(14c) Possible solutions to reduce traffic problems in cities

In Belgium, since many years people discuss how to reduce or even solve the standstill of the traffic, certainly within major cities and on highways that connect cities and towns as here traffic sometimes comes to a standstill while it is expected that the number of cars will further grow in future.

Some politicians think one of the solutions is building shopping malls just outside towns and cities so traffic doesn't need to enter them.
  1. However, this means people from within and outside cities and towns need to travel to those shopping malls and this will also cause traffic problems as people will probably use their car since people travelling to those shopping malls often buy plenty or they would buy it in their local shop.
  2. In addition, I agree with those who claim that these shopping malls may damage local economies inside cities and towns as people who buy in these malls will probably not visit the city centre to buy, drink or eat something, certainly not if they came by car as drinking and driving don't go together.
  3. Finally, around these shopping malls people may also start building houses and thus the city may further expand into its surrounding green spaces.
I believe that good cities and towns have smaller but more shopping malls spread within their borders with access to good public transport so people can use public transport to travel to those malls but also visit the surrounding shops, bars and restaurants and even parks (London is an example where Harrods, Selfridges, Canary Wharf and others are located in different areas of the centre close to underground stations so throughout the whole city and not located in one or two areas there is activity in the malls but also the surrounding shops/bars/restaurants/cinemas).For people living outside the city there should be parking space on the outskirts of cities and towns but with good public transport to transport people into the centre. People who still want to enter the centre by car can do this although have to pay a congestion charge that can be used to further improve public transport and the city while the charge will result in a reduction of traffic inside cities as the introduction of this charge in London proved. Companies can deliver (major) orders to customers as already happens, certainly when it concerns things such as kitchens. And when plenty of green space and car free streets are present, cities will attract young families with children (and thus the housing prices need to be controlled or they become too high and people will start to leave again). Love living in cities and you want them beautiful and save and clean while mainly those living in the countryside demand the possibility to drive around by car in cities and thus make the cities and towns unsafe.

However, in this article I will describe how I think intersections can be organised so traffic becomes safer and more fluent. I didn't invent these techniques as many of these techniques are for instance already used in the very large city London where traffic seems to come less to a halt than in many very much smaller cities in Belgium. Maybe some of these ideas can be of use by the decision makers although there may be opposition.

1) Current situation in Belgium

Here I show two situations to illustrate that sometimes different solutions are needed for what seems are identical situations unless you look closer. From the start and to the end of this article, I always consider traffic is quite busy with a constant flow of cars, motors, trucks and cyclist (for convenience often summarised in the article as 'cars') while the number of pedestrians can vary from few although in most situations plenty. I don't consider streets with few traffic as these don't face traffic problems.
  • A quite town with only a few pedestrians
A quite town with only a few pedestrians but quite busy motorised traffic.
To start, let us consider an intersection with traffic lights and zebra crossing in a small town with few pedestrians although busy wheeled traffic.

At the intersection, traffic lights in one direction are red while green for traffic coming from the other direction that is 90° on the first direction. Thus, when traffic lights are green, motorised vehicles and cyclists can drive straight ahead but also turn left or right into side streets while also pedestrians can reach the opposite side by using zebra crossings. In this situation, all traffic lights for cars and pedestrians coming from the other directions are red and thus cars and pedestrians moving in that direction must all stop whereby cars must stop before the stop line painted on the street so they do not block pedestrians who may walk on the zebra crossing. General knowledge or should be.

And thus, when there are few pedestrians walking around, only a small number, if any, will cross the street so in general these streets will be quickly cleared for drivers who want to turn in a side street and thus many drivers can continue their journey. For cars going straight ahead there should be no problem.
  • A busy city with a large numbers of pedestrians at any given time
A busy city with a large number of pedestrians and busy motorised traffic but with traffic rules as described above.
Now consider an almost similar situation: an intersection with stop lines, zebra crossings and traffic lights. Similar as in the previous situation, motorised traffic is quite busy and traffic lights regulate the flow of the traffic in the same way as described above.

However, contrary to the previous situation and as is the reality in big cities such as Brussels, there are many pedestrians while pedestrian traffic lights regulate their flow as in the previous situation so that pedestrians move in the same direction as cars do although at a slightly different time, i.e. pedestrians have to cross the streets in a shorter time than the cars.

And thus, as there are many pedestrians, a large proportion will cross the street and this can result in a continuous flow of people for more than the whole length of the green (pedestrian) traffic lights as people still need to clear the zebra crossing after the pedestrian traffic lights turn red. Cars can thus drive straight ahead as before but can't turn into side streets unless all pedestrians are gone - and often by that time the traffic lights for the cars turn orange to indicate they should stop as the cars from the other direction will soon start to move. As a result, only a small number of cars can turn into a side street and many drivers quickly continue their journey into the side street even when traffic lights change to orange or even red. And although this is not legal, it is understandable when many pedestrians cross so that only a few cars can turn in a side street within the legal time period as otherwise they have to wait very long so traffic congestion may be even worse.

In addition, in the past pedestrian traffic lights turned green slightly ahead of those for the cars and thus pedestrians started to cross the street slightly before the cars so pedestrians were already some distance on the zebra crossing while drivers were more aware pedestrians cross the street at the same time as drivers do. Now however, traffic lights for drivers turn green slightly ahead of those for pedestrians and thus, just as the cars turn in a side street, pedestrians start moving and cars need to stop whereby (especially foreign) drivers don't always expect that pedestrians will also cross the street when cars move what can result in confusion and sometimes even conflict.

2) Minor modifications at intersection may improve traffic

Similar intersection as before but all pedestrians can cross the intersection while all cars need to wait.
Let us assume a slightly different approach, thus without any major and expensive changes such as a redesign of streets (important today when countries need to reduce their expenses) that I think may have a positive effect on traffic and even increase safety.

First, let us assume we have the same situation as before, i.e. an intersection with stop lines, zebra crossing for pedestrians, traffic lights, busy motorised traffic and many pedestrians.

However, the difference with the previous situation is that all traffic lights directing the cars are red and thus all cars in every direction stop before the stop lines so they don't block the zebra crossings. On the other hand, now all the traffic lights directing the pedestrians are green and thus, as there are many pedestrians walking around, a large number of them can now cross in each direction and even diagonal if the intersection allows this and as a result, in one brief moment, a large number of pedestrians are able to reach their destiny within one single move without hindering cars.

In summary, when no cars are allowed to move, large numbers of pedestrians can cross the street in a short time and they will mainly do this within a square on the horizontal, vertical and even diagonal zebra crossings while a small portion of people will move in a different direction when for instance they want to reach another endpoint than originally planned.

People may now ask what are the advantages for the drivers as they all have to wait and thus it seems all of them are wasting their time. But the advantage becomes clear when all pedestrian traffic lights turn red and thus shoppers are not allowed to cross the street while now cars can start to move.

Same intersection as before but all pedestrians must wait while some cars can move.
Consider the previous intersection including diagonal zebra crossing and plenty of cars and pedestrians.

However, the situation changed whereby all traffic lights for the pedestrians are red and thus all pedestrians have to wait and can't cross the street (although at the start few want to cross as most pedestrians who wanted to cross the street were able to do so when the lights were green).

On the other hand, to avoid any accidents between drivers of motorised vehicles, only the traffic lights for cars coming from one direction will turn green while the lights remain red for cars coming from the other direction so they have to continue to wait.

Now, as no pedestrians are allowed to cross the street, cars before the green traffic lights can move straight ahead as in the first two situations. But instead that only a few cars can turn in side streets compared with the second situation when also many pedestrians were crossing the street, now many cars can turn in the side streets as they are no longer hindered by pedestrians as they have to wait for the red pedestrian traffic lights.

Later, the green traffic lights for one direction turn orange and then red and thus those drivers must stop while the traffic lights for cars coming from the other direction now turn green and thus these cars can now move and do this also unhindered as pedestrians still have to wait. As a result, many more cars can drive in the side streets compared with the situation where pedestrians cross streets at the same moment as cars move.

Finally, all traffic lights for the cars turn red and thus all drivers must stop while all pedestrian traffic lights turn green again and thus all pedestrians can cross again in one movement in the shortest time possible to reach the street where they want to continue their journey. Indeed, in this situation, pedestrians can always reach their destination in one move.

An additional modification of the intersection to improve traffic is the introduction of platforms (that can be walking areas) in the middle of the street although this will not be possible at all intersections while it is more expensive and thus may not always be done during these financially difficult times.

Same intersection as before but with the addition of platforms in the middle of the streets.
When we consider the above situation but with the difference that streets are wide enough to allow a platform or even a walking area between the two driving directions. First we may not think of a difference with the above situation but there is on the condition that the platforms are large enough.

Assume the traffic lights for the pedestrians are red and thus they need to wait. However, if we look at the traffic, we notice that certain sections of the streets are unused by cars and here platforms can make a huge difference, on condition they are sufficient large and/or the colour of the traffic lights change quickly enough to avoid platforms become too crowded.

Indeed, pedestrian traffic lights can now be installed on the platforms that can be green for a small section of pedestrians while all other pedestrian traffic lights are red. Even when cars are moving, some pedestrians can now cross the unused parts of the streets and thus they will not hinder any cars and then have to wait on the platforms until the lights change colour and the pedestrians can continue their walk to the other side. However, as mentioned before, this is only possible when sufficient space is available on the platform because, when the traffic lights for the cars change, cars can now use the previously unused parts of the streets and thus only large platforms will avoid that pedestrians are waiting on the street instead of on the platform and thus can be hurt. In reality, many people already use platforms if they are present to cross certain sections of the street when cars move, even when officially the pedestrian traffic lights are red and thus pedestrians are not allowed to cross.

3) Additional measures

Will the above mentioned solutions solve the traffic problems in cities such as Brussels? Of course not although they may help. Also other measures will be needed and even then, when there are too many cars, traffic may still come to a halt.

Apart from the stop lines before the zebra crossings, also other well-placed lines drawn on the streets will help direct the traffic and these are already in use such as areas where cars wait before they can turn in a side street. Also lines separating one driving direction from the other and lines dividing one driving direction into a number of lanes are used. Of course, cyclists in cities and towns also need cycling lanes and if streets are wide enough bus lanes can be present so buses (and taxis) are not stuck in traffic and thus more people may consider their use so that the number of cars can go down.

And while drivers are now sometimes almost forced to neglect orange and red traffic lights at some very busy intersections or hardly more than one or two cars are able to turn in side streets, I think that with the introduction of the new situation in busy places whereby pedestrians wait when cars drive, drivers have no longer the excuse they didn't stop for orange and red traffic lights to turn in the side street because too many pedestrians were crossing - on condition pedestrians don't continue to cross when their traffic light is red.

Thus, also traffic cameras should be placed above the lanes to check whether drivers obey the rules although this is in general an unpopular introduction. Those cameras can document drivers who don't follow the rules so they can be penalised. This can be done by private companies as is already done in many places so police can concentrate on other, more urgent duties. Of course, the cameras need to be calibrated and approved while people working for those private companies need to be trained but ones this is done, penalties can be send by the persons working for these companies to those breaking the rules. There should also be a control agency to check whether the private companies act within the law. If people do not agree with their fine, they should be able to send a complain to the private company, control agency or even go to court to have their penalty cancelled although pictures and films may prove the fine was deserved. This is nothing new as already on many intersections and even streets cameras register wrongdoing such as drivers who drive faster than allowed or don't stop when they should. In a more distant future, when car numbers are linked to an email account, the computers that are connected to the traffic cameras may one day even send themselves the fines to the email address of those who breach the rules without the use of humans. Then, when someone uses the car of someone else, the system needs to be informed in advance to avoid that the owner is fined for any possible mistake of the user. Any possible complains by those who are fined should still be treated as described above.

I think other changes can further improve traffic and reduce congestion. I already mentioned in another article that blocking certain small side streets may sometimes result in more fluent traffic although not everywhere and thus should be investigated on an individual basis.

Intersection without traffic lights
And while I described above what is according to me a good situation at an intersection with traffic lights to reduce accident between pedestrians and cars but also to reduce traffic congestion (i.e. pedestrians cross the intersection while cars don't move), I think zebra crossings at intersections without traffic lights should not be placed at the end of streets near the intersection but should be a little further while diagonal zebra crossings can't be used.

When zebra crossings are at the end of the street near the intersection, cars that need to drive onto the intersection need to take into account 1) whether pedestrians are crossing and 2) whether cars are approaching from the other direction. And thus, when no cars are coming from the other direction, pedestrians may cross so cars still have to wait while if no pedestrians cross, cars may end up on the zebra crossing and thus block future pedestrians if cars from the other direction are approaching. However, when the zebra crossing is at least one length of a car away from the intersection, a driver only needs to check whether pedestrians are crossing the street and if not can drive a little forward and then check whether cars are approaching from the other direction while the zebra crossing remains free for pedestrians to cross on condition the second car stops before the stop line drawn before the zebra crossing.

Further, if possible, zebra crossing should be at a narrower section of the street so pedestrians spend less time on the streets and even have a better overview of the street. This can be done in streets with parking lanes. This also allows pedestrians to pass the parked cars and have a better view of the traffic on the streets they want to cross but also drivers will have a better view of pedestrians who want to cross the street.

Adjusted traffic lights can also be part of a solution to tackle congestion
In addition, specific traffic lights for cars moving in different directions can also be used on busy roads so that for instance drivers who want to drive straight forward have to stop so cars can turn into side streets; this can help the clearing of the middle part of very busy or dangerous intersections. Also a clock that shows the time before the traffic lights change can be useful, certainly for pedestrians at busy intersections.

4) Barcelona

Intersections in Barcelona as I can remember them.
I think Barcelona has a good street design that combines a number of the above described solutions. Indeed, intersections seems to be specially designed so pedestrians cross narrower streets while the zebra crossings are more inward so both cars and pedestrians have a good overview of the streets and can notice each other quite easily. Pedestrians can easily see cars coming from one direction and as many streets have a middle walking area with trees, pedestrians don't need to look to the other side to check if cars are coming from the other direction as they cross in effect a one-direction street while the city looks green and is quite cool in summer because of these trees.

This design of streets works both with and without traffic lights and the city could even introduce diagonal zebra crossings when pedestrian traffic lights are present and when the distance to the other side is not too long as streets in Barcelona can be wide - although this can be solved by introducing a platform (e.g. with fountain to improve the appearance of the city). I think modern cities should consider such a layout to increase safety and reduce accidents (although maybe other designs are even better).

However, in old towns and cities with often narrow streets this is mostly not a solution while this also requires a redesign of streets and thus is expensive although it may be introduced gradually if possible. But if streets are narrow, a car-free area may be considered if possible between larger streets with traffic. Also a congestion charge works efficiently. Of course, if all shopping centres are located outside the city, few people may come to visit the city and local businesses may suffer as even tourists like to go shopping during their holiday.

Even when the traffic lights for cars and pedestrians are simultaneously green as in the first two situations, this layout causes fewer problems, certainly when pedestrians start moving a few seconds before the cars because it takes some time for drivers to reach the zebra crossing and by that time already some pedestrians crossed the street.

Traffic specialists and their future

And traffic specialist don't need to worry about their job because each intersection and street has its own particularities and thus need their own solutions. But before any solution may be proposed, it is often advisable to walk around for a certain time to discover the possibilities but also the limits of the intersections, streets and surrounding area. In effect, people who love cities and live in them should walk around as they will much quicker notice the possibilities to improve the quality of life in the city for themselves and their children and thus others. Of course, in future computers may calculate how best to design a city but then people may not like it. For instance, people may sacrifice some driving space and introduce a small park while a computer may only calculate any solutions for what is available. But if it takes too long for traffic specialists to find solutions, then computers may take over.

One final note to complete this article: before any changes as those described above can be made, people should be well informed via television and radio and maybe apps so they know what can be expected or there may be chaos when any changes are introduced.


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