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London is experimenting with traffic lights that put pedestrians first

A simple change to crossing rules is helping improve safety.

green man pedestrian crossing
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

For pedestrians, walking in a city can be a frenetic and stressful experience. Crossings puncture the route. Parked cars block the view; curbs may have to be navigated. The city is an obstacle course. 

Transport for London (TfL), the public body behind transport services in the British capital, has cottoned onto this, recently piloting new rules at 18 crossings around the city. Instead of waiting for the “green man” as a signal to cross the road, pedestrians will encounter green as the default setting when they approach these crossings. The light changes to red only when the sensor detects an approaching vehicle. 

This “pedestrian priority” approach is a first in the UK, and after a trial of nine months, the data is encouraging: there is virtually no impact on traffic, and pedestrians save a total of 1.3 hours a day at the average crossing and are 13% more likely to comply with traffic signals. 

Compliance can help keep people safe from a very real risk: 868 pedestrians were killed or seriously injured in 2020 in London alone. That was a steep drop from 1,350 in 2019, most likely thanks to covid lockdowns and a decrease in the number of people driving to work. But London is aspiring to match Oslo or Helsinki, where not a single pedestrian was killed in 2019. To achieve “Vision Zero,” TfL is reducing the dominance and speed of motor traffic by adding cycle lanes, closing roads to cars, and building pedestrian infrastructure. For example, it delivered 77 new or improved pedestrian crossings between 2016 and 2020, and it reviews the signal timing at more than 1,000 crossings every year.

This is a start. Over the last 20 years, the focus in London has been far more on battling car traffic than on improving the pedestrian experience. Almost two decades ago, in 2003, a daily congestion charge for vehicles was introduced. Subsequent emissions rules have pushed the most polluting vehicles out of the city, and the zone they are prohibited from entering was expanded last October. More than 1,500 cameras help enforce the rules, while CCTV sensors are used to better understand traffic flow and management. 

Efforts to protect walking space have not been as sophisticated or long-standing. During the pandemic, local authorities were granted emergency powers to install bollards or planters and close roads to allow social distancing (most sidewalks around the UK are not wide enough for pedestrians to stay two meters apart). The results were highly divisive in some communities, as well as in the press and the local elections held in May. But it’s hard to argue with the fact that these new “low-traffic neighborhoods” are associated not only with a 50% decrease in traffic-related injuries but also with lower car ownership, a decrease in street crime, and healthier streets to play and walk on.

Local politics aside, a pedestrian-first approach is gaining traction. The UK’s National Highway Code was updated earlier this year, mandating that those who pose the greatest risk on roads—drivers—take the most responsibility to look out for others. 

In London, TfL hopes to expand the use of pedestrian priority crossings. The trial shows that with the help of political leadership, small changes can help to make our cities more walkable, street by street.

Rachael Revesz is a freelance journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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