Friday, 22 October 2021

Let's try turning off traffic lights, says ex-roads chief

TRAFFIC lights in Henley town centre should be switched off to see if congestion improves, according to the councillor formerly responsible for Oxfordshire’s roads.

Town councillor David Nimmo Smith says letting vehicles flow freely would force drivers to be more considerate and filter around each other naturally, which could speed up journey times.

He says that although the traffic would be moving more slowly there would be no long waits at red lights on the outskirts of the town.

Councillor Nimmo Smith, who lost his seat on Oxfordshire County Council at the elections in May, has changed his stance since 2015, when he opposed calls by Henley’s then mayor Martin Akehurst to trial turning off the traffic lights.

Then he argued it would create more jams and worsen air pollution.

He changed his mind after recently spending 10 weeks in the Caribbean helping communities hit by severe hurricanes.

Councillor Nimmo Smith, an engineer, says that the traffic lights there were out of action for several weeks after the storms but drivers were more careful and patient and there seemed to be less congestion in towns and villages. He said: “Everyone was very courteous. You had the occasional clog-up but, by and large, motorists would filter in and out of traffic in a sensible and pragmatic fashion.

“When the lights came back on, they were actually getting frustrated because they had to wait whereas beforehand they were much more gentlemanly and the traffic flowed better.

“Using that as a starting point I thought ‘why not try that in Henley?’ Theory dictates that our traffic lights are making things better but do we know that for certain. It’s a worthwhile debate.”

Traffic in Henley is managed by a system called Scoot, which was introduced in 2006 and is designed to keep traffic queuing at entrances to the town, allowing it to flow faster in the centre.

Underground sensors are linked to the county council’s offices at four light-controlled junctions: Reading Road and Station Road; Duke Street and Greys Road; Hart Street and Market Place; and the west side of Henley Bridge.

These record how much traffic is passing through. When there is little traffic Scoot changes the signals more rapidly so drivers have to wait less time. As congestion increases, it changes the lights less frequently as each cycle temporarily halts traffic flow, reducing the system’s efficiency.

The council insists that Scoot does not make journeys longer but moves existing queues out of residential and shopping areas, preventing exhaust fumes from building up in Henley’s narrow medieval streets.

The council says it turned off Scoot on a trial basis on one day in early 2014, when Henley was facing increased pressure because Sonning Bridge was closed due to flooding, and congestion doubled as a result.

But Cllr Nimmo Smith says studies conducted in Europe showed traffic flowed fasted when unmanaged and a trial in Bristol in 2010 saw congestion fall by up to 50 per cent in some areas.

He said: “As a county councillor, I did have some early discussions about it with officers but we never took the bull by the horns and tried it out.

“I was sceptical but what I saw in the Caribbean over a significant period of time has made me curious.

“There would be issues to resolve like the crossing at Hart Street, which is very wide with no refuge. We’d have to consider ways of improving the pedestrian experience and I’m not saying it would translate exactly but we should give it a go.”

Dave McEwen, a member of Henley in Transition and the town council’s transport strategy group, said: “I agree that it would be worth a trial as it could improve things in the short-term.

“However, the long-term solution requires a much wider look at traffic management as a whole, including getting people out of cars and on to bikes and public transport.

“We also need to look at things like pedestrianisation and shared spaces but that will probably take many years. We’ve been nibbling away at the issue but really need to grasp the nettle because Henley’s problems will get worse as more and more new homes are built.”

Councillor Stefan Gawrysiak, who now represents Henley on the county council, said: “This probably has some merit in principle but there would be quite a few hurdles to overcome.

“You couldn’t just do it on a whim but would need to plan and have a clear rationale. You would also have to make arrangements for pedestrians, who would be worst affected.

“However, I do think we might ultimately be better off with mini-roundabouts at some junctions rather than lights.”

A county council spokesman said: “We can’t simply turn off the lights without significant investment as there would be safety issues for pedestrians who would be without crossings and other road users for whom we would need to install lines, markings and signs.”

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