In the battle to smooth London's traffic flow, one person keeps getting in the way - the pedestrian. If only we didn't want to cross roads quite so often, quite so widely, quite so slowly, cars could get round town rather faster. That's why TfL have established the Performance Led Innovation at Traffic Signals Programme - or PLIaTS for short - to improve the efficiency and performance of our traffic lights. Those countdown timers at road junctions, they were a PLIaTS initiative, and the success of trials will see them rolled out more widely across London. So what's next?
Reprogramming push-button pedestrian crossings, that's what. They're great for traffic so long as no pedestrian wants to cross the road. But once someone's pushed the button, there's no avoiding it, the red light will come. And that's fine, so long as the pedestrian's still waiting when the lights finally change. But you know what often happens. A gap appears between the cars and they dodge through. No gap materialises, but the pedestrian dashes across anyway. The road goes clear and the traffic signal fails to notice. By the time the lights turn red there's nobody waiting to cross, they've already gone, but traffic still has to wait even though there's nobody there. It's an undoubted (and widespread) waste of time. That's the problem PLIaTS is tackling next.
So this summer TfL is trialling technology which will allow the traffic signal controller (the grey box at the side of the road) to cancel the "WAIT" request if nobody is waiting to cross the road. Presumably there's some camera or sensor training its eye on the pavement, both sides of the road, which notices when pedestrians wander away - TfL aren't quite admitting how it works. If so, then I'm not quite sure why this is news. I thought puffin crossings had this capability anyway, with sensors watching to see when pedestrians are, or aren't trying to cross. Here's everything you ever wanted to know about puffin crossings, for example, which suggests that "Cancelling Pedestrian Demands" is nothing new. Whatever, the implementation of such cancelling technology has now been deemed worthy of a London trial, so presumably it's not been implemented properly in the capital before.
One of London's newest pedestrian crossings has been selected for the trial, at the end of St Margaret Street almost immediately outside the Palace of Westminster. It didn't used to be possible to nip over to the centre of Parliament Square, not safely, but a couple of crossings finally went in earlier this year. Much cheaper than part-pedestrianising the square, which had been the original plan, but which Boris cancelled two summers back. If you want to see Churchill, Mandela or the Peace Camp up close, the new crossings now make it safe to do so. And if you want to dash back across the road afterwards, the traffic doesn't need to stop.
Now I'm a bit late telling you this. TfL's consultation on this project lasted only a month, and ended just over a month ago. If you don't keep an eye on TfL's consultation website, these ideas skate by without noticing. I don't know about you, but I heard no advance warning of this at all, nor have I been able to trawl back online for any external mention. As for the trial in Parliament Square, that was scheduled to run for only one week in early August, so it's probably already complete. You can't dash along and try to mess up the data by pressing the button and then playing hide and seek on the pavement. But if you did try walking this way recently and the lights didn't change, this might be why.
I'd expect the trial to be a success. Not stopping traffic when nobody wants to cross is a no-brainer, surely. And many's the time I've felt almost guilty about crossing in a gap before the lights change, my conscience silently apologising to all the cars and trucks and buses suddenly grinding to a halt behind me for no reason. Equally there must be a potential downside, else no field trial of the system would be necessary. What if you stand somewhere the sensor can't see you, and the signal cancels, and you end up waiting forever? What if the sensor fails? What if... that other really awful potential downside, whatever it is?
You may not have noticed the Pedestrian Crossings Signal Trial, but you might well notice its outcome. Smoother traffic flow without disadvantaging the pedestrian, for a change. And, joy, a reduction in the number of cyclists speeding through red lights, because there won't be so many pointless red lights to ignore. Bring it on?