Still from video, watch it below.
Gridlock and road rage are an unfortunate part of American traffic culture. How much do traffic lights have to do with that? Would we be more considerate of other road users without them? A small town in England decided to find out.
About a year ago, the small coastal town of Portishead, England embarked on an experiment. In order to relieve congestion that was choking their downtown with long delays, traffic engineers decided to turn off the traffic signals. Not surprisingly, there was negative outcry from citizens about the idea; but the results of the experiment, captured in the video below, were surprising.
According to on-the-street interviews, there was much more than just a vast improvement in congestion (and resulting emissions from idling cars). It seems that people became more considerate. One young girl talks about how someone stopped for her when she crossed the road, “It wouldn’t normally happen with the lights because they just look at the lights.”
And it wasn’t just an engineering exercise. The city also worked to reform traffic culture “from one of priority to equality.”
The experiment was so successful — with travel times falling by over 50% with no increase in crashes involving people walking — that the traffic lights have now been permanently turned off.
“Road capacity might be limited, but empathy is boundless,” says the video’s narrator, “All we need is the freedom to express it.” There’s definitely a need for more empathy on our streets here in Portland. I wonder if there are locations where fewer traffic lights would improve not just how our streets function, but how we treat each other while using them.