Green green lights given green light

This was originally published here on Matters Scientific, the Cherwell science ’blog.

I realise that, running this so soon after the article on electric speed bumps, I’m running the risk of turning this into the Cherwell urban road planning ’blog, but local council transport policies have once again made environmental headlines this week.

The big news is that planners can finally support so-called ‘green waves’ of traffic lights, which use sensors in the road to allow smooth-flowing traffic to surf on a wave of consecutive green lights through towns and cities. This should decrease journey times, drivers’ aggro and, because there will be less braking and accelerating, carbon emissions.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? So, er, why weren’t town councils in favour of these before? Well, it turns out that they are forced to cede to a set of centralised Department for Transport guidelines. The new guidelines endorse the green waves, citing their environmental credentials. So, what was the previous policy? BBC News explains:

Previously the Department for Transport had discouraged the systems which reduce fuel use, resulting in less tax being paid to the Treasury.

I wish I had been sipping coffee when I read that, because I would have literally sprayed it all over the computer. Alas, I was reduced to swearing aloud.

There is obviously a degree of pointlessness in getting irate over guidelines which have just been revoked…but this advice is so egregiously batshit insane that I think it’s worth dwelling on. Official government guidelines explicitly obliged councils to inconvenience the public as much as possible in order to charge them for the privilege.

If the government need to raise taxes, and I am not so naïvely right-wing that I cannot countenance this possibility, then please put a percentage point on income tax—or even fuel duty—don’t waste our time and petrol just to tax us on the latter! Of all the horrendous stealth taxes, this is surely the most triumphantly idiotic. It’s like forcing people to take up smoking in order to boost government coffers. (Ha ha, I am funny. Coffers, coughers, geddit?! Oh, screw you.)

And how late is this advice being repealed? In 2009, after decades of persistent whingeing from environmentalists, the government finally abolishes a policy which actively requires road planners to increase emissions in order to plump up the public purse. What next, encouraging rampant consumerism to boost tax revenue on useless plastic shit? Oh, wait.

I hope you too are seething with resentment at an institution which can set out guidelines mandating public inconvenience and environmental catastrophe in order to scrape together a few extra pennies.

However, though I am glad to see the back of the previous ludicrous legislation in principle, I’m not so sure in practice. These more efficient traffic control algorithms will allow us to squeeze more vehicles onto the road, and the only law in road planning is that no matter how much extra capacity you create, it will be filled. Plus, if you don’t want people to drive in towns, making it as annoying as possible due to perverse, irrational traffic signals could be a good thing: lowering the irritation barrier may mean that those extra spaces on the road are filled quicker than you’d imagine.

Strangely, then, it might well be better to return to the previous, annoying stipulation—but crucially, if we did, it should be on the principle that it advances the greater good. We should add up the pros and cons of the various different solutions—environmental, economic and taxation—and choose the one which makes the World as good as it can be. There must never be a place in government for laws which make things worse in order to reap the tax revenue.


  1. Hey ! im looking forward to not stopping at lights and actually not breaking the law by doing so..if that makes any sence.

  2. In which case you’ll be pleased to read that I found out whilst researching this that Boris is trying to allow cyclists to run red lights if they’re turning left.

    According to the Mail:

    The news comes as Boris Johnson, who is also said to favour the ‘green wave’ idea, unveiled plans to allow cyclists to go through red traffic lights legally. The London mayor has written to the DfT suggesting that cyclists should be allowed to turn left at red lights, avoiding a potential £30 fine. Cyclists would therefore be able to negotiate turns ahead of vehicles, particularly lorries which are responsible for a high proportion of cyclist deaths.

  3. Have you actually seen a government document spelling out that green wave systems are to be discouraged because they’d reduce fuel tax revenue ? The journalist’s phraseology is a bit sloppy, and the policy seems so daft SURELY it can’t be true ?

  4. I’m not sure exactly where the claim came from. I was asked the other day and realised that, though I’d spent an unhealthy amount of time on the DfT’s website, I’d not explicitly seen it—though nor had I seen mention of green waves other than for emergency vehicles, so knotty a maze are their guidelines. A number of other news sources had parroted the tax claim, but in this world of pass-the-press-release, that doesn’t exactly count as corroboration.

    I’ve had another look this morning and not found much. All the appraisal documents suggest that you should take tax revenue into account when costing a new project, so perhaps it is from this that we can implicitly extract their guilt, or perhaps a more thorough analysis of one of their many complex acronym-tastic appraisal algorithms would turn up an unhealthy obsession with fuel taxation, but it’s far from explicit.

    I’ve e-mailed the Beeb asking for their source.

    Incidentally, I’m still waiting for a response from the DfT, whom I e-mailed on April 14th.

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