Tuesday, 15 May 2012

See the German lights

In Germany traffic lights are directional, sharing and inclusive, not mode-specific.

Green at a typical signalled junction in Germany means go! for EVERYONE travelling straight on. All.  Everyone. That includes drivers, pedestrians and cyclists, elves and their dogs. Turning drivers simply and carefully GIVE WAY to pedestrians and cyclists crossing their path. It’s an inclusive system, favouring equality. It's conducive to sharing the road, and engenders a fairer road sense and creates people places.

Compare this to the car-adoring UK where on a green light it’s either drivers OR  pedestrians moving. Drivers go, all pedestrians stop. Pedestrians go, all drivers stop. Mode-specific. Exclusive. Usually with a much-too-long wait for pedestrians. That’s why I jaywalk in the UK. That’s why I also jaycycle too. Cyclist are left stranded at junctions, between being a “pedalling pedestrians” or “walking driver”. That’s why I rlj: on a bike I feel much closer to being a pedestrians than being a driver (and I want to get away from the drivers engulfing me, these power hungry drivers with their revving engines, and speed addicts, and their fumes, urgh).

On one Newcastle junction, with a good intention no doubt, someone’s now introduced a third signal phase: cyclists only. Guess if it upsets EVERYBODY else? One consolation: at least cyclists have to push a button to trigger the phase. I am not, and use the pedestrian green light to cross. Insult. Injury. It’s a on a junction that should have been re-prioritised for people (pedestrianised) some while ago.

Also, there are other things of course that can be considered when designing cyclist-inclusive signalled crossings. Here are some tried and tested concepts that can be used in the meanwhile.

1. Create a cyclist-friendly green wave by phasing traffic light at cycling speed. This should be adopted for Newcastle city centre, in the short term, before the real urban people revolution (pedestrianisation) takes place. Let’s have a proper intelligent system, where traffic lights talk to each other and true smooth flow of traffic is achieved. Designing this should be every traffic and signalling engineers dream surely.

2. Count-down at traffic lights, so cyclists know how much time is left to safely jostle themselves into the green box ASL (usually occupied by taxis and buses, and other folks too, but hey). Can be used and is helpful for pedestrians too, naturally.

3. Cyclist’s green arrow.

4. Green head-start for cyclists

5. Traffic lights with speed detection sensor, automatically switch to red when over speed limit

6. Oh, yes, and elephant footprints for continuity's sake and clarity of space.

Bottom line. You gotta design for cyclists, observe what they do and understand why. If the rlf, ask why! Then you are half way there. At the moment we have a whinging bicyclist-bashing populace, and designers who simply don’t get it. But what pains me most in this country is that even pedestrians don’t understand.

So the prejudice continues and cyclists and their risk on the environment are vastly overplayed.


"The world would be a much better place without cyclists. And of course, cyclists are evil mindless murdering machines, controlled by the devil. Every time someone gets on a bike God kills a kitten, or two. If you wanna believe some, God kills the whole litter. And mummy cat with that. Ripping out their intestines to make Schwalbe rubber tyres out of them."

Cheers, UK. Calling that tolerant?

If you've got a few minutes, here's something the makes sense http://thebikeshow.net/red-light-means-go-or-does-it/ - thanks to @John_the_Monkey to point it out to me!

Added 23 February 2013. Here's what one of cycling's greatest advocates has to say about shooting reds http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_P_mPOEbvY#t=1m11s


  1. One other small but important difference: In Germany there are no lights on the opposite side of the junction, only beside/above the road leading into the junction. So if a car moves forward beyond the stop line, they can't actually see the lights any more. This stops them crawling forward quite effectively.

    If you install lights for cars high up as now, and for people on bikes lower down, you would automatically ensure that cars leave some space at the front for bicycles.

    1. Did you say a car moves? Is that with or without a driver... =) just kidding. Seriously now - in the UK... I like to crawl ahead (away) from the drivers behind me, and for that reason I am grateful for the second set. But all this is of course only symptomatic of the badly designed system that spatially marginalises cycling so it's only attainable to the fit and the brave.

  2. By and large, I am in complete agreement (from the point of view an Irish person who has been living in Germany and cycle campaigning there at local level for a while) that the German system works very well.

    But I think that there are particular junctions where it breaks down appallingly badly and with horrific consequences. In the town where I live, Bamberg, I can identify a number of junctions - typically between radial routes leading out of town and the ring road - where traffic movements are so fast and so complex that drivers seem to find themselves operating their vehicles considerably faster than they can operate their brains. As a cyclist, I approach these junctions - with trepidation - on cycle paths where I am effectively out of sight and out of mind for drivers (and quite possibly in their blind spots as well, in the case of truck drivers) until I try to proceed straight on across the ring road, on a green light, and drivers simultaneously get a green light to turn across my path onto the ring road, also on green.

    I usually attempt to establish eye contact with drivers who may be intending to turn on the run-up to these junctions, but it's always hard to work out whether I have been spotted, and I can never work out whether my instinct for self-preservation is telling me to slow down or to speed up. The big advantage of speeding up is that I then reach the junction at exactly the same time as the driver I have been trying to establish eye contact with, the one I have been silently begging to see me, please. If I hang back, I then have to start interacting with a completely new motorist who may be even less aware of my presence, and I will need longer to clear the junction if I have slowed down or stopped on my approach.

    In short: the situation is an absolute nightmare, even for skilled, able-bodied adult cyclists, and I am saddened but unfortunately not especially surprised that a cyclist was hit by a truck and killed at one of these junctions last week. I hope that we make progress of getting grade-separated solutions for at least some of them, but in the meantime, I would be very happy to see the traffic light phasing changed to something safer, if less convenient.

    1. Yip. Sounds like the design / layout could be improved at these junctions in Bamberg.

      Having to rely on eye contact when driving is done fast... that really doesn't tally with sustainable safety principles. Layout / geometries should keep cyclists safe, or perhaps separated in time by light phasings to remove conflicting movements of the unequal altogether. A design relying on skill is not inclusive and should be re-visited.

      Hope they will upgrade those junctions based on first principles!