Revealed: How Livingstone has brought congestion to capital

It's not just you - traffic lights in London ARE turning red faster. Why? Ask the Mayor ...

Hundreds of sets of traffic lights at some of the capital's busiest junctions are being secretly altered to increase the time motorists have to wait, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

The changes affect as many as 300 traffic lights. After months of suspicion among motorists – questions have even been asked in the House of Lords – the London body in charge of traffic lights has now admitted many lights have had their red phase increased and the green phase reduced.

Motoring groups, including the AA and RAC, say Ken Livingstone, London's mayor, has intentionally created the traffic chaos now – in order to make his congestion charging scheme more popular when it is introduced in nine months time. Congestion charging is due to begin on 17 February next year with motorists paying £5 a day to enter eight square miles of London's city centre. A ring of 200 cameras will scan 40,000 number plates an hour.

Other cities which are considering congestion charging schemes, such as Bristol, Manchester and Leeds, will look at the London mayor's tactics before bringing in a policy that is likely to infuriate a car-driving electorate.

Senior planners have also conceded that the next decade will be dominated by managing the gridlock on Britain's motorways.

They will control congestion by forming queues of cars at traffic lights before allowing them on to motorways. Schemes in use on the M25, such as compulsory lower speed limits at peak times, will become commonplace in areas of high congestion.

Further evidence that traffic is being slowed down in London, say the critics, is provided by a 10 per cent rise in roadworks, including two major schemes which will be completed just as congestion charging is introduced.

The accusation is vehemently denied by Transport for London (TfL), the mayoral body in charge of major roads and all the capital's traffic lights. But TfL has now admitted, in a written answer to Conservative members of the Greater London Authority that more than 300 traffic lights have been altered in the past eight months – but for a variety of reasons none of which, it says, are to deliberately create traffic chaos.

Traffic light timings, it claims, have been altered to give pedestrians longer to cross roads, to give priority to buses and to deter cars from major snarl-ups around roadwork schemes in places like Trafalgar Square. The effect of the "rephasings" has been to bring traffic in the capital to a near standstill.

The IoS timed traffic lights at Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square on Friday evening. TfL admits that timings have changed in both places in recent months but cannot say what the average timings were before the changes or what they are now.

In Parliament Square, it took 85 seconds for lights to go through the full cycle from green back to green. Drivers had 13 seconds to get through – long enough for 10 cars; pedestrians had 60 seconds to cross the road. In Trafalgar Square, the full cycle lasted 70 seconds – pedestrians were given 52 seconds and motorists 13 seconds.

Paul Watters, the head of the AA's roads and transport policy, said: "The mayor wants things to be bad at the moment because it will help him with the figures when congestion charging is introduced." According to AA Roadwatch, there were 363 major roadwork schemes in the capital for the first quarter of the year, compared with 333 schemes for the same period a year ago.

Jonathan Simpson, of the RAC Foundation, which is compiling a dossier of places where it believes traffic lights have been altered to stay red longer for motorists, commented: "In some major junctions, cars now have as little as 10 seconds to get through. I don't think congestion would be so bad in many areas if it wasn't for these measures.

"I certainly think Ken Livingstone is tinkering. If he hadn't got involved the roads would not be so bad."

Steve Norris, the former mayoral candidate who also used to sit on TfL board, is convinced Mr Livingstone is deliberately slowing down traffic to make the £5-a-day congestion charge palatable to London's voters.

"This is classic Ken. He has rushed into this thing without thinking how it will work," said Mr Norris, "What he has done with the traffic lights is deliberately extended the pedestrian phasing to create gridlock in the city."

A TfL spokeswoman said timings have been changed, but for a multitude of reasons, none to do with making congestion charging more agreeable. "What people forget is timings change as many as 40 times a day depending on traffic flows," she said. "There is a tendency to oversimplify what is going on."

Previous timings for pedestrian crossing were dangerous, she said, because they did not give people long enough to cross the roads. Timings for pedestrians were being increased in line with national safety guidelines. "These are measures to benefit a wide number of people. "This should be a nice city to walk around and cycle through."

The waiting game

In Parliament Square on Friday evening, pedestrians were getting almost five times longer to cross the road than cars were being given to go through green lights.

Richard Sage, 36, who lives in Covent Garden, said he didn't need so much time to cross the road. "I don't drive but sitting on buses and in taxis I've noticed that things have definitely got slower on the roads," he said. "I walk a lot around the capital but I still don't believe there is a need for reducing the times on lights so pedestrians get more access. I tend to cross the road wherever it suits me. I don't think we need different sets of traffic lights stopped at the same time either."

But Margaret Kates, 54, who lives in Victoria, was all in favour of longer lights and congestion charging. "I don't drive but I think anything that will encourage pedestrians is a good idea. I'm very much for people walking more," she said.

Mohammed Bidad drives regularly through London for work. "London traffic has definitely got worse and it's taking longer to get through sets of lights in the capital," he said. "Drivers are being penalised – there definitely need to be some improvements to let the traffic flow. Perhaps pedestrians should be given bridges or underpasses instead?"

Steve Baker, 38, who was waiting at lights in his car, said: "I commute from Chiswick to East London every day and I always see the roads getting clogged up. I don't think drivers are necessarily being deliberately penalised, but we are suffering."

Claire Newbon

'By the time I rounded Trafalgar Square it was £8 on the meter. Normally it's £4'

Alan Fleming is in the very best tradition of London cabbies. But he is incandescent. His ire, in recent months, has been directed not at English football or the weather or politicians – but at the state of the capital's traffic lights.

He spends a good part of his day queuing at traffic lights, inching forward each time the red light turns green, often for only a few seconds, before it turns back to red for several minutes.

"You used to have to wait 90 seconds, maybe, for lights to turn green again. Now it's two to three minutes," said Mr Fleming, chairman of the London Cab Drivers' Club. "And it's only green for eight or nine seconds. You only get two vehicles across."

He reeled off a list of ten junctions he was convinced had shortened the amount of time for cars. The Independent on Sunday passed the list to Transport for London (TfL), the body in charge of major roads and traffic lights, which confirmed all junctions had changed their phasings in recent times – for a variety of reasons. TfL says it is impossible to give details of what timings were and what they are now because the situation is too complex.

"It's a complete nightmare," commented Mr Fleming. "I have just taken a passenger from Victoria, down The Mall, and by the time we got around Trafalgar Square it was £8 on the meter. Normally it would be £4. And that's due to waiting at traffic lights."

Paul Robinson, another cabbie, said: "The Government seem to cause a lot of traffic problems in London. They set up all these problems by narrowing the streets and widening pavements for pedestrians. It's got so bad that I can't even use the Knowledge I studied when I sat the test 30 years ago. These traffic lights [Admiralty Arch] are always bad. In the evenings you really realise they have been set specifically."

Claire Newbon

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