Earlier this year, TfL started an experiment that saw traffic lights default status swap around to prioritise pedestrians instead of road vehicles.

At the moment, traffic lights with pedestrian crossings spend most of their time allowing road traffic to flow, and pedestrians are expected to press a button to request permission to cross the road.

The problem with this mode of working is that just as a lot of road users see traffic lights turning to red as a signal to accelerate through them — and some cyclists ignore them entirely — pedestrians can be just as bad.

Their research found that that 80% of pedestrians will cross within 30 seconds of arriving at a pedestrian crossing, irrespective of whether there is a green man shown to them. Worse, more than half of people cross within five seconds of arriving, so effectively do not wait for a green man at all. This matters because, in 2018, half of the people killed or seriously injured in road collisions in London were walking — so improving safety at road crossings could prevent a lot of accidents.

An experiment at three locations this spring and summer swapped the traffic light’s preference for road traffic around.

Instead of showing a green light to road traffic almost all the time, even when there isn’t any, they showed a green man for pedestrians, except when road vehicles are detected when they swapped to normal mode to let the road vehicles swish through.

The key finding from the trial was that defaulting to showing a red light to road traffic when the roads were empty and swapping to green only when vehicles approached did not significantly affect road congestion — but it does benefit pedestrians who no longer hang around waiting for the lights to change.

Although the trial predates the lockdown and social distancing, it has the added benefit of reducing the time pedestrians spend huddled together at traffic lights waiting for the green man to appear.

Following the trial of the Green Man Authority system at the Millennium Bridge and two sites near St Thomas Street (by Guy’s Hospital and at The Shard), TfL has begun the installation of the new technology at an additional 20 pedestrian crossings across London.

There’s minimal additional hardware required as traffic lights already know when road vehicles are approaching — it’s mainly a software change to keep the traffic lights at red except when a vehicle approaches. So long as the signals do not detect an approaching vehicle, a green man is automatically shown to pedestrians.

Subject to technical surveys, TfL is now installing the technology at the following locations:

Barking and Dagenham 

  • London Road Barking by James Street
  • Gale Street by Becontree Station

City of London

  • Long Lane by West Smithfield

Croydon

  • Woodcote Grove Road by Smitham Downs Road

Hillingdon

  • The Greenway by Merryfields

Hounslow

  • Heston Road by Hogarth Gardens

Kensington and Chelsea

  • Old Brompton Road by West Brompton Station

Merton

  • Kingston Road  by Rothesay Avenue

Newham

  • Prince Regent by Alnwick Road

Richmond

  • Queens Road by Queens Crescent
  • Castlenau by Newport Road
  • Red Lion Street by Church Terrace

Southwark

  • Saint George’s Way by Ebley Close
  • Tooley Street by Hays Lane
  • Tooley Street by Duke Street Hill

Sutton

  • Green Wrythe Lane by Aultone Way
  • Wrythe Lane by Muschamp Road

Tower Hamlets

  • Marsh Wall by Thames Quay Building
  • Devons Road by Devons Road DLR

Westminster

  • Cavendish Square by Henrietta Place
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12 comments on “Traffic lights being reprogrammed to prefer humans
  1. John B says:

    If I see a pedestrian crossing that’s red with no pedestrian around I assume someone’s been antisocial and pressed the button and walked off, and mutter. I do hope they detect cars and especially cycles early enough that they don’t need to keep pre-emptively braking and accelerating.

    Not sure what trials at very busy sites like London Bridge tell them when the implementation is aimed at quiet roads.

    • Andy Thomas says:

      I used to think that way, but it’s more likely someone’s pressed the button and used a gap in the traffic after becoming fed up with waiting, that happens a lot to me as a pedestrian.

      Hopefully as a motorist there will be less time spent stopping at empty crossings.

    • Basil_125 says:

      If i am a pedestrian looking at the traffic flow i won,t press the button to stop the traffic . Just wait until its safe to cross..I drive a car and ride a Motorcycle too.

  2. Martin says:

    Do the lights detect people so that they prevent them turning to green when someone is crossing? Presumably it still cycles through the same phases when switching back to green for traffic?

  3. CityLover says:

    I think you can safely drive through red light (ped xing not junction) at red if there are no pedestrians. Basic common sense.

  4. Basil_125 says:

    The Sutton crossing..Wrythe Lane is 100yards away from home . I will keep a close eye on this one . Hope it works because it sounds sensible.

  5. MiceElf says:

    About 25 years ago there was an experiment where there was a sensor by a pedestrian crossing which detected when people were waiting and automatically switched the light to the green man. It also meant that the green man didn’t appear if some idiot pressed the button and walked on. What happened to that?

  6. SteveP says:

    First – “traffic lights already know when road vehicles are approaching”. Is this true? 100% of them? My impression is that many secondary lights are just on a timed sequence, but I’m happy to be incorrect.

    2nd – “in 2018, half of the people killed or seriously injured in road collisions in London were walking”. Well… there *are* an awful lot of them (peds), and they do lack the thousands of kgs of steel protecting car drivers, so I suspect that’s to be expected? Sounds a bit like a “massaged” statistic to support an already arrived at conclusion?

    Now, I’m all for this pedestrian priority. Especially in a city where you are in places expected to cross the street three times to get to the other side. Let’s face it – normally a Londoner arrives at the crossing and pushes the button to cross out of reflex. If a gap then shows, they leg it, since this is safer* and quicker than waiting for the green man (*Just because you have the green man does not mean they won’t squash you like a bug)

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