Traffic lights: Hate

At the intersection of ubiquity and stupidity, lies my nemesis.  The traffic light.

Let’s look at three traffic scenarios.

1.  Light traffic.

I am stuck at the traffic light for no discernible reason.  No cars are coming.   The red light has me pinned down like a gleeful high school bully.

2. Medium traffic.

Cars go in one direction for a minute.  Cars go in the other direction for a minute.  Sounds fair!  But because of the way traffic builds up gradually, and moves off only gradually, we get lines of stopped cars in both directions.

This is the traffic wave effect, expressed in beautiful, scientific detail here.

3. Heavy traffic.

People aren’t moving anyway.  The light cycle shuffles through irrelevant sequences like a failing comedian.   Noone’s laughing.

There is a red light that never goes out.

The traffic light thinks it can boss everyone around cause it’s the smartest guy in the room. Wrong.

At an intersection, in every car,  there is computing power equal to at least a million pentium 4 chips.   Not in the dashboard, but in the driver’s head.  This computing power wants to get its host where they’re going as speedily as possible, while remaining adequately safe. The traffic light lets this computing power sit idle, looking at the babes in the car alongside, and singing along to the Black Eyed Peas.  ‘I gotta feeling...’. A good system needs to leverage this power.

People aren’t supercomputers though. It’s important that when we try to leverage all this computing power we provide a simple set of rules.

What are our options?

The Four-Way Stop?

The Yield?

Shared Space?

or The Roundabout?

The 4-way stop is the Devil’s work, so we can rule that shit out.

The Yield works only where one street has permanent right of way. This could work for a lot of traffic lights that mediate between a major road and a minor one.

Shared space is about removing all lane markings and signage to create safer behaviour. It’s just code for anarchy.  I think it’s the opposite extreme to traffic lights, and I’m not sure it will work in enough situations.

Or, finally, the roundabout.  Ahh, my love!

When a flow of cars is going through a roundabout, they continue uninterrupted, like a babbling brook.  Traffic waves are minimised.  But whenever a gap emerges, someone can take it, like a lone traveller crossing a mountain stream. The flow of cars continues around him.

Why does it work so incredibly well?  Because traffic is slowed down and the road shape becomes a curve, a roundabout creates spaces for merging where a straight road would provide none. And because people are actively engaged in the decision making!  Even better, they only need to look in one direction (In Melbourne, you look right.  In Berkeley, you look left.)  It’s like merging onto a one way road. Very bloody simple.

The condescending trio of Messrs Red, Amber & Green has hypnotised us. Worse, we have consented to it. Like a lonely poker machine player, we cannot break our addiction to the flashing of the lights, and their lulling certainty. This is a wake up call! Traffic signals are the opiate of the masses.

What do we want? No more traffic lights! When do we want it? Roundabout now!

Who else hates being dehumanised by the glowing scarlet bulb?  Do you have better ideas than the roundabout? What can’t a good roundabout do? if your intersection comprises three six-lane boulevards, two tram routes, several other streets and roads carrying frequent ambulances, many cyclists, myriad drunken students, is a roundabout is the solution…?

Share your thoughts below!

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

21 thoughts on “Traffic lights: Hate”

  1. The four-way stop is everywhere around Berkeley. All the cars stop and try to wave each other through, bikes just ignore them… Whoever choose to pepper four-way stops around this suburb deserves to meet a very unfortunate demise.


  2. Mark Dapin also loves roundabouts. He wrote a number of articles in Good Weekend about them until his editor banned him from further comment. if you Google “Mark Dapin roundabouts” you will see many references.


  3. I hate traffic lights, yeah. They’re better in Australia where they’re mostly actuated instead of timed so that when there’s light traffic you don’t have to wait as much for no-one. But this awful habit they’ve developed in the last few years of putting in red right turn arrows shits me up the wall. Here in Saarbrücken (a Geelong-sized city in Germany) they just kill the lights in the evening and you stop/give way according to signs they have at every single intersection.

    But roundabouts aren’t for everything. They’re actually not good for very high amounts of traffic, as you implicitly observe when you say they’re horrible when you have three or more lanes. They’re also horrible horrible horrible if you’re not in a car: cyclists have to get run over (see below), and pedestrians have to walk way out of their desired line of traffic, plus they have to be careful of cars who aren’t looking at them because drivers “only need to look in one direction”. So I don’t really like them all that much. (Plus running a tram through ’em as we do in Melbourne is a bit of a hazard. I gather in other countries a tram through a roundabout just has to behave like a car, dunno if that’s better per se…)

    So as for cyclists, if there’s a roundabout in your route, you’ve have three choices: (a) ride around the very edge where cars aren’t looking for you; (b) ride in the middle of the lane trying to approach roundabout speeds; (c) illegally pretend to be a pedestrian. Choice (b) is a viable possibility, but only if you’re a hard-core cyclist, whereas choice (a) gets you killed in short order—no, seriously—and choice (c) is illegal, although it should pose no *additional* risk to pedestrians if you’re doing less than 10k and have a roadworthy bike. Cycling needs to be treated as a viable form of transportation for *everyone*, from children who can’t drive yet, all the way up to the elderly who can’t drive any more.

    They’re planning on or currently are getting rid of the roundabout on St Georges Rd just before it crosses the Merri Ck, because of the bike path and probably tram line that goes through it. Thank the lord (or VicRoads and/or Bicycle Victoria at your discretion), although going from a bike path in the median strip to a bike lane on the road edge seems a bit hmm no matter the structure of the intersection.


    1. Good points. I would add that an additional problem with traffic lights if they are actuated is that bicycles aren’t heavy enough to trigger them. Particularly if you are trying to turn right and the right turn arrow is only activated if it detects a car. Bicycles just end up standing in the middle of the road with traffic streams on other side.


      1. The sensors apparently don’t use weight at all, but magnetism. If your bike doesn’t have enough iron, thats when it doesn’t work. I don’t know how much “enough iron” is, but if you have a bike with a steel frame, you’re definitely safe.


    2. You’re right about the difficulties of cycling through roundabouts. I suspect my bias against large roundabouts in the article has to do more with the challenges of navigating them safely by bike rather than by car.

      For smaller, one-lane roundabouts, I find I can go faster than a car through them, as I can take a straight line. So just before the roundabout I ‘take the lane’ and plow through. If the roundabout is too intimidating, I have no trouble breaking the law and being a pedestrian for a minute.

      That’s the good thing about being a facilitator. ;)

      The roundabout you mention on St George’s Rd is now gone. It’s now one of the places I get stuck at the lights and rue that there isn’t a better way!


      1. A bit off topic but since you brought up the St George’s rd roundabout and this is relevant by proximity – has anyone used the pipe bridge “to nowhere”? I annoys me that cycling bridges and paths are mostly token efforts in expediency rather than a responses to cycling needs and BV seems to play along with the charade. Are commuter cyclists really this irrelevant? Stupid question really. BTW my bike is a trusty 20 year old chromoly frankenstein creation.


      2. Thomas, smaller one-lane roundabouts are still intimidating if you’re the sort of cyclist who wants to go slowly, letting the cars pass you by. Or if you’re just exhausted (“yay I’m almost home but bugger me why did I go this way there’s that stupid roundabout to heck with it I’m gonna hafta [sprint/break the law]”). If you can do it faster than a car, you’re probably in the category of “hard-core cyclist”, which I intended to be inclusive of most Melburnian cyclists—we don’t have enough yet(/didn’t have enough when I left the country 18 mo ago). Getting better by the sounds of it but…

        As for “a better way”, trains don’t have to wait for red lights :)


  4. This one:

    That pipe Bridge leads almost directly to the TTTE HQ, where millions of irate monkeys dwell in basements lit only by the glow of millions of iPhones, on which they exploit the extremes of probability theory to create the blog you see before you!

    And even though I live right near it, I am yet to use it. Tomorrow.


    1. The very same. It might suit some riders commute, but I’m one of the 300 naughty cyclists who brave dirty looks to ride illegally through the obstacle course under Rushall station. The pipe bridge is imagined by the planners as an alternative route to this – even though it runs in a different direction.


  5. Great piece except for the puzzling dismissal of the four way stop, which has a lot of uses at minor street intersections, as long as you don’t cite cyclists for treating the stops as yields. Replacement of roundabouts by traffic signals at high volume intersections continues apace, for the reasons your other commenters describe.


    1. Hi Jarret.

      My experience of four-way stops consists of a few weeks in CA where they seemed hostile to the uninitiated. Everyone stops, and then goes after establishing who arrived first? To the untrained eye, they were slow at filtering traffic. Are the benefits revealed after prolonged exposure?


  6. As a staunch vehicularist, it may not surprise you that I don’t mind cycling through roundabouts. The most important thing to do is move into the center of the lane before you enter the intersection, so the cars are not tempted to push past.


  7. Every afternoon once I get sick of my job (again), and set off on my 37km commute, I begin by hooning (at the speed limit) along a country road, until TRIPLE round-a-bout hell comes my way.
    [Location, south of Brisbane QLD)

    It is well out of town – pedestrians and cyclists aren’t just scarce, they are non-existent. So every single dude is in his ute.

    The three round-a-bouts have at least four streets/highways coming off them, and have high traffic at trady knock-off time.

    I approach a round-a-bout, and if i continue straight, i get two more – they are all blocked a bit; the one I first meet is the most blocked because of the other two ahead of it. There is further delay as people a) don’t go through when it means they might block the round-a-bout or b) block the round-a-bout.

    If there were traffic lights we could sit there without rolling forward inch by inch and constantly looking right for the next truck, turn up the radio, have a (stiff?) drink, and then when green comes get moving.

    roundabout boo.


  8. I must say traffic lights give me the Sh!!!!s, Surely with the technology available today we can produce some form of traffic lights that can sensor traffic and communicate with other traffic lights to avoid finally getting through a green light only to have to stop 3 meters after because of another light turning red. This is a common issue with lights in Melbourne, they are not in Sync, for example, a group of cars waiting for a green light finally gets one however, only 2 cars can cross because the lights 10 meters further have turned red and by the time they turn green the lights were waiting at, are red again!!

    There is so much more that can be done to increase traffic flow. Just look at our roads. Victoria is the state for the bottle neck!! The ring road proves this. 2 lanes until you reach Sydney road then WOW it jumps to 4 lanes then in a matter of 2 ks 4 lanes merge to 2 PLUS an onramps for joining traffic…….No wonder it comes to a stand still every morning and night!!!………What kind of idiots are designing these types of roads? I surely know what i would like to do to one of them!!!! especially when I’m stuck in traffic.


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