What would a better London transport system look like? How do we get there from here? And what could the next Mayor do about it?
By Andrew Z P Smith, on 3 May 2016
The next Mayor of Greater London has an easy time and a hard time ahead.
The incumbent has shown little intention to do much with the power of the office. So the new mayor won’t have to work too hard to look busy or effective, by comparison. That’s the easy time ahead.
But, in terms of managing London’s transport, they have a very hard time. For the first eight years of London’s new government, investment spanned all areas of transport, with vigorous interventions, and lots of long-term strategic planning and research. All that changed, with the change of mayor and the global financial crisis in 2008: in particular, the strategic planning and research capacities in Transport for London were cut back deeply. This is an apparently cheap strategy – a mayor that cuts long-term planning, but who had a predecessor who’d invested deeply in it, gets to live off yesterday’s investment, while leaving nothing for their successor. Like a farmer who only harvested and never sowed, there’s nothing at the next harvest. So when the next mayor wants to know what the long-term planning and strategic capacity is, they are in for a bit of a shock. And the picture gets worse: the money London receives from the Treasury to help meet the ongoing expenses its transport system, is to be phased out, leaving London with a £0.7bn shortfall. However, capital expenditure is still in place, and the go-ahead has been given for Crossrail 2. This a policy mistake that keeps getting repeated in transport in Britain: we invest in infrastructure, and then fail to provide for its operation and maintenance.
Individual multi-billion pound investments such as Crossrail 2 get a high profile, and lots of attention from media and politicians. And yet what London’s transport needs is a panoply of measures, mostly small and subtle, that are designed to work together to make the transport system as a whole, better: although congestion in Central London is still bad, many of its early successes have been preserved by the myriad of small roadspace reallocation schemes that were put in place as complementary measures: individual improvements to walking and cycling throughout the congestion charging zone and surrounding area. To see some solutions, means not just looking at individual problems, but at the city as a whole system. Those individual problems are each huge: the polluted air choking the city, the over-crowding on tubes and buses in Central London, the ongoing unsupportive environment for cycling.
In Central London and Inner London, the car is a failure. Not only is a major source of pollution, and still a significant cause of death and injury, it’s a hopelessly inefficient use of road-space – only taxis are worse. And taxis themselves risk becoming obsolete relics. They’ve been overtaken by new app-based minicab services such as Uber. Protectionist cries go up from taxi ranks to force minicabs to bear the disadvantages and barriers to entry that taxis face: to forsake the convenience of a car summoned on demand, the archaic pre-satnav encumbrance of The Knowledge, forcing drivers to learn fixed routes across London, to be tested in an oral exam. But the answer cannot be to drag Uber back to the 20th Century, but rather to bring taxis into the 21st Century, with predictable pricing, universal satnav, and ending The Knowledge.
London’s road-space is, and will remain, tightly restricted. So to accommodate smoother movement of people, we have to use the space much more efficiently. And the ranking of efficiency of space use is well-established, with pedestrian movement out-performing everything else, trams and cycles both perform well, and buses are efficient space users as long as they are popular. So, to increase the capacity of London’s roads, means enabling people to shift up that ranking – making Central and Inner London friendlier for walking, making all of London friendlier for cycling, and building new tram networks to fill in around the tube and train networks.
Tough measures are needed to improve London’s air quality, and to keep the roads flowing. And that means fewer cars on the road, and much fewer vehicles powered by engines that burn fuel. Road-space is scarce, demand is high, one additional vehicle on road at rush hour causes additional delays for many other people; and all this requires a higher congestion charge, and it requires the congestion-charge area to be expanded. Additionally, good air quality is a precious public good. Bad air quality hurts productivity, it hurts health, it makes London less welcoming for tourists and businesses, and it costs the country money because of the extra burden on the health system: so the new Ultra Low Emission Zone will need to be larger too, and charges will need to be sufficient to bring London’s air quality within legal limits – limits it currently breaches again and again, to the detriment of us all.
Is there any future for the car? Well, yes, but it’s not going to much like the past. Electric cars will continue their rise – and it’s up to the Mayor as to whether they facilitate or hinder that. Car usership will continue, but car ownership could transform completely: together with Transport for London, we’re looking at London’s successful travelcard and oystercard – easy ways to use trams, trains, buses, river travel and the Tube across London – and developing ways to extend it to cycle hire, car hire, and taxi / minicab use too – selling [mobility as a service].
And about twelve years ago, Transport for London commissioned the visionary architect Jan Gehl to come up with proposals to improve city life here: the proposals proved too hot to handle at the time, as they included the pedestrianisation of Regent Street and Oxford Street. The time will come when we’ve finally done that, and everyone will wonder why it took so long.
It will be up to the new Mayor to champion the revitalisation of the transport system that Greater London so badly needs, if the city is to continue to thrive.
Photo credit: Pixabay/Unsplash CC0 public domain