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Are traffic signals discouraging responsible commuting patterns in Sydney?

Pedestrians are being increasingly discouraged by traffic signal prioritisation systems in the inner-city. Photo: Unsplash/Rafael Leao.


Leading transport experts have become concerned with traffic signal prioritisation schemes throughout the state, warning that a continued preference for motor vehicles may disincentive sustainable movement patterns in both the inner-city and beyond.

While existing traffic signals are designed to ensure the safety of pedestrians, an outdated crossing road system has precipitated a discouraged micromobility culture for commuters. 

UNSW Research Centre for Integrated Transport Innovation Director Professor Vinayak Dixit understands that despite the plethora of technology used in traffic detection, State agencies have fallen behind when accommodating micromobility.  

“With the road on any intersection, there’s a whole lot of detection; you have a loop detector, which is a cut out in the road, there are cameras, there are a whole lot of other sensors which do really well in being able to predict and detect movement,” Professor Dixit told City Hub

“But where we are really struggling is being able to detect cyclists, pedestrians and now with the introduction of e-scooters, it’s become even harder.

“We need an ability to detect and appropriately create a signal for cyclists and pedestrians.”

An outdated system

Professor Dixit says that the technology used for motor vehicles is extremely advanced when compared to pedestrian detection. 

“Think about crossing a road, it’s so archaic in terms of needing to touch a button – that’s one of the main ways we still detect pedestrians, and all of these detectors which are awesome in terms of looking at micromobility, loop detectors finding queue lengths, we really need to be kind of looking at technologies that can help detect and understand the demand for cyclists and pedestrians.” 

The predominantly micromobility technology that experts have proposed is camera sensors that will be able to track the extent of pedestrian delay and detect the demand for movement at crossings. 

While Professor Dixit understands the privacy issues that may be held surrounding this technology, he insists there are avenues to navigate pedestrian concerns associated with the sensors. 

“You’re not transferring pictures or information to a server around the face that can be detected, but rather finding that there are x amount of pedestrians and they’re experiencing delays for 45 seconds, 2 minutes, 3 minutes,” Dixit said. 

“The main reason that we are struggling to accommodate other users is because our detection technologies haven’t caught up to the options that have come about.”

Putting pedestrians last

Pedestrian Council of Australia CEO and Chairman Harold Scruby asserts that the pedestrian-motor vehicle power balance has grown out of control in the inner-city.

“If you look at the layout of the city, the traffic lights are controlled by a system which is all controlled by cars, so pedestrians are waiting for cars for the right to cross the road,” Scruby told City Hub

“[There are] cities around the world which … tend to put pedestrians first not last, our cities, and particularly Sydney, tend to put pedestrians last.” 

The width of footpaths in Sydney has long been a subject of debate in the inner-city. Former Lord Mayor Frank Sartor was first to widen the paths to encourage pedestrian movement before incumbent Lord Mayor Clover Moore chose to narrow the passageways in favour of cycling paths. 

“Pedestrians are about 90 per cent of the road users,” Scruby said. 

“The question is why are we always putting pedestrians last, we should have much wider paths, traffic light space so you don’t have to wait more than 40 seconds [to cross].”

Professor Dixit believes that Local and State Government Agencies should be championing sustainable movement practices for their constituents. 

“There is a responsibility to provide accessibility to people so they can actually access opportunities and transport, so sustainability is a broader term, but it’s access to opportunities, ensuring that we are providing clean alternatives,” Professor Dixit said. 

“It’s [about] how we provide a sustainable option, so that’s why electrification has been talked about as a great option around achieving those sustainable goals.”

The State maintains that their Travel Choices program continues to drive responsible commuting behaviours in the inner-city and beyond. 

“Transport for NSW uses its Travel Choices program to drive long term behavioural change and has been working with employers, businesses and stakeholders … to understand needs [and] share information about the transport system,” a Transport for NSW spokesperson told City Hub

“The program strives to change travel demand by redistributing customer trips to other modes, time or routes, or by removing the need to make trips altogether.”

But Scruby understands blame-shifting tactics employed by State and Local Governments as the predominant contributor for stilted sustainability practices in the inner-city. 

“The city is suffering at the moment,” Scruby said. 

“The Council blames the State Government and the State Government blame the Council and nothing happens.

“They’ve got to get a bigger picture outlook, we need to have a policy that requires Council to put pedestrians first; unless the State Government legislates that, nothing will happen.”

The City of Sydney maintained their commitment to the inner-city and sustainable micromobility patterns. 

“The city continues to advocate for slower vehicle speeds, reduced through-traffic, greater priority at intersections for people walking and a more equitable street space allocation,” a City of Sydney spokesperson told City Hub

“We have a program of ongoing works to improve walking including upgrading footpaths, ramps, lighting, wayfinding, shade and seating [and] tree planting.”

With sustainable transport becoming increasingly favourable for Local and State Governments alike, it remains to be seen what technology and strategy will be implemented to make the inner-city a friendlier place for its commuters.

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