Atlantic Cities
The Big Fix

Greening Traffic Lights By Turning Them Off

Greening Traffic Lights By Turning Them Off
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There are a lot of ideas about how to make traffic patterns greener through the adjustment of traffic lights. There's of course timing or actuating lights pegged to certain speed limits to allow drivers to stop and start less often, which helps reduce fuel consumption (but that can also be bad for pedestrians). In 2007, the U.S. federal government required that all new stoplights use energy-efficient bulbs. An entry in the annual Greener Gadgets Design Competition even suggested a traffic light that could also measure carbon levels.

But how's this for an idea to make traffic patterns greener (and, proponents say, safer): stop using traffic lights altogether. The so-called "naked streets" movement has gained traction across Europe, even in major cities like London.

The idea of streets without lights comes from a psychological principle known as risk homeostasis. It was pioneered by Gerald Wilde, a professor of psychology at Ontario's Queens University. As Jalopnik summarized, risk homeostasis suggests that:

When the level of risk in a part of the individual's life changes, there will be a corresponding rise or fall in risk elsewhere to bring the overall risk back to that individual's equilibrium. Wilde argues that the same is true of larger human systems, like a population of drivers. He argues that street signs designed to make us safer actually make us drive more carelessly by sort of nanny-ing us into complacency.

It sounds a little crazy, but it's worked in 400 towns across Europe (mostly in Germany, Holland, and Denmark). In 2007, the Dutch city of Drachten did away with street lights in 20 four-way intersections, installing traffic circles instead. The shift caused a dramatic decline in the number of traffic-related deaths: one intersection went from 36 in the four years before the shift to two the year after. And vehicles now cross the junction 20 second faster.

"The idea is to create space where there is mild anxiety among everyone so they all behave cautiously. No one thunders along at 30mph on a high street thinking that they have priority," Owen Paterson, the Dutch Transport Minister, told Jalopnik. "Instead of the State laying down the rules, we need to give responsibility back to road users."

Portishead, in England, ditched its lights in 2008, after residents marched up the city's main street to protest traffic and delays. The city experimented with turning the lights off, and accidents dropped. So they spent £150,000 to install mini-roundabouts and zebra crossings in place of the lights. "This ought to make crossing the road safer and quicker for pedestrians and allow motor traffic to filter and disperse, as it does through similar junctions up and down the country," Councillor David Jolley told This Is Bristol at the time

Even London turned some of its lights off for a spell. In 2009, the city ran a six-week experiment, switching off traffic lights and  monitoring the changes in traffic patterns. This led the city to install a light-free "shared-space" of Exhibition Road in South Kensington, which has seen a 60 percent drop in accidents.

Naked streets are not a perfect solution. The conversion can be expensive, and it takes some getting used to for drivers. But as municipal governments look to shrink their carbon footprint and save money at the same time, it might be a place to start.

Photo credit: Vacclav/Shutterstock.com

Keywords: London, Traffic, Congrestion

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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