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Martin Cassini: No need to raise VAT. There is a source of cuts to dent the deficit and benefit us all

Martin Cassini is founder of the traffic think tank FiT Roads. He has published an article in the current edition of the Institute of Economic Affairs journal Economic Affairs – Traffic Lights: Weapons of Mass Distraction, Danger & Delay, in this article he argues that traffic system reform offers unparalleled scope for beneficial spending cuts. The journal article can be read on the IEA website.

Image006 Not all cuts spell pain. The traffic control industry is ripe for reform that could bring massive savings as well as a transformation in road safety, congestion and quality of life. The industry is assumed to promote our well-being, but it operates to our detriment. With journey times at an all-time high, and 30,000 killed or hurt on our roads every year, the system is plainly unfit.

Most traffic control is a vain attempt to cure the symptoms of our problems on the road. Why do we have traffic lights? To break the priority streams of traffic so others can cross. Remove the cause of dangerous conflict – priority – and you remove the "need" for lights, and the need for speed, enabling everyone to do what is natural, safe and efficient: approach carefully and filter more or less in turn.

At major junctions at peak times, traffic control can be useful. Otherwise, the best guide to action is our natural ability to negotiate movement based on context. In negating that ability, the current system squanders infinite filtering opportunities and infinite expressions of fellow feeling.

When traffic lights fail and we follow our inner lights, “Get out of my way!” becomes “After you.” With courtesy free to flourish, congestion dissolves, even during signal failures across London (as in November 2007 and February 2008).

Could it be that simple? Well, deregulation is not enough on its own. To help people unlearn the bad habits of a lifetime, changes in culture, road design and the law are needed – but any investment would soon be swamped by the savings.

The Department for Transport puts the annual cost of accidents at £17.9bn. A natural form of traffic calming, FiT (filter in turn) would eliminate accidents where control plays a disruptive role.

The CBI put the cost of lost productivity from congestion at £20bn. A lights-off trial in Portishead has gone permanent after self-regulation proved over twice as efficient. Across the UK, annual efficiencies of 60%, or £12bn can be extrapolated.

Using a value of £6 per person per hour, time savings at this one location exceed £450,000 a year. Nationwide there are over 31,000 signal junctions costing £150K each to install and £5K a year to maintain, plus 25,000 pedestrian signals at £50K / £1K, i.e. £5bn capital and £150m running costs. Signal scrappage can provide further journey time savings of 56,000 x £450,000 = £25bn.

If deregulation can halve congestion at minimal cost, why waste millions on congestion charging? The odious London charge was imposed before deregulation was even tried. Now, thanks to endless signals causing endless interruptions, congestion is back to pre-charge levels.

In 2008/09, the Highways Agency spent £6.5bn (yet it does nothing to stop middle lane merchants restricting road capacity). Transport for London, with 100 managers on £100,000+, spent £5.4bn excluding “exceptional items”. The cost of our 150 local traffic authorities also runs into billions.

Instructional signage is a sign of expensive failure to design roads in a way that stimulates appropriate conduct. On FiT Roads, instructions could be removed and directions improved, enhancing the public realm and boosting employment.

Signal removal is also a no-cost way of cutting CO2. The electricity alone required to power our galaxy of 24-hour traffic lights produces 57,000 tonnes of CO2 a year. Other savings include the embedded energy in manufacture and installation, the needless delay, and the fourfold increase in fuel use and emissions caused by signal control. With equality stimulating co-operation instead of priority generating hostility, there will also be less need to police roads.

A Commons Audit Committee put the health costs of air pollution at £20.2bn. Even if the claim is only partly right, FiT solutions, by allowing traffic to disperse freely, could make a difference.

Traffic system reform can bring sustainable social, economic and environmental gains. Need we look further for spending cuts that would disadvantage only the traffic “experts” whose interventions are too often counterproductive? 

Other articles by Martin Cassini on this subject can be found at and Cassini’s 8-point plan to make Roads FiT for People is based on a trust in human nature rather than an obsession with controlling it.


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