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Theresa Villiers: Congestion is a blight on our economy

This conference is an excellent initiative on an area of transport policy that urgently needs change and fresh thinking.

I warmly welcome the work that the Mayor and London Assembly are doing to inject some common sense into the way traffic lights are run in the capital.

This event is a timely one which I am sure will through much needed light on issues which have a significant impact on congestion and hence both on the economy of the capital and the quality of life of its residents. I had planned to attend the whole conference but since Her Gracious Majesty, the Queen, is visiting my place of work today, sadly I can't stick around.

But I am in no doubt whatsoever that TFL's rolling and extensive programme of review and rephasing of traffic lights is a key element in implementing Boris's election pledge to take effective action to get traffic flowing more smoothly.

It is a real concern, ladies and gentlemen, that the number of traffic lights in the capital rose by 42% in ten years. In Livingstone's London, there was a real and justified anxiety that traffic lights were deliberately used to cause congestion and clog up the traffic.
Although the Livingstone administration appeared to be the most extreme example, the problem has not been confined to the capital. For example, the Highways Agency has explicitly acknowledged that it uses traffic signals as "route restraint measures"  to "impose delays", as evidenced by, for example, the documents they submitted to the planning inquiry on the Mottram bypass proposals.

And October saw the launch of the "Put that light out" campaign by the Bristol Evening Post from a city fed up with mushrooming numbers of traffic lights. The campaign cites the kind of examples of which we've all heard where traffic flowed more smoothly when sets of lights were turned off in Portishead.

My colleague Robert Goodwill has a similar example of what happened when the lights went out in Scarborough, and I have one from my very own constituency in Chipping Barnet where traffic lights at the junction of East Barnet Road and Victoria Road were installed and then removed after they were seen to cause significant congestion.

Now I know this evidence is anecdotal and that these kinds of stories can sometimes blend into urban myth. But I believe there is enough substance to them, and enough justified public concern, to cause all of us to look again at how we approach traffic light policy.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not calling for some drastic cull of traffic lights. Nor am I asking for a system where the driver is king when it comes to decisions about the way our roads are managed. Indeed I have been very explicit in my support for bus and cycling priority measures which sometimes will mean less road space for the private car.

But what I do want to see is a fair and proportionate approach balancing the interests of all road users: drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, bus passengers, lorry and van drivers. There will always be trade-offs to be made between the interests of different users, and safety considerations will always underlie everything we do, but what is crucial here is that we have a transparent and intelligent way to resolve issues where the interests of different groups conflict.

And that the relevant decisions are made according to clear criteria, based on evidence, and which take into account the congestion impact of the decisions made.

It is self evident that there will never be enough road space to accommodate the infinite demands different road user groups would like to place on it. Physical as well as financial constraints on major expansion of road capacity in the capital make that it more vital than ever that we manage what is a limited and precious resource as effectively as possible. But I firmly believe that it is imperative that we undertake that task more efficiently than has been the case in the past.

We need a suite of measures here including, for example, to measures to crack down on irresponsible road works, as well as a fresh approach to traffic lights. So I was very pleased to hear that the Mayor had finally received permission from the DfT to trial pedestrian countdown. I believe that pedestrian countdown has great potential to deliver two important benefits at the same time, namely an enhancement of pedestrian safety and more green light time for drivers.

I've also made it very clear that I would support a pilot scheme for cyclists to turn left on red both because this would be convenient for cyclists and because I believe we need to assess its potential improve with cycling safety and help us deal with unacceptably high levels of cycling casualties that occur at junctions.

Other ideas worth considering are more widespread use of part time signals could be valuable as well as trialling flashing amber lights at night. And in my view, there is a strong case for a more graduated approach to traffic signals  so that greater care is taken to fit the traffic light policy to the nature of the road in question.

We need a clearer recognition that that there is no one-size fits all template that will give the right answer for every road.

Taking just a couple of London examples, it is manifestly clear that the signalling needed for roads like Oxford Street or Regent Street with their thousands of pedestrians will not be the best solution for more car based corridors like the Euston Road.

So these are the goals, how do we achieve them.

Let me be clear, if I were in charge of the DfT, I wouldn't seek to achieve those goals with more top-down targets and dictats. Instead I'd use flexibility, transparency and accountability to try to push forward with those policy goal, the key policy levers of what David Cameron has called, the post bureaucratic age.

So firstly, I'd give more flexibility to local authorities who want to trial innovative schemes to help traffic flow more smoothly, like turn left on red for cyclists. And I'd want to simplify and speed up the DfT approval processes for such schemes. I simply can't understand why ideas such as pedestrian countdown (not to mention permit schemes for road works) get stuck for months at the DfT awaiting approval.

Secondly, on transparency, I want to see the data underlying decisions on where traffic lights are installed and how they are phased opened up to public scrutiny. Rather than cumbersome review obligations, I want public scrutiny and accountability to drive the change we need on the nation's approach to traffic lights. Given the huge impact traffic lights can have on traffic flow and on pedestrian safety I do not believe that it is too much to ask for those in charge of them to publish clear criteria, based on evidence, to determine where they go and how they're timed.

So if a new set of lights starts clogging up your high street you can find out why, you can hold those responsible to account, and whether you are a pedestrian, a cyclist or a driver, you can have a say on whether those lights stay or whether they go.

Now I am aware that turning data underlying traffic lights into anything that is remotely intelligible to the public won't be easy. Nor will it be easy to find a way present the data in such a way as to enable the public to compare the record of different highway authorities. But I am determined that we must find a way to do this (and do it in such a way that does not impose unnecessary new bureaucratic burdens on local authorities) because I believe publication of this information is vital if we are to generate the accountability we need to ensure that our road space in managed efficiently, proportionately and fairly. And to address the sense of powerlessness that road-users so often feel in the face of opaque decisions which can have a huge impact on their daily commute but over which they are given no say and for which they are often given no explanation.

I hope and expect that the public debate that transparency and accountability  generate will increase the uptake of new technology and new thinking on traffic signals, including rephrasing and removal of unnecessary sets of signals. And lead others to follow the lead set by the Mayor and GLA in London and others elsewhere in the country tackling the epidemic of ever-increasing numbers of new traffic lights, an epidemic which in recent years has been in real in danger of undermining a rational approach to how we run our roads.

In conclusion, I want to signal to this meeting, packed as it is with the great and the good of the highways management establishment, that achieving the goals I have set out today would be a major priority for me if the Conservatives win the general election and if I am granted the honour of becoming Secretary of State for Transport.

If I have to shake up the transport and highways establishment to achieve that, be assured that I will have no hesitation whatsoever in doing so. I am confident they will show themselves ready and able to rise to the challenge.

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