Low level cycle traffic lights given blanket DfT approval for London, it was announced today

Radar and heat sensing technology able to detect cyclist numbers, and lengthen green traffic light phases in response to bike traffic, was unveiled this morning on Cycle Superhighway 3, in London.

The SCOOT (Split Cycle Offset Optimisation Technique) detection technology, which is already used to regulate motor traffic on half of the capital's junctions, is being trialled on a segregated two-way cycle route on Cable Street, near Tower Bridge, before being rolled out across London's cycle superhighways.

Transport for London (TfL) also announced today low-level cycle traffic lights have been given blanket approval by the Department for Transport (DfT) for use across the capital, following their trial on Cable Street and Bow Roundabout. 

Isabel Dedring, London's deputy mayor, said this morning the technology was starting to level the playing field for cyclists in the capital, who at present are invisible to traffic sensors.

"In policy terms we say that we would value a person in a car the same as a person on a bike, but in technical terms we don't, because cyclists are invisible to the signals," she said.

"As the city gets bigger and more crowded we are taking a lot of road space out for cycle infrastructure, congestion is intense; we want to squeeze every drop out of road capacity and using SCOOT is one of the ways we can do that. By using SCOOT we can get an 8-12% increase in capacity at a junction. That doesn't have to mean cars, that could mean pedestrians or cyclists; it gives you the option to tweak and optimise that."

The heat sensing and radar technology, installed on traffic light poles and in the ground at the junction, can sense the direction, size and heat signature of a moving object and differentiate between cyclists and motor cars. For now engineers are monitoring how the system reacts to cyclists before they start to use it to hold a green signal for longer if there are more cyclists at the junction.

Once the initial trial is complete, the radar and heat sensing technology will be trialled across different junction types in the capital.

London is leading the way with cycle infrastructure, in part due to the growing numbers of bikes in the capital and increasing pressures on the transport network from a rapidly growing population. Dedring said the DfT still remains too prescriptive, so that London has a lot of work applying to it for approval for each change it wishes to make on the roads, from new technology like this, to the road signs it can use.

TfL traffic technology engineer Peter Gribble said among the challenges of the trial are differentiating between cyclists, pedestrians and motorcycles. He said cyclist speeds can fluctuate from around 6mph to 26mph, while cyclists might leave the roads more often, making grouping bike traffic together and detecting their movement across the network more difficult.

TfL expects Cycle SCOOT to be rolled out by 2018 across all new and upgraded cycle superhighways, where it will be integrated with the city's motor traffic SCOOT network. By 2018 three quarters of London junctions will use SCOOT. A pedestrian SCOOT has also been trialled in London, and TfL is now assessing the findings.

Low level traffic lights are used widely across Europe but London is the first city to be given approval to use them in the UK. As well as being introduced on London's cycle superhighways TfL will work with boroughs to identify further locations for their use.