How much time do you waste waiting at a traffic light?

Waiting at red lightI’m lying in bed feeling lazy. Suddenly a scary thought pops into my mind. Damn, I scheduled that meeting today. I look down at my watch. I have just 15 minutes to get from Swiss Cottage to Hyde Park. I throw on my clothes, grab my bike, tap the lift button continuously until it arrives as if that will make it go faster and then shoot off down Finchley Road arriving at my meeting on time. Except that’s not what happens. I don’t shoot off down Finchley Road. Because, I’m stuck at a traffic light. The clock is ticking and no cars are passing. I’ve made a resolution with myself to not jump red lights so I wait.

Green light, pedal down, I start powering my way in the direction of Hyde Park. Draft a bus (I can’t make resolutions to end all my bad cycling habits) and then get caught up at another dreaded red light. 10 seconds pass, 20 seconds. I’m getting nervous. We’re off again only to get caught by another red light 0.1 of a mile away. Now I’m really sure I’m going to be late.

Can you relate to this experience? It got me thinking about how much of our time we, as cyclists, waste waiting at red lights. So I ran a little experiment using the Edge 705 I’m borrowing off the nice people at Garmin for a couple of months. Every time I would arrive at a red light I would tap the lap button and then as I set off again I would tap the lap button again.

So here is what I found..

Total journey time Time spent at traffic light % of time at traffic light
16:38s 3:08s 19%
10:20s 54s 9%
16:00s 3:47s 22%
13:02s 2:08s 16%

The shocking result of my unscientific experiment…

17% of my time was spent at a traffic light. A total of 9 minutes 57 seconds out of 56 minutes of cycling.

I must admit it feels like a lot more. But maybe I’m just the impatient sort of person that wants everything now. The sort of person that could benefit from a more Zen Habits approach to life.

So what can you do while spending 17% of your journey waiting at a red light?

  1. Practise your track standing.
  2. Give evils (official term: establish eye contact) with all the drivers behind you so they realise your position on the road.
  3. Or you could think about how long you could survive chained to a bed with a Velociraptor?
  4. Or perhaps you could dream up a world where traffic lights were never invented?
  5. Spark up a conversation with the cyclist next to you?

I’ll see you at the red lights. I’m the one who swears each time the light turns red…

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61 Responses to How much time do you waste waiting at a traffic light?

  1. botogol 02/09/2010 at 10:38 am #

    my commute is twickenham to canary wharf.
    I am a ‘stopper’ (I don’t really jump lights) and a typical journey is 63min total: 57min moving, 6min stationary. Better than your stats, and stationary includes some moments just stopped in traffic as well as red lights.

    I have experimented and tried only stopping when I absolutely have to – jumping EVERY light, junction, crossing etc where possible – and I find that that sort of behaviour only saves me about three minutes – and clearly entails some risk, so I don’t do it.

    Although I DO make left turns on red lights, when no traffic. I think that is safe – and should be legal.

    • Andreas 02/09/2010 at 10:55 am #

      As it happens I have a post on the turn left at red coming up tomorrow ;) Be interested to hear more of your thoughts on that..

      Sounds like you’ve found a good route with not too many traffic lights – or perhaps your much quicker than me and thus dodge them!

  2. Corin 02/09/2010 at 10:42 am #

    Great post! I really sympathise with this. As someone who got stung for a red-light violation by City of London police a couple of yearas ago I stop for every single red nowadays, and it can be a frustrating experience. It’s interesting to find out exactly how much of a journey is spent in this state.

    I would love if someone could invent a route finder app that would give me directions avoiding lights, even if it meant adding significant distance to the journey. I’m pretty sure it’s nearly impossible in central London, however.

    • Andreas 02/09/2010 at 11:02 am #

      Thanks Corin! Think Cycle Streets are developing a route finder app but don’t think it has an avoid red lights! Though, you can see on the map how many red lights there are on the way. Sometimes hitting the quieter roads can work out faster as they don’t have red lights.

  3. Guilherme Zühlke O'Connor 02/09/2010 at 10:43 am #

    If you are using the Edge you don’t really have to lap by hand to run the experiment, there are automatic ways to do it.

    The easiest I know is just upload the data on the Garmin Connect site and in the stats it will tell you how long was your journey and the “moving time”, the delta between these is what you’re looking for.

    • Andreas 02/09/2010 at 10:55 am #

      I’ve had the Garmin for about two days now so any tips like this are key!

  4. tim 02/09/2010 at 10:45 am #

    you should estimate time spent braking and accelerating as well, you could probably halve your ride time if you went straight through all the reds at full speed :-P

    • Andreas 02/09/2010 at 11:00 am #

      Ala copenhagen “green wave” style. Where if you travel at 15mph consistently the whole way then you won’t get hit by a red

  5. james 02/09/2010 at 10:48 am #

    Hi Andreas, Sometimes I’ve asked the same question, but never got around to timing the lights. I can think of several routes options that I avoid because the of light sequences. Some sequences are so painfully long that a longer route can be several minute quicker over just a couple of miles. Some have lights set at red for huge amounts of time while nothing moves, neither pedestrians nor cars. Some have sequences where the next set of lights go red just as the one’s you’re waiting at go green.

    Horrible light sequences include; Charing Cross Road to The Mall, The Mall, and Buckingham Palace Road to name just a few.

    I’m sure some of these sequences are being set to deliberately hold up traffic. Can anyone shed any light on the thinking behind light phasing in London?

    See you at the lights…

  6. Guilherme Zühlke O'Connor 02/09/2010 at 10:50 am #

    Ah, it’s also worth noting there is a hidden slow factor on the red light not showing on your experiment that is the fact that there is a slow down and acceleration time every time you stop, that is technically moving time but it’s typically slower than if you didn’t have red lights to stop at.

    Also the point that you may not even reach “cruise speed” in the first place if you know there’ll be a red light ahead. In that sense, botogol’s experiment is more accurate, though as he says, more dangerous.

    I’m not really trying to make a point here, just speaking my mathematically oriented mind out loud. It’d just be nice not to have red lights, isn’t it?

    It turns out I’m on a new job starting this week and my commute has only one pedestrian red light to cross the street when I leave home and then It’s the Thames Path for less than 20′, it’s a dreamlike commute, it can only get better by being a bit longer.

    • Andreas 02/09/2010 at 10:57 am #

      I need a mathematically orientated mind on this! Perhaps you can do a follow on post for me? I personally struggled to even work out the percentages..

      Great to hear about new job and great commute there! Congrats!

      • Guilherme Zühlke O'Connor 02/09/2010 at 11:17 am #

        Sure, I’d love to write you a post, send me an email with the kind of topics you’d like me to cover.

        And thanks for the congrats, I’ll see if I record a video of it soon-ish.

  7. David 02/09/2010 at 10:50 am #

    My 10 mile run from N12 to SE1 is about 10% stopped at traffic lights. 50 sets of lights I think.

    Getting to know the lights a bit can help. I almost always get stopped heading south on Farringdon road at the Clarkenwell Road junction. If I filter to the front, set off as soon as it goes green and get up to about 20mph then I will make the lights at Cowcross Street before they turn red. Amble along and it is an extra stop.

  8. JdeP 02/09/2010 at 10:55 am #

    If you do not use the stops at red lights to catch your breath, you are clearly not trying very hard to get to your meeting!

    • Andreas 02/09/2010 at 10:58 am #

      Good point! Another suggestion to this list at the bottom of the post of things to do..

    • Nicole 02/09/2010 at 1:34 pm #

      Agree! The bit of my ride which takes me through Hyde Park always makes me exhausted because there is no stopping for a longish stretch – I’m clearly used to pegging it hard when I can, and then resting at lights.

      • Andreas 02/09/2010 at 2:52 pm #

        I think that actually builds really good fitness too. So maybe traffic lights are actually a bonus!

        • jonny 03/09/2010 at 10:46 am #

          I have 20 sets of lights on my commute, so alot of it is sprint/stop/sprint/stop, however there is a long stretch of about 2 miles in a bus lane with a railway bridge at the end of it, the climb is a killer after going flat out for a couple of miles (im pretty unfit to be fair- hope fully it willg et easier as time goes on!)

  9. Chris Marshall 02/09/2010 at 10:56 am #

    I’m a stopper at lights mainly because I could easily imagine my last thoughts being “Hey! I didn’t notice that bus” which I’m not too keen on.

    A while back I decided I’d do my bit to make London more friendly and tried option 5 but after a series of blank looks and muted responses to my attempts I’ve given up. But if you see me (I’m also the one swearing when the lights turn red) then say hi; I’ll do my best to acknowledge you!

    • Andreas 02/09/2010 at 10:59 am #

      I’m not much of a light talker either. Though I’ll happily say hi to someone. I still remember funny conversation I had when I realised the person next to me was heading to the London naked bike ride too

  10. Henrik Risager 02/09/2010 at 11:09 am #

    Think of it this way, you will still get there faster than others, on the tube, bus or their own cars.

    I spend the time “waiting” either on people watching and London is great for that or thinking about a new route to take.

    • Andreas 02/09/2010 at 2:52 pm #

      I tend to ponder a new cycling route too. I often wave my hands around picturing it and then realise I’m in central London and people are probably looking

  11. Andrew 02/09/2010 at 11:27 am #

    I have to agree with botogol, the amount of time at lights is actually not that bad.

    My route takes me from Balham to Gunnersbury and there’s a particularly busy stretch of lights along Chiswick High Road from Hammersmith.

    Even so, my bike computer records approximately 40 mins of cycling and I’m usually on the road for about 45-50 minutes.

    I’m not a red light jumper and for the sake of 5-10 mins extra on my journey it makes sense not to risk mowing over a ped or being mown over yourself.

    Ultimately its about respect, and the sooner all cyclists start to respect other road users by obeying the rules of the road (and not jumping lights) the sooner we can hope that motorists will start to respect us (cycle lanes, boxes at lights etc).

  12. Gaz 02/09/2010 at 11:39 am #

    On my 16 mile central London commute I have over 100 sets of lights on my commute. It takes me around an hour each way and I can be stopped for up to 30 mins in total, equalling around 25% of my time stopped at lights. Which shows just how much London isn’t designed for the cyclist!

    • Guilherme Zühlke O'Connor 02/09/2010 at 11:43 am #

      I’d go further and say it’s not a problem of being designed for cyclists or cars because, though I’m not a driver, it seems cars don’t get much better luck with lights either, because when I’m cycling I often find that I meet the same cars for a long part of my journey, which means that even if you have an engine, you’re still stuck at a speed that some of us, cyclists find slow.

      • Andreas 02/09/2010 at 2:54 pm #

        Agreed that you meet same cars again and again. Gaz – I would try pick a new less light intensive route! 100 lights is crazy!

        • Gaz 02/09/2010 at 8:10 pm #

          I have various routes that go all the way across south london. None of them have less than 90 lights. Just the way it is.

  13. botogol 02/09/2010 at 11:57 am #

    even red-light jumpers suffer significantly from the deceleration / acceleration effects: you can’t jump red lights at 22mph.
    Or not often!
    No doubt that’s why jumping doesn’t actually save you as much time (IME) as you might think.

  14. TroisV 02/09/2010 at 11:58 am #

    Red lights are for singing songs.

  15. Mike 02/09/2010 at 12:27 pm #

    Red light at a left turn. Get off, push bike round corner, get back on, job done. :)

    You’re not breaking any laws, although I do wonder if the ability to shift from cyclist to pedestrian and back winds motorists up more than running the light would.

    Same thing applies at right-turn only junctions, one of which I have on the way to work.

    • David 02/09/2010 at 12:33 pm #

      I get off and push round the corner when turning right from The Strand onto Waterloo Bridge. Going round Aldwych seems like a lot of work.

  16. lexxxx 02/09/2010 at 1:10 pm #

    it is frustrating waiting at the red lights, of course, but for me i treat it as a way to relax and get my energy back. also, i have noticed half the time i end up overtaking cyclists that skip reds anyway… if you want to get to your destination quicker, don’t break the rules, just cycle faster/better.

    • Andreas 04/09/2010 at 1:42 pm #

      Agreed about catching up with red light jumpers!

  17. Jack 02/09/2010 at 3:20 pm #

    Clearly theres only one answer Andreas… get a car!

  18. Iain 02/09/2010 at 5:10 pm #

    There’s being stuck at lights for a minute as they dither through their sequence, then there’s th lights that just plainly ignore you! Was stuck at a set today while the lights went through every other route twice (and there was an impatient car behind me – lights don’t respond to your engine revs so save your fuel and rest your right foot! [they also don't magically respond to flashed headlights at night either...]) There is a line you occassionally here on those Police, Camera, Oops shows – “the light suddenly changed, what’s a green light going to do? Change to red.” Most lights (barring crossings) tend to be on timers these days, so if it’s green while you’re a distance away, ease off, cos if you keep going at full charge it’ll likely change as you get to it… It sometimes works for me, and at least reduces late breaking/shifting as the lights change. The only problem with that technique is the motorist who just has to get to the lights first (after all, as they’ve only just changed to red, they must be about to go to green again, especially if you rush to them!) [this also applies to roundabouts] Incidentally, why do they put such a long delay on pedestrian crossings? There are some here that you press the button cos there’s traffic and you can’t cross, a gap comes, so you cross and then the lights realise there’s a gap and start to change stopping the traffic while no one crosses… Annoying as a pedestrian and worse on the bike!

  19. Vayid 02/09/2010 at 6:41 pm #

    If it’s clear I’ll hop off and walk across like a pedestrian, if not I’ll just wait and if it’s really empty I’ll just slow down at the lights then look right and left and keep doing so as I cross.

    • chris 03/09/2010 at 9:13 am #

      Oh I hate cyclists that do that. If I’m waiting at the lights and some joker gets off, walks over and then gets on again and rides away, it almost makes me more angry than blatant red-light jumping.

      I think it’s because it IS red-light jumping, but wrapped in a blanket of smugness assuming that it’s legal and moral.

      • AdamS 03/09/2010 at 10:14 am #

        Chris I can see why you say that, however I have found that the best way to enjoy a happy commute is to ignore the misdemeanours of other road users wherever possible, and concentrate on what I’m doing while waiting at the lights (like trackstanding badly, admiring passers by of the opposite sex, checking out other people’s bikes etc)

        Anyway, hopping off and on again IS legal and I’m not sure where morality comes into it to be honest. If you don’t endanger other road users while doing so then how can it be immoral?

        • chris 03/09/2010 at 12:42 pm #

          I wish I could be so Zen as to ignore the transgressions of others!

          Isn’t that just advocating going through the light? Would we treat a motorcyclist/moped walking their machine through the junction in the same way – or even a car driver pushing theirs?

          I’ll try and dig out chapter and verse, but I’ve got a memory of a discussion (probably way back in the day on uk.transport) where there was caselaw that ruled that a cyclist pushing their bike was legally equivalent to a cyclist riding it.

          Walking your bike through a red light is just telling those around you “your rules do not apply to me”, that’s the morality of the situation, which almost inevitably leads to “why should I treat you with any respect if you can’t obey the rules in the accepted fashion?”

      • Vayid 03/09/2010 at 12:15 pm #

        Well it is legal… unless you can show me the law which says it isn’t?

        • Andreas 04/09/2010 at 1:43 pm #

          lol @ image of a car driver getting out and pushing his car across the red light

  20. Angi 02/09/2010 at 9:54 pm #

    Why lie…I jump some red lights…mostly pedestrian crossings when no one is crossing. But I always stop at junctions (I don’t want to end up as road kill by some speeding moron coming the other way).
    I, personally, judge each red light based on the situation…It’s not about time saving at all…I actually like stopping at some red lights…like some people said…it’s a good rest to catch your breath…and hum a tune!

    My problem isn’t really the red lights…it’s that damn level crossing I get stuck behind every god-damn morning…the one that runs through Acton, Wilsden Junction etc..
    If you know the one I mean, you’ll know what a pain it is…especially when you are left waiting for ten minutes before a train even bothers to approach.

    Am marshalling (hopefully) this Sunday at the London Sky Ride and it was suggested at my local CC meeting that it’s left up to the marshals whether to jump red lights or not…was kind of a strange suggestion…but clearly it’s an issue on the minds of many.

  21. Patrick 03/09/2010 at 8:59 am #

    The ratio for my commute is about ten minutes of stops to 35-40 minutes of cycling, I just think of it as interval training, if I want a nice long unfettered ride I just go out of London to those nice quiet lanes in Hertfordshire.

  22. chris 03/09/2010 at 9:11 am #

    Mostly I think of traffic lights as a good way to get a breather before I sprint to the next one, but that’s because there are just so damned many. You either stop at them or have to take ludicrous detours to route around them.

    But what to do in that time?
    1. Ponder on who gave permission to the mopeds and motorbikes to be in the ASL with me.
    2. Dream up that cutting put down for when I pass that red-light jumper for the nth time because he’s slower without stopping at reds than I am for stopping at each of them.

    But mainly traffic lights are part of the deal of travelling by road in London – quiet acceptance. If I can’t be bothered to actively campaign for their removal (and there are many on my route which would be better replaced with a different type of junction management system) then I shouldn’t really complain too much about not likely them.

    • jonny 03/09/2010 at 10:51 am #

      “2. Dream up that cutting put down for when I pass that red-light jumper for the nth time because he’s slower without stopping at reds than I am for stopping at each of them. ”

      haha – same here. Ive never seen the point in jumping reds to be honest, 90% of the people who do it are travelling so slowly it hardly saves any time.

  23. Phil 03/09/2010 at 10:10 am #

    If the lights change to red, they change to red; there’s nothing I can do about it, and I’m not going to risk my neck jumping them, so I stop and get off the saddle until they turn amber, when I pootle on. There is no benefit from becoming angry about things you cannot alter.

  24. AdamS 03/09/2010 at 10:22 am #

    Phil, that’s a good attitude, are you a Buddhist by any chance ;)

    My commute is relatively short – about 5 miles – and if I go all out, jump a few red lights, squeeze through gaps, overtake stationary traffic in the face of oncoming vehicles, and generally take risks, I can do it in about 12-15 mins.

    If however I take my time and do none of the above, it takes about 5 mins longer, and is far less stressful, so I figure why bother? If I’m late then I’m late, or if it’s important enough I’ll get up a bit earlier.

    This is also the only way I’ve managed to drive in London without going insane. Put some tunes on, take it slow, don’t worry about other drivers.

    • Phil 14/09/2010 at 10:33 am #

      I’m not consciously Buddhist, but I have come to appreciate that line of thought.

  25. kathryn 03/09/2010 at 10:32 am #

    I always quite enjoy focusing my ‘eye contact’ on the vans that invade our green box so you either have to be alongside them, or have to push right out in front so you can’t see the lights/might get squished by the traffic.
    I haven’t yet worked up the nerve to tell them to get out of our box (they’re always bigger than me). Does anyone else?

    • AdamS 03/09/2010 at 10:36 am #

      I keep thinking I will, but then figure I can’t be bothered with the confrontation. If I’m already in the box and they pull alongside (which is rare) then I stare at them but most seem to avoid eye contact (as they’re usually gawking and prodding at some tiny electronic screen).

  26. Mike Smith 03/09/2010 at 10:36 am #

    If it’s sunny, suck the paunch in and watch the girls go by.
    If it’s raining, suck the paunch in and watch the wet girls go by.
    If it’s windy, suck the paunch in and watch the bad-hair-day girls go by.
    If you don’t have a paunch, or are differently gender-oriented, feel free to vary the above to suit your circumstances.

    • jonny 03/09/2010 at 10:53 am #

      haha red lights stops are really for catching breath/drinking water/perving.

    • Adrian 03/09/2010 at 10:55 am #

      My ride from turnpike lane to victoria takes about 30-35 minutes usually. When I had my cycle computer working I’d see stats like 28-32 minutes tracelling time (not stationery) and 33-38 minutes from start to stop, so 5 or 6 minutes, so arournd 17% – 22%.

      I do run “pedestrian” red lights (no cars just people), but I stop and waddle through them, so I’m technically a pedestrian whilst doing this, and there is one red light that I will turn left at on the way in, as the traffic has a mandatory turn left coming the other way so It’s completely pointless.

  27. Matt 03/09/2010 at 11:02 am #

    I used to go for option 5, until I realised no one else was stopping and I was just talking to myself…. but now I’m going for the Mike Smith option (and I probably have paunch to spare if anyone is missing one)

  28. Sarina 03/09/2010 at 11:04 am #

    I quite enjoy the red lights as I chance to catch my breath and look around in London (come on, how often do we look up at the great buildings in the city), I also take the opportuntiy to check out fellow road users to see if any attractive men are lurking around. There never are but hope springs eternal.

  29. Sarina 03/09/2010 at 11:09 am #

    Apologies for my terrible spelling and grammar today!

  30. Will 03/09/2010 at 11:21 am #

    The roads I ride on are rarely empty enough to ignore red lights. They are there for a reason. When my light goes red then it means that somebody else’s is green. This is a simple and fair exchange. I get the right hump when people ignore their red light and obstruct or endanger me, so I don’t do that to them.

    And, as a number of people have said, time spent at red lights is not wasted. Any time out in the open air on your bike is far more precious than time spent sitting at a desk, even if it is just standing still, catching your breath and maybe even having a stretch. Try to look at time added to your commute as time subtracted from the more boring parts of your day.

  31. Pete 03/09/2010 at 11:58 am #

    My 16 mile morning commute (Walthamstow to Shepherd’s Bush) takes 1 hour and 25 mins with 10 minutes of that sat stationary at traffic lights.

    So 11% of time is sat still.

    I bust the occasional red light, but only when there’s no traffic, no Ipeds, and no brightly coloured Westminster traffic cops around …

  32. Andrew 05/09/2010 at 8:36 am #

    I cycled in London yesterday, for the first time in a while. I enjoyed the freedom, the views (I never get tired of the beautiful St Paul’s Cathedral, among others) and not being underground, but definitely noticed the red lights this time. I don’t normally jump reds, and as I didn’t know the intersections I was especially cautious. Very frustrating though when no-one else is moving either!

    I also used CS7 (off peak) and although it is just blue paint it felt strangely pleasant knowing that we cyclists are getting more “facilities”. It’s a start, and hopefully drivers are noticing the bright blue and giving cyclists a little more respect. Peak times may be a different matter though!

  33. notsocrates 09/09/2010 at 12:01 pm #

    Chris: walking around red lights is most definitely legal. I recently completed a triathlon on roads that were open and there were very strict rules about sticking to the Highway Code and the law but said that you could walk the bike through red lights. So it’s def legal, and like the guy above, I can’t see what on earth could be immoral about it [confused].

    Actually you can wait a very long time at some lights (eg Tooley Street junction with Tower Bridge Road) as they will only turn green for Tooley Street if they detect the metal of a car or bus, not my bike, so if it’s just you on your bike waiting, the lights will never go green. How long exactly would Chris wait? ;-)

  34. amy 10/09/2010 at 10:30 am #

    My husband leans on cars/ vans that invade the green cycle boxes by traffic lights to save him putting his feet down. This winds up the drivers but makes other cyclists laugh and does no harm.

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