Tag Archives: smoothing the flow

Westminster and TfL: quietly making things worse

Traffic wasn’t going anywhere fast around Picadilly Circus tuesday lunchtime. It was backed all the way from the bottom of the still one-way Haymarket up onto Picadilly Circus and beyond:

Trying to turn onto the newly two-way Pall Mall:

And up the still one-way Lower Regent Street:

It’s presumably because we’re at a half-way stage, where Pall Mall has gone two-way, Haymarket and Regent Street remain one-way, and Picadilly is half-closed and half-way transformed:

All of these works are, of course, a massive wasted opportunity. But they can’t make things any worse than they were, can they? They could, if the announced removal of traffic lights makes crossing the road more difficult for pedestrians. But the new cage-less central reservation is supposed to make it easy for pedestrians to cross wherever they like through gaps in the traffic. We’ll see about that.

But Westminster have quietly made things worse in another way. I’ve not seen any blogs mention it, and can find no note of the change from Westminster. But I am sure I do not hallucinate it.

Jermyn Street runs parallel to Picadilly a single block south. As Google Maps indicates, it’s a one-way street, westbound from Haymarket to St James Street. A quiet back street, it provides an alternative to the Picadilly bus lane, or going all the way around the system on Pall Mall. Popular with cyclists* — though perhaps Westminster wouldn’t know that, since nobody really bothers to count them.

Except that this is now the view from Haymarket looking down Jermyn Street:

You can see where once a solid white line protected a cycle lane heading west. It has been burned out because this short section of Jermyn Street between Haymarket and Lower Regent Street, marked in red on the map, has been reversed, without even keeping the cycle lane as a contraflow, thus putting an end to this route.

Why? Smoothing the traffic flow, of course. And it’s for the benefit of pedestrians, you know. While pedestrian crossing lights remain at the intersection of Regent and Jermyn Streets (not that they are either necessary or helpful when a static bendy bus has been blocking them for five minutes), since traffic can only turn into, not out of Jermyn Street, a phase of the lights can be eliminated.

You can see the previous arrangement still on Streetview: a bicycle cut through for continuing along Jermyn Street, while preventing motor vehicles using it as a rat-run. Clever of Westminster to get rid of it under the cover of fiddling with the traffic lights.

The only question for which the answer isn’t obvious is whether this work was all of Westminster’s own initiative, or whether TfL put the idea to them.

It’s probably for the best. With all the chaos on Pall Mall and Picadilly, the narrow quiet route west from Regent Street is now choked with trucks and coaches trying to break out of the endless jams around it.

* I used the route frequently on the way to events at the Royal Institution on Albemarle Street, just off Picadilly. In the early nineteenth century, events at the Royal Institution were so popular that Albemarle Street became congested with carriages. After a particularly well attended lecture by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, it was made the world’s first one-way street, all in the name of smoothing the flow of this traffic.

Smoothing the flow: pushing more kids into cars

We know that Boris Johnson’s fantasy of “smoothing traffic flow” will act as an incentive for people to get into their cars and, even more so, for businesses to move more stuff around. In a city like London there is much more potential demand for road space than could ever be supplied, because individuals and businesses who see an empty bit of road will always conjure some reason to fill it. An equilibrium is maintained by the tolerance that individuals have for sitting in traffic and the tolerance that businesses have for spending money doing business on the roads.  Add or remove capacity to London’s road network and it will not make the slightest difference to congestion or journey times. It’s not like we haven’t tried it enough time to be sure of that.

What is not so obvious is that in addition to pulling people into motor vehicles, it will push them in too. There are several reasons why. One of them is that the mayor is ripping out traffic lights and pedestrian crossings, making walking more difficult, dangerous, and time consuming.  There are a number of reasons why this will push people into cars, but I stumbled upon a nice one while skimming through Hume et al, Walking and cycling to school: predictors of increases among children and adolescents.

Hume et al looked at the variables that affected the success of a programme to encourage walking and cycling to school. They surveyed the opinions of the children and their parents on all sorts of aspects of their lifestyles and of their social and physical environments. Two variables were strongly associated with success: the perception that other children in the neighbourhood were walking to school*, and the provision of safe crossings.

Well, not exactly the provision of safe crossings, but the perceived provision of safe crossings. Specifically, the survey asked participants if they agree/disagree with the statements “there are no traffic lights / pedestrian crossings for my child to use” and “I am satisfied with the pedestrian crossings in my neighbourhood”. Parents, whose job it is to worry, are of course easily affected by perceptions of safety, and when they perceive safety to be compromised they do something about it — like put their child inside a big metal box.

Even if there is just about a sufficient provision of crossings to get their child to school, the provision of crossings in the wider neighbourhood will still affect whether a child is walked or driven to school for all sorts of reasons, including: the perception of how safe it is to walk to school is influenced by an environment wider than just the route to school; the number of other children in the neighbourhood walking to school will itself be influenced; and those living in less walkable neighbourhoods are more likely to own and frequently use cars, including over short distances, making driving to school seem like a less unusual thing to do.

Off course, none of this says anything certain about what the precise effects of the mayor’s removal of traffic lights and pedestrian crossings will be — quite the opposite. In the complex, chaotic, unstable and irrational world of travel choices, the mayor can’t hope to make isolated quick fix tweaks without sending unpredictable shocks through the system.

Further problems with the mayor’s traffic lights games are discussed by Cycle of Futility.

Friday photo: modern mail

This is the view from my office kitchen back when I had that real job (before I gave it all up to do this instead).  The sun is rising over the city, with the Docklands towers just visible, pale in the distance between the Barbican towers.

The street in the foreground is Mount Pleasant. You can just see the Rosebury Avenue viaduct between the houses left of centre.  Just poking into shot on the left is Mount Pleasant sorting office, the central hub of the London sorting offices.

And all this derelict land in the foreground has been cleared for overflow car-parking for the staff.  I’m sure that the employees, even the 9-5 managers, would call to their defence the fact that this place operates 24 hours a day, which the tubular railways do not (shush, don’t mention the fact that buses and bicycles do).

But the presence of, and even more so the presentation of, the overflow car parking is significant.

Several floors beneath this building is the Mail Rail, an underground narrow gauge electric freight railway built by the Post Office in the mid 1920s to link Whitechapel sorting office in the east to Paddington station in the west via Liverpool Street station and several other central London sorting offices.  There were once plans to link even more terminus stations and sorting offices this way.

Over the years those plans slipped away, ever more unlikely to be realised, as the Post Office, a nationalised industry unable to persuade politicians the treasury of the merits of such capital expenditure, discovered that it could do things cheaply and easily enough using our heavily subsidised road freight infrastructure.  Indeed, trucking stuff around on our streets has been made so absurdly cheap that by 2003 the Post Office was telling us that Mail Rail cost five times what it would cost to truck the mail across town.  It can’t have helped that there are a million health and safety rules on that sort of underground machinery, while society seems happy to let drivers kill and be killed in their workplace.

And it can’t have helped that the Post Office were, according to the unions, deliberately running down the railway, pushing up its running costs, and taking much of the mail by road anyway so that it could hide many of the costs of the truck depots and fleet from the estimates on the grounds that those would be needed, Mail Rail or not.

And so in 2003 it mothballed the Mail Rail and started driving dozens of 60 foot articulated trucks around town.  Especially to the main sorting office, Mount Pleasant.  Situated at the top of the Farringdon Road, most of them either come via Elephant & Castle and Blackfriars Bridge, or down the Euston and King’s Cross Roads.

Why would it close a perfectly good Mail Rail to invest in trucks and depots and drivers, making dubious claims about savings?  Because it has a long term business plan that it can’t openly acknowledge.  If the Post Office were to remain doing what it has always done, it would make good business sense to maintain the Mail Rail, a fantastic device that allows them to get the mail in to and between its central London sorting offices without having to drive trucks into the central zone.  But the Post Office doesn’t expect to be doing what it has always done.  It has already lost its state monopoly — albeit in the most bizarre fashion which allows private companies (and subsidiaries of other countries’ state postal services!) to compete for the easy and profitable job of collecting the mail while obliging the Post Office to then do the more labour intensive job of taking it the “final mile” (Mount Pleasant is a much more colourful place since the DHL and UPS and UKMail and, my favourite, Norbert Dentressangle trucks started turning up to dump their letters on the poor posties).  And the process of privatisation has slowly eased along over the years, reaching, last month, the passage of the act that allows the government to sell the company, if and when it is ever ready to do so.  Once complete, ever more of the Post Office’s business, including delivering to that final mile in places where, as in London, it can be profitable, will go to the cheaper competitors, unencumbered by such expensive frills as unions and customer service.

And I’m willing to put money on what happens next, either while the government is rushing to get the business into a state that looks attractive to potential buyers, or immediately after it has been sold off.

Mount Pleasant will be closed, sold off, and demolished. The building shows the signs of a bare minimum maintenance regime.  Enough to keep it hobbling through.  When they needed a bit more space to take the incoming mail, they built a corrugated iron extension in less than a week.  Clearly not a structure they expect to last.  And that car park.  That wasteground overflow car park.  Derelict land being kept derelict in central London.  That’s an organisation that says: we won’t be long; we’re not putting down roots.

There will be an order to preserve the Mail Rail, behind a concrete slab in the basement of whatever “mixed-use development” replaces Mount Pleasant, just in-case circumstances change and a use is found for it in the future.  But an accident or act of untraceable night time vandalism during construction will result in the tunnels being flooded and written off.

Indeed all central London sorting offices will close, for they all sit on extremely valuable land whose sale will help keep the company’s books looking healthy for a while.  The sorting offices will consolidate into just a few.  Big metal barns on the ring roads.  It’s already happening in Yorkshire.  Perhaps there will be one at Staples Corner for the mail from the north.  One in North Greenwich for the mail from the continent, coming through on trucks loaded on the Shuttle.  Sites convenient for the motorways and the North Circular.  Not like Mount Pleasant and the other central sorting offices, hidden away on little city streets.

No more will you see the posties on their iconic Pashley cargo bikes.  They tried to get rid of them already, but they discovered that there wasn’t enough room at Mount Pleasant and Oxford Street to store that many new vans.  The new sorting offices will have room.  They’ll have to, if they’re going to do central London rounds that start from the North Circular or beyond.  No one at the Post Office will mention the loss of the Pashleys, but they’ll press release the fact that the new sorting offices’ motorway-side locations mean that they will no longer have to drive 60ft articulated trucks through central London streets, and the mayor and the cycle campaigners and the bloggers will celebrate.

This is why “smoothing the flow” doesn’t work.  Making the roads easier to use and more reliable reduces the cost of road transport and allows businesses ever more opportunities to change their practices and cut their costs by using more road transport.  Create capacity and somebody will create a way to fill it.  It’s great for business, they say.  Why should a shop pay expensive central London rent for a store room when it can drive its stock in from a cheap barn on the north circular?  Why should a hotel invest in a washing machine and a maid when it could have its laundry driven to a cheap barn on the north circular?  Why should a bar pay up-front for an ice machine when it can have ice driven in from a cheap barn on the north circular?

Why should the Post Office maintain central London sorting offices, bicycle deliveries, and an underground freight railway, when its competitors are all operating out of barns on the north circular?

Because we pay for it.  Road freight isn’t cheap, it simply avoids paying its bills.  We pay for the rehabilitation and lost income of the people hit by the vans.  We pay for the care of the people dying from air pollution related diseases and sedentary-lifestyle related diseases.  We pay for the trains and taxis and buses because cycling and walking is difficult and unpleasant in a city choked with vans and trucks.  We pay for the noise pollution and the water pollution.  We — or Camden taxpayers, anyway — pay for the bollards that they’re constantly knocking over outside the Packenham Arms, ’round the back of Mount Pleasant.  And we pay because making this kind of business cheap makes other kinds of business difficult.  Liveable cities attract businesses and talented employees, retail spend, and tourism.  London, we are regularly reminded, is competing with the other great world cities and European capitals to attract the headquarters of big companies and major employers.

The Post Office isn’t cutting its costs, it’s externalising them, dumping them on the rest of us, like the competitors who in turn dump the expensive bit of the business of delivering mail on the Post Office.

This business plan, of course, depends on road transport remaining cheap and easy for all time.  Like the railway closures of fifty years ago, we will look back at this era and marvel at the short-sightedness of it all.

Bridge Diet time

The latest from Streetfilms explains how everyone, especially motorists, can benefit from taking road space away from cars:

Boris Johnson promised to “smooth the traffic flow”.  It’s a vague policy which could be interpreted in any number of ways, and used to support a great variety of often conflicting policies.  I think when most people imagine a “smooth” traffic flow, though, they do not think of high motor vehicle speed or great motor vehicle capacity.  They think of reliable journeys.  Consistent journeys.  They could be reliably slow and consistently congested if those are the prevailing conditions.  And that’s fine.  The point of things being “smooth” is not to shove more people though the system in shorter times.  It’s to eliminate surprises.  A “smooth” flow means that deliveries leave the depot at the same time each day and always reach the shops on time; people get the same bus each morning and are never late for work.  Most people, I think, would interpret “smoothing the flow” as a move away from the impossible fantasy of solving congestion, to a new fantasy policy of reducing random one-off congestion incidents — of making congestion a little more predictable.  Businesses can plan for the predictable.

The biggest cause of unpredictable congestion is crashes.  Crashes are themselves frequently caused by excessive speed and complicated road layouts.  Road layouts that require lane-changing and lane-merging, especially.  Things like this:

Consider the southbound carriageway of this proposed TfL road design.  Vehicles from two roads feed into the carriageway and have to sort themselves into two southbound lanes and a right-turn lane.  The drivers of those vehicles will have to negotiate with buses that will be crossing all of the lanes from their left-hand-side bus stop to their own special right-turn bus lane.  They will need to be checking for the bicycles which have to share their lanes, and which may be wobbling out of the under-size bicycle lane (where it is provided); pedestrians at the crossings and islands; and bicycles which are dumped in the road from a perpendicular bike lane.  Certainly many of the drivers of those vehicles will choose to swerve around such obstacles, taking advantage of the raised 30mph speed limit, rather than slow down for them.  And after enjoying a couple of hundred yards with two lanes through which to meander, motor vehicles will all have to merge into a single lane — just at the moment that they are all racing away from a set of pedestrian crossing lights — because one of their lanes becomes a bus lane at the south end of the new layout.  All this high-speed lane changing and merging is a recipe for crashes.  Unpredictable congestion.

Indeed, even when it doesn’t result in crashes, the waves of braking that follow a lane change or merge still causes “lumpy” traffic.  (Tom Vanderbilt’s blog and book explain the phenomenon and its subtleties excellently.)

I would suggest to TfL, and to its chairman, that a road design like this could conflict with the mayor’s election promise to “smooth” the traffic flow.  But I know they would come back with the perfect solution.  They would remove the bus lane restriction on Blackfriars Bridge.

In the meantime, we have one day left to contribute to the “engagement” on this road design.