Monday 29 November 2010

Countdown timers on cycle traffic lights

There are now a variety of different types of countdown timer used on cycle path traffic lights in the Netherlands. This is one example from Assen. Update: In 2016 this junction was transformed in a way which made it far less convenient and more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists.

And another from Groningen. They're not limited to just these two examples, nor to these two cities, but are appearing all over the country as crossings are upgraded.

It's very useful to have an indication like this of when the lights will turn green. You know to regulate your speed as you approach the traffic light, so can ride more efficiently.

The bridge in Assen was featured on the blog before, when I used the example of the one-way streets into which it leads. The example in Groningen heads towards the main railway station, which has also been covered before.

Both of these sets of traffic lights also illustrate two other very important things:
  • Traffic light cycle times for cyclists are short. This leads to a low average delay for cyclists at these points, often lower than the average delay for drivers. This increases the competitive advantage of bikes over cars.
  • Permeability for cyclists. In both cases in these videos, we're crossing in a direction where motorists can't also drive, meaning that cyclists get more direct routes. Again, a competitive advantage for bikes over cars.

Not the same as London and New York
Please note that these timers are installed for exactly the opposite reason to those recently installed in London, where similar technology has been used to make pedestrians walk faster in order to reduce delays to drivers, a rather unpleasant idea which Britain imported from the USA. The Dutch use this technology to help cyclists and pedestrians, not to hinder them. It's another good idea seemingly "lost in translation".

There are several other posts showing how traffic lights in the Netherlands don't unduly hinder cyclists.


Anonymous said...

Little touches like these make all the difference in making cycling more convenient. Very nice.

Here in Brisbane (Australia) there is no such indicator at crossings for pedestrians or cyclists. I often press the button to cross and have to wait a full cycle of the lights before I'm allowed to pass - even if there is no traffic... in the middle of the night!

All the button seems to do here is allow you to cross on the next cycle - there is no priority at all and time given to pedestrians is minimal. If you don't press it, you are faced with a red person/cycle logo and have to wait...

Most of the time there is no button for me to press and as most bicycles don't set off the induction loop, many cyclists have to 'run a red light'. Extremely frustrating.

Paul Martin
Brisbane, Australia

christhebull said...

Of course, they have countdown timers in London, but these tell you how much (or rather, how little) time you have to dash across the road.

David Hembrow said...

Chris: Those are the evil doppelgängers of our lights ! What on earth do they think they're doing in London, actually making it more difficult to cross the road ?

Neil said...

evil doppelgangers indeed - it's that attitude of "pedestrians shouldn't be on the road".

Micheal Blue said...

Yes, nice. Except the example ligt from Assen is too small to see from any meaningful approaching distance. Toronto has timers for how long the green pedestrian will last. This is very useful for seeing if I can make it to the lights or if I should slowly coast and wait for the next traffic light cycle. Of course, this doesn't tell when the light will turn green again. In some cases this can be judged by looking at the timers belonging to the other section/direction of the intersection.
Unfortunately, some intersections are so weirdly programmed, that when the timer counts down to 0 and the lights should turn red, it changes to green again. This can be confusing, as one starts braking...for nothing.
This video show the timer:

Mark W. said...

@Micheal: they are only useful while you are waiting right in front of them, not from a distance. I know the Assen type from 's-Hertogenbosch (a.k.a. Den Bosch). What might not be clear from the text or video is that they do not always count down in the same speed. That is also the reason that displaying a countdown in 'seconds' would not be possible. Almost all traffic lights in the Netherlands adapt their cycles to the amount of traffic with detection loops. So green time varies but red time too. One moment the count down can be very fast, another time it can go slow. And the speed can also vary within one countdown. So there is no way you could slow down and be at the light in time even if you could see the countdown timer from a distance.

Daniel Sparing said...

@Chris, @David, I believe the countdowns in Amsterdam (and Copenhagen) count both red and green light time, and I find the green countdown also useful.

Colibri said...

Speaking of intersections managed with traffic lights, I have the feeling that there seems to be a general movement in NL to favour roundabout-based intersections.

For instance, through the Fietsberaad website, I've come into this project near Papendrecht. It consists of transforming a lights-controlled intersection to a bone-like double roundabout infrastructure.

As the Fietsberaad article says, they added LED-based indicators for cyclists and pedestrians. But still, crossing 5 (!) lanes, even with priority, makes my vehicular cyclist mind kind of worried :-)

Even if lights may require to wait longer, I always though that it was much less annoying/intimidating that crossing 5 lanes...

What do you think ?

Mark W. said...

@Colibri. That is correct and as a cyclist I really like that. In Den Bosch several junctions were changed to round-abouts (also places I thought would never ever have room enough!) and you can really pass much faster through a round-about than through a junction with traffic-lights. Much more pleasant.

David Hembrow said...

Colibri: With these things you really need to look at the overall picture and not individual examples. It's quite possible that it might be slower on a bike across the particular example of a junction shown in that Fietsberaad post. However, any journey by bike would not consist entirely of junctions like that one. It's clearly a way of trying to rectify a bad situation.

In the video it looks absolutely horrible. However, I've yet to find anything here which is actually so horrible, so I suspect that from the point of view of a cyclist it's not actually anything like so bad as it looks. Note that the cyclists in the video keep moving while the drivers have to stop. If you were riding on the road, you'd have to stop too to let the cyclists on the cycle path keep moving.

The speeds of cars are also not as high as they initially appear. It's not a well shot video for several reasons:

Sometimes I think the Fietsberaad see their role as exhibiting bad examples of Dutch infrastructure, or at least of making what exists look bad. This video is a great example. It's taken from some distance behind the cars, meaning that you get no idea of how it looks from the point of view of a cyclist. Also this results in the distance front to back being shrunk, as people on certain popular "cyclechic" websites like to do to make roads look more packed with cyclists than they actually are. The result is that this junction looks very full of cars and the approach speed to the crossing looks faster than it actually is.

What's more, they've shot a 16:9 video and uploaded it as if it were 4:3, again making everything look cramped, and making the cars look faster than they are. I've just uploaded a fixed version (note that bicycles wheels are round in my version) which looks a little less bad. However, this can't change where the video was shot from, nor the time of day and year which make it look so amazingly gloomy.

Having seen the video, I suspect you wouldn't recognise it as the same place if you were actually to go there and cycle. The cars would appear to be quite slow, they'd all stop, and you'd be past the whole thing in a few seconds.

Mark W. said...

@Colibri and @David I hadn't yet seen that video. But I agree with David, that probably looks much worse than it is. I have two videos of round-abouts more from the perspective of a cyclist. Looks much more inviting.
video 1 (in HD) and video 2 (older).
This is the type of roundabouts I was thinking about... But like David I suspect the one near Papendrecht could very well be like this from the saddle of a bicycle!

Daniel Sparing said...

I am not a fan of "cyclist alert" systems like the Fietsberaad video or other lights flashing when they detect a cyclist:

- they don't scale well. when the goal is achieved and there are a lot of cyclists then it just blinks all the time. It is designed with some rare cyclists in mind which should not be the goal if all works.

- it shifts the responsibility to technology from the drivers (thank god not legally speaking, but the perceived one). it can make drivers more confident, faster, and in case someone is not detected, cause an accident.

i really want every driver to drive so slow that they can recognize a cyclist with their naked eyes. If they don't, let's narrow a lane or put there a speed bump.

p.s. the trick i use to photograph many (Dutch) cyclists: wait for a bridge to be opened and closed :)

David Hembrow said...

Daniel: I don't like that type of system either, for the same reason.

Robert Guico said...

Heh, to this U.S. rider it looks very much backwards. The "latest and greatest" technology here presents large, numerical digits to the peds and bikes. Still, I use it to regulate my speed all the same (in this case, should I slow down expecting a yellow?)

A major disadvantage is that the numbers are only active if a pedestrian or bicyclist has gone before you. 95% of the time this is not the case where I live.

Why? Because if the pedestrian signal were active all the time, it would seriously and significantly disrupt the precise timing the county has spent a lot of money setting up for drivers to catch 8-9 miles of green lights on the cross street.

Daniel Sparing said...

@Rob, in fact, most traffic lights in the Netherlands are also demand-actuated, so (simply speaking) only turn green for any direction or mode when there is demand. So it is not always possible to calculate ETA at all times.

In fact, sometimes you see funny lights in Amsterdam which speed up counting down, when the line of cars is over :)

pkoonce said...

Very nice post. Your last two bullets ring very true as I am enjoying touring the Netherlands and all of the bicycle infrastructure. It is extremely well done. Do you think the reason it is supported by the masses is that you end up with everyone associating themselves with a cyclists (which can't be said most other places)?

Anonymous said...

But the London amber countdown timers simply replace the blackout period that follows the green figure's 'invition to cross'*: in my opinion a positive amber indication is better than a long blackout where no figures are lit. If a person arrives at kerb whilst amber countdown is running and they don't like working out whether they can start and cross in that time they can just treat the crossing like a pelican: ie the lit green figure shows the period when they can start crossing, when amber digits show, they don't start but those already crossing have enough time to finish (any lit amber aspect seems more reassuring to me than a long blackout). I am not sure I would have chosen a numeric amber display but others disagree with me.....

Also, I don't see why both types of countdown can't be used at same crossing:
a (red) countdown to green could be show either beside the farside red figure or, perhaps more neatly, like your dutch example, on a nearside panel/button unit, with the amber countdown on the farside as normal.

*yes they did reduce the overall pedestrian time, they explained why, and if it causes problems, nothing stops them increasing it again. There are legal minimum times anyway.