Some problems with Sydney traffic signals

When I moved to Sydney in 2012, I couldn’t believe how badly timed the pedestrian signals were. The almost entirely uniform 6 seconds of green time, the requirement to yield to turning cars and the nonsensical phasing can make walking here such an unpleasant experience. It’s almost as if the signals are telling you to get in a car, because if you’re in a car, the system will prioritise you.

My frustration led me to do some research. The system to control traffic lights in Sydney, Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System, and the hardware that supports it, measures how many vehicles move through an intersection through the use of inductor loops under the road. The data can then be used to adjust the signal phasing.
SCATS and the hardware that supports it have no way of measuring how many pedestrians move through an intersection. This is absurd in busy urban areas where you will have traffic lights programmed to move very small numbers of people through intersections in cars, and the same system which ignores the hundreds or thousands of people who might be walking through the intersection at the same time.
While there are limitations with SCATS and the hardware, they don’t tell the whole story behind the inequity of signal programming in Sydney. These limitations are made even worse by the fact that the lights are actually programmed to make walking difficult. Below I’ve extracted sections of RMS’s Traffic Signal Design Manual as examples, which show clear evidence of bias against pedestrians.
Section 7 – Phasing and Signal Group Display Sequence

RMS section 7.9
Source here

Read: if you push the button to cross the road and the traffic going the same way has a green light, instead of you being given a green man (it’s normally not defaulted to green in Sydney – more on that another time), the lights will go red for the traffic moving the same way, then green for traffic moving the other way for a minimum period, and then after that has happened, you will finally be given a green man. This could add minutes onto a short walk, and while the phasing is justified on the basis of safety (to avoid conflict), it doesn’t really make sense since turning vehicles are required by law to give way to pedestrians. I suspect the process is more about reducing delay
for cars.

RMS section 7.9.2
Source here

Read: that one person crossing the road has no business being there, and the drivers who might have to stop are right to be frustrated. This sends the wrong message – everyone who uses roads, including pedestrians, should be treated equally.

If RMS and the NSW government want to get serious about walking in Sydney, it’s time these manuals were reviewed and redrafted, and lights reprogrammed, to allow for the freer movement of people across the city.

Published by Chris Shute

Lawyer, Sydneysider. Blogger of transport, specifically walking.

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