrians who are causing congestion by daring to want to cross roads. Is it not plain to anyone with eyes to see that congestion is caused by the mass use of cars? Congestion, whilst not entirely unknown before the age of mass car ownership, is nevertheless overwhelmingly a product of it. Surely that elementary fact should be firmly embedded in the mind of anyone who presumes to call themselves a highway engineer.

Yet there we have it, they say pedestrians cause congestion. And to penalise us for our selfish behaviour in wanting to cross roads we must be made to face longer delays to allow motorists to make their blameless journeys without 'unacceptable' delays. Nothing of course about what might or might not be acceptable delays to pedestrians. We pedestrians, it seems, must put up and shut up.

Am I being uncharitable in making so much of what may be little more than sloppy writing? Probably, but I would say justifiably so since at the root of so many traffic problems is the pro-car biased thinking of highway engineers, which as we see remains very much the norm. Perhaps we have to wait for yet another generation of highway engineers to pass on before we can make real progress.


Adam said...

I noticed a similar attitutde in the online consultation for the junction in Clifton...Whiteladies Road/Tyndall's Park Road/St Pauls Road

"to minimise the delays to traffic and congestion that would otherwise result from the addition of pedestrian crossing times"

Not quite as blatant as your examples but easily gives away the underlying mentality.

Adam said...

And that's for a junction that is missing a ped crossing all together and just considering wether foot traffic should be allowed one.

Quercus said...

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The crossing on Wine Street was a pedestrian crossing, now a pelican.

Apparently because of the congestion caused by office workers crossing (virtually non-stop) at lunchtime.

Google Earth now has a rather fun feature allowing you to go back in time - have a look at the crossing in 2003.

Chris Hutt said...

Lots of former Zebras have been converted to Pelican/Puffins over the years, especially as computer control of signals (Urban Traffic Control - UTC) has been expanded.

The effect of course is to remove default priority from pedestrians and instead give it to road traffic, yet these changes are typically presented as pedestrian safety improvements.

Spandangle said...

I call for a national 'drive to work day'. On this day all people who normally cycle or walk (or get the bus?) should instead drive a car to work. This should highlight to the car drivers, who find it ever so inconvenient to not run us over, how much time we actual save them!! How many extra cars would be on the roads at rush hour that day?

SteveL said...

How about the crossings count the number of times people press the wait button, the more you press the button, the more pedestrians are deemed to be waiting? It would be easier than going for full scanning/counting of bluetooth discoverable mobile phones.

Do you have a list of which crossings are under control -or will you file an FOI request for the list.

Jon Rogers said...

Evening all

I have had the following officer response on the question of pushbuttons - I asked it after a comment that in NY many of the pedestrian buttons had been deactivated!

"We do not have any "deactivated" pushbuttons however a lot of pushbuttons do not make any difference to the signal timings whether they are pushed or not.

"Stand alone pedestrian crossings will only ever bring up a green man if the pushbutton is pushed. How long the green man takes to appear is dependent on local conditions and the method of control for the lights (VA, UTC/SCOOT etc).

"Junctions with an all round pedestrian stage will also only ever bring up a green man if the button is pushed.

"Junctions that are walk with traffic where pedestrians cross at the same time as traffic is moving on a different route are different. The green man appears at the same time as green appears to traffic so in general the stage in which the pedestrian green man appears is called by the traffic detectors. However if there is no traffic the pushbutton will call the stage in which the green man runs - as well as the traffic movement.

"You could make an argument that some of these types of pushbuttons are not needed but they also serve other functions particularly puffin type pushbuttons.

"Pushbuttons are positioned so that pedestrians face the approaching traffic when they go to push them. This assists safety by encouraging pedestrians to watch the traffic rather than just crossing when they see a green man - with puffins the red/green man is on the pushbutton as well. They also show a wait signal indicating that pedestrians should wait before crossing which also indicates that the button has been pushed to other pedestrians."


Anonymous said...

great blog, glad to have found you!

AD said...

Chris, How does one contact you? Any emails?

Chris Hutt said...


Peter said...

OK, OK. I find all this rather depressing... and I have always suspected, Jon, that pressing the pedestrian pushbutton is a Douglas Adams event (Glad to be of Service...)

OK Jon, come clean. What are BCC's priorities under the Libdem regime?

- Cars?
- Public transport?
- Pedestrians?
- Cyclists?
- The survival of humanity in an age of transport insanity?
- Votes?

Jon Rogers said...

Morning Peter

Don't be depressed. Information is power and by being more open and introducing involvement and engagement and information to wider attention, these things WILL change.

It is my hope that Bristol City Council is changing. I see some signs, but I am close to it, so it is for others to judge if the current Lib Dems administration is really making better headway than our predecessors.

With the impacts of Peak Oil and Climate Change we need to redress the historic transport heirarchy where the "car is king". My sustainability and safety heirarchy puts pedestrians at the top, especially disabled people.

However, I work with everyone. I personally use most forms of transport, and see (and appreciate) the respective benefits of each, but the balance needs to shift away from car dependence to more sustainable transport. That is not going to happen by lecturing and hectoring. It is by changing our actions in small (and occassionally large) ways in the right direction. It is by setting a good example.

For example, I have asked if we can have flashing orange bicycles filter lights on traffic lights to allow bikes to left turn when lights at red. Orange to indicate that pedestrians may be crossing the side road and care is needed.

These are trivial examples, but if we can all work together pushing for these changes we can make it happen. [Last sentence added as example to the Bristol Blogger!]


Chris Hutt said...

Jon, your openness is as ever refreshing. I think we all understand what a difficult position you are in with so many often competing interests expecting so much.

In fairness to you can I point out to Peter and others than your previous response was feedback of the comments of your officers and not necessarily your view of how things should be.

Actually I thought those officer comments were quite reasonable and I can see why there will be occasions where pressing the pedestrian crossing button has no effect because road traffic has already triggered a call for the lights to change.

However I think there is a lot of scope to make traffic signals more pedestrian friendly. For example when a pedestrian button is pressed a light comes on to signify that a call has been registered and that further pressing is unnecessary and futile.

Could the controls not be modified so this light also came on if a call had effectively been made by road traffic? Then pedestrians would know that there was no point in pressing the button.

This would give us more confidence in that the system was responsive to our interaction because we would know that when we press and bring on the call light we are definitely making a difference.

We do not want to slide towards a New york situation where almost all the pedestrian call buttons have no effect! (thanks to Tony D for that link.)

MJ Ray ( said...

Jon wrote: "With the impacts of Peak Oil and Climate Change we need to redress the historic transport heirarchy where the "car is king"."

Didn't previous administrations do that by putting the sane transport hierarchy into the Joint Local Transport Plan? Has the JLTP hierarchy been implemented yet?

I'm seeing precious little of it in Bristol (just look at the Cabot Circus area downgrade for pedestrians and cyclists - before Jon's party's administration IIRC) or in North Somerset (marvel at the circuitous routes and car-friendly signal timings around the B+Q development, or the new slalom barriers around the North Worle Lanes). How soon can we make reality follow the Transport Plan?

Anonymous said...

Are you anti-car? That is the impression you give.

Anonymous said...

The network of traffic control is built on the assumption that road-users are incapable of filtering efficiently under their own steam, and that external controls are "needed". I don't accept those assumptions for a minute. The reason controls are "needed" is to interrupt the streams of traffic granted priority by misguided traffic engineers. They abandoned common law principles of equal rights and responsibilities, and continue to neglect our greatest resource: the human brain, unparalleled in its ability to negotiate movement. Priority subverts good manners and our desire to take it in turns. It licenses main road traffic to plough on regardless who was there first. It puts road-users at odds with each other and their surroundings.

Remove what I think of as the cancer of priority, and you remove the "need" for lights and the need for speed, enabling everyone to do what is natural and intrinsically safe: approach carefully and filter. (That way, you also remove the "need" for traffic engineers, along with their counterproductive systems of costly, carbon-hungry control.) Instead of consecutive queueing, we'd get simultaneous filtering. The network of control and enforcement is unnecessary, because the assumptions on which it is based are false.

Is it not plain to anyone with eyes to see that congestion is caused by the mass use of cars? asks Chris.

Not to my eyes. Volume of traffic can be a drama, but volume + controls = crisis. Cars are used en masse because they are cosy and convenient. Rather than tax them off the road, public transport should be irresistible. In Japan they have air-conditioned buses with delightful attendants. In any event, the idea of unobtrusive, low-emission pods is at last catching on.

The more complex the ballet of human movement (e.g. a skateboard park) the less useful are attempts to control it. There is deep order in chaos. It might not be the kind of order that traffic engineers like to see, but when were they elected to rule our lives? Chris explains that the switch from zebras to pelicans removed default priority for peds. Do we need any kind of priority except the gut instinct to take it more or less in turns? If we scrapped the whole system of traffic control, and let everyone work it out for themseves on streets designed to express a sharing, caring context, would most of our congestion and road safety problems disappear in a puff of exhaust smoke? This post is already too long. For those interested there is more at FiT Roads.

Anonymous said...


You rate humans too highly!

Pasqua said...

He certainly does. See this for example -

Anonymous said...


"Perhaps we have to wait for yet another generation of highway engineers to pass on before we can make real progress."

Couldn't we ... well ... you know ... do something about that?

Tom C

James P said...

Interestingly, the pelican crossing on the north side of Gaol Ferry Bridge seems much slower in changing to let pedestrians cross (and enabling cyclists to join Cumberland Road towards town).

Maybe it didn't cut the mustard on the assessment criteria - not sure how though, as it's a pretty important route for walkers and cyclists from south Bristol - but, oh, I forgot - it delays drivers sneaking into town from Cumberland Basin direction. That'd be it, then.