TfL gives sustainable travel the green light as it marks the 150th anniversary of the traffic light

Category: Travel 1
  • More than 6,000 traffic lights in London, with TfL working towards saving 15,000 hours for people each day by retiming signals
  • This week marks 150 years since the world’s first traffic light was installed, located outside the Houses of Parliament

Transport for London (TfL) is marking the 150th anniversary of the world’s first traffic light this week, highlighting the huge improvements that effective signalling has brought for the millions of people using the roads each day and announcing the next generation of traffic light improvements.

The world’s first traffic light was installed outside the Houses of Parliament in 1868 to counteract the high numbers of people being killed on the roads. Despite there being no cars at that time, more than 1,000 people were dying on London’s roads every year.

Towering six metres (20 feet) above the carriageway, the first traffic light resembled a railway signal with waving arms to indicate stop. It included the familiar red and green lights, but not amber, was powered by gas and required police constables to change the light manually using switches. The huge signal was removed after a month, when a policeman was seriously injured in a gas explosion and traffic lights did not return to the capital until 1926.

Since then they have become an absolutely vital part of the transport network, with TfL responsible for 6000 traffic signals in London, which are optimised to help traffic flow as smoothly and safely as possible, whilst balancing the needs of all road users. The extensive SCOOT-controlled system uses sensors to detect traffic and adjust the signal timings to manage queues, tackle congestion and give buses priority if they are running late. This alone keeps traffic delays 13 per cent lower than they would be otherwise.

In the latest improvements to the traffic light system, TfL is working to save 15,000 hours every day for people walking, cycling and taking the bus by reducing wait times and giving them more opportunities to cross London’s roads. This world-leading work includes reducing pedestrian wait times at crossings where people are moving along the roads most – close to schools, shopping centres and transport hubs.

Reducing wait times in this way will also help reduce road collisions as part of the Mayor and TfL’s ‘Vision Zero’ work to eradicate death and serious injury from the roads. Around 85 per cent of pedestrians cross within 30 seconds of arriving at a crossing, so reducing pedestrian wait times where possible encourages people to wait for the green man, which is the safe invitation to cross.

At busy locations, like Marylebone Road, where the crossings are split into two, TfL is improving the link between the timings to avoid pedestrians having to wait in the middle island. The improvements that TfL has made to traffic signals this year means it already takes two minutes less to cross York Road in Wandsworth, a minute less to cross parts of Oxford Street and fifty seconds less to cross the High Road in North Finchley.

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