Tell TfL: reject GST NHS Trust’s bad ideas for Westminster Bridge

I started an only slightly facetious petition: Build safe bus stop bypasses on Westminster Bridge. Please do sign it and share it.

Facetious because it’s a tit-for-tat response to Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust’s* petition against bus stop bypasses on Westminster Bridge. I felt just slightly bad resorting to such childishness in a week when more than ever I felt the need for the world to sit down and resolve its differences through mature dialogue, compromise and understanding rather than mobs lashing out for all-or-nothing outcomes.

But only slightly facetious, because Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust set the terms for this game, shunning attempts at engagement and instead spreading misinformation to frighten people into opposing a scheme with little understanding of the proposal. If that’s how we’re playing this, bring it on.

What TfL have proposed

TfL want to continue their long-overdue modernisation of London’s roads, and next on their list is Westminster Bridge. Following established international best practice, the modernisation will provide clear space for cycling that is separate and protected from the carriageway and footway, making cycling a safe and attractive option while removing conflicts with motor traffic and pedestrians. Obviously these will also be separated from bus stops, with so-called “bus stop bypasses”:

WBS Visual 1 roundabout

Readers in London will be familiar with these tried-and-tested designs from the Cycle Superhighways. Readers in a number of European countries will be so familiar with them that they’ll wonder how they could possibly provoke a second thought, let alone how something that’s such an established part of the street furniture could lead to tit-for-tat petitions and blog posts.

What Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust propose

But in Britain we really are that far behind, and therefore bus stop bypasses are still alien enough to some people that Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust have been able to spread fear and misinformation about them — enough to gather 972 signatures for their petition, which calls on TfL to “consider the alternatives”.

GST don’t elaborate on the what the alternative is, and have declined to answer questions or engage on the subject, but we know what the alternative to separating modes is — it’s mixing them. GST have, at least, clarified that they are not opposed to cycle tracks, only to the bus stop bypasses. So the only possible conclusion is that rather than bypassing the bus stops on clear separate space, cyclists mix with bus passengers in the bus stops.

Obviously that’s an insane idea, and it’s difficult to find examples of such a thing being built. But this is Britain, home of the insanely badly designed cycle facility, so it’s difficult — but far from impossible. Here’s a bus stop on Royal College Street without a bypass**:

bottom-bus-stopped

(via CEoGB)

Guess how well that works?

This is on a relatively quiet street, with just one relatively lightly used bus route and a trickle of pedestrians and cyclists. On busy Westminster Bridge this would be carnage, and it’s utterly irresponsible of GST NHS Trust to advocate for such dangerous designs.

A serious point

Shared bus stop/cycle tracks are undeniably the logical conclusion of GST NHS Trust’s stated positions, but I’m not seriously suggesting that’s what they’re campaigning for. It’s clear they have no idea what they’re campaigning for, and not much better idea what they’re campaigning against. They are the latest in a line of organisations to make knee-jerk reactions to unfamiliar ideas — and threaten those ideas by spreading fear and misinformation about them.

So the serious point is that we need to actively stand up to the bikelash if we are to ensure that Go Dutch, Space For Cycling, and the progress that we have seen these past two years do not lose momentum.

We must engage with such organisations, when they are willing to engage, understand and address their fears when there are genuine fears, and keep plugging away at spreading understanding of best practice.

And we must laugh when such organisations become laughable, and mercilessly mock the likes of “Stop CS11” from the moment they lose all credibility.

And we must keep reminding TfL that we’re here — that the 10,000 who turned up in the rain to ask them to Go Dutch have not gone away. Which is why you should sign the stupid facetious petition.

* and for once on this occasion I’ll celebrate the NHS Trusts’ refusal to waste money on brand consultants who would advise them to name themselves something that means something and appeals to the public — say, “hospitals” — and instead always insist on being referred to as cold, faceless, bureaucratic, and eminently petition-against-able “NHS Trusts”.

** though for bonus weirdness, look carefully at the far left and you can see it does have a bus stop bypass — but for cars on a service road!

That “is it worth asking for” campaign asks graphic

I posted a picture on twitter and it received questions and feedback that don’t fit in a tweet. Here you go, here’s the latest revision of it:

That -is it worth asking for-- graphic

(The back story: I posted a picture on twitter from Cycle Superhighway 5. Somebody responded to it with a vacuous slogan about how roads should be for all transportation types. I was flippant: “we tried that and it didn’t work”. They responded that there were still plenty of options to try before resorting to protected Cycle Superhighways.)

So in answer to the Qs:

1. Yes, these positions on the graph are all just things I’ve made up with 2 minutes thought, but they are based on 8 years of looking at these things. Want to know why I’ve placed items where they are? The Cycling Embassy Canards pages are a good place to start, then Crap Waltham Forest’s what won’t bring about mass cycling series and David Hembrow’s what not to do posts. Your tweets have done nothing to change my verdict on “strict liability”, 20 mph limits or Bikeability training.

2. Because, whatever the merits of strict liability or training, the issue at the heart of the original discussion was: what will remove barriers and enable cycling for all demographics, making it a genuine option and creating the conditions for mass cycling to improve our cities and supply our transport demands? So this concentrates purely on that outcome. Policies can have other outcomes too, so, yes, 20mph limits are a good thing worth campaigning for — but because of the sum of the outcomes, not because they will enable mass cycling.

3. No, the fact that something’s in the “not happening any time soon” category doesn’t automatically disqualify it from being worth asking for. Because, if you use the tactic carefully, going in with a big ask can make it easier to achieve a smaller one: we got the relatively small but very worthwhile victory of Cycle Superhighways by blazing in with the big ask of Go Dutch. And once the Cycle Superhighways are open, Go Dutch itself will creep ever higher towards the plausible region.

Your assessments may vary. Go ahead, make a copy and do with it whatever you like.

Use the bus in North London? The tube? Walk? Enjoy the park? This consultation needs your support.

TfL are consulting on “Cycle Superhighway 11”, from Portland Place to Swiss Cottage. Their proposals are to create an attractive and safe route around Regent’s Park Outer Circle and up Avenue Road, enabling people who would like to make their journeys by cycle, but are currently put off by fast and heavy motor traffic, to start riding.

But the proposals aren’t just great for cyclists and for people who would like to cycle if the conditions for it were right. They’re great for bus users, people enjoying the park, and anyone who walks in Swiss Cottage. Don’t ignore the consultation because you’re not a “cyclist”: these changes are for you too!

Bus users: get quicker journeys!

The proposals will see the Swiss Cottage gyratory removed, so that traffic goes straight down Finchley Road. Bus lanes along Finchley Road will be extended, and the Avenue Road section of the gyratory will become bus/cycle only, with dedicated facilities for buses turning at the end of their routes. So buses will no longer get caught up in the congestion of cars navigating the gyratory. Traffic modelling predicts significant journey time savings for the 113, 13 and 82.

The models are less favourable for some other routes, being neutral for most routes and suggesting increases for the C11 and 31. But traffic modelling consistently underestimates the positive effects that dedicated cycling infrastructure has on bus times. When cycle tracks were extended to Stratford for Cycle Superhighway 2, for example, traffic models predicted buses would be delayed by 1.5 minutes. In fact, no such delay occurred. Why?

First, TfL’s models don’t understand bike/bus dynamics. You know when the bus gets stuck behind a slow cyclist in the bus lane? When at every traffic light the bus has to wait for a sea of cyclists to clear out of the way before it can pull away from a green light? When the bus can’t pull out from a stop because cyclists have already started overtaking? TfL’s models understand none of that. The proposals for the Cycle Superhighway will see people switch from cycling on Finchley Road to cycling on Avenue Road, freeing up the bus lanes for buses.

Second, TfL’s models don’t understand how infrastructure changes lead to changes in our transport choices. The whole point of the Cycle Superhighway is to remove the barriers for people who would otherwise like to make their journeys by cycle. One of those barriers is the motor traffic using Avenue Road and Regent’s Park as a shortcut into town. Yet TfL’s models assume that after the changes are made, the same number of people will be driving, cycling, walking, and using the bus and tube as before — that nobody will change their mode of transport in response to the closure of a ratrun for cars, the removal of barriers to cycling, or the improvements to walking and public transport. But obviously people will change their behaviour, and there will be fewer cars around to get in the way of your bus than TfL assume.

And third, TfL’s models don’t look at the effects of crashes. Perhaps even more infuriating than long journeys are unreliable journeys. TfL’s plans provide a safe route for cycling, cutting the risk of nasty crashes on Finchley Road. Removing the gyratory will end the complex race track of ever changing lanes where motorists have to jostle to move into the correct position, meaning fewer prangs and smashes blocking the road. And the improved pedestrian crossings and spaces will substantially reduce the danger of pedestrians being hit by motorists flying around the bends of the gyratory. So fewer crashes, even leaving aside the obvious benefits of not killing and maiming people, means a more reliable road.

Finally, as if quicker journeys weren’t enough, note that some of the cycling journeys made possible by the Cycle Superhighway will be for people who currently use the bus. Many bus routes are now saturated to the point where increases to frequency or vehicle capacity are no longer feasible, and the only way to relieve overcrowding is to provide alternative means of making journeys. If you don’t want your buses to get any more crushed than they already are, Cycle Superhighways are what you need.

Walk in Swiss Cottage or use the tube? Get safer streets and better crossings!

With the proposals at Swiss Cottage, improvements for cycling are almost incidental to improvements that will be made for anybody who walks here — to the tube or bus stops, the shops, pubs, cinema, library or leisure centre.

The removal of the gyratory alone will make this a much more pleasant and much less dangerous place to walk. No more speeding traffic racing around the bends of the gyratory. No more trying to work out which of the many turn lanes and slip roads the motorists might erratically throw their vehicles at. And the removal of traffic from outside the tube station at the top of Avenue Road will make for a much better environment in which to walk and wait for buses.

There will also be some footway widening and continuous footways across driveways and side roads to emphasise pedestrian priority. There are also some excellent changes to the pedestrian crossings in the consultation which need your support: inconvenient “staggered crossings” (where you wait, cross to an island, then wait again for traffic coming the other way) are replaced with single stage crossings; and an extra wide crossing of Finchley Road is added outside the tube station. A small number of the changes might not be so perfect — so make sure you respond to the consultation supporting those that are good while suggesting where you would like to see further improvements to the crossings.

Enjoy Regent’s Park, but concerned by the speeding traffic? Get a safer, calmer park!

London is recognised internationally for the quality of its parks. But one thing currently mars Regent’s Park: the fast and heavy motor traffic that is allowed to drive right through the park on the Outer Circle. At rush hour the constant procession of traffic makes the park a noisy, polluted and unpleasant place to be; outside of the peaks, motorists speeding on this road make it an downright dangerous place for the recreational activities the park was designed for.

There is no need to be able to drive through the park: Outer Circle is paralleled on all sides by main roads that are properly designed and designated for through traffic. The reason motorists nip through the park is because, with fewer junctions and traffic lights, it’s easier to speed on the Outer Circle. As anyone who has used the park for even the smallest amount of time knows, law breaking by motorists is endemic in Regent’s Park, in close proximity to families trying to enjoy the park for its intended purpose. The 30 mph speed limit (already far too high for a park) is routinely flouted, and you don’t have to hang around long to witness motorway speeds.

That Regent’s Park can be used as a racetrack by motorists is an embarrassing anachronism that the proposals seek to resolve. Four of the eight gates to the park will be closed, except for a few off peak hours in the middle of the day. Motorists will still be able to access properties, visitor attractions and car parks. But for most through journeys the park will cease to offer an advantage over the surrounding main roads. I don’t think the proposals go nearly far enough, but the plans under consultation undoubtedly offer a massive improvement over the current unacceptable situation.

So if you use Regent’s Park — or would like to be able to enjoy it but are currently put off by the traffic barrier and the noise, pollution and danger it creates — make sure you respond to the consultation supporting the changes and suggesting improvements.

This needs your support: minority vested interests are fighting these improvements

If you want to see improved bus journeys in north London, or a better, more pedestrian friendly, less traffic dominated environment at Swiss Cottage, or a calmer, safer Regent’s Park, or if you want the option to make your journeys by bicycle where currently the roads are too dangerous or unpleasant, this needs your support.

Because to make these improvements for pedestrians, bus users, park users and bicycle users, the proposals must cut a favourite ratrun shortcut for wealthy Hampstead motorists who want to be able to drive a few miles into the West End. Instead of being able to nip down Avenue Road and race around Regent’s Park, if they want to continue driving private cars into the centre of our congested and polluted (but comprehensively public transport-served) city, they will have to contain themselves to main roads.

Though totally out of touch with the reality for normal people who rely on public transport, walking and, increasingly, cycling in the city, these motorists have loud mouths and the luxury of a lot of time on their hands. They are fighting hard to preserve their private shortcuts from Hampstead’s prosperous hillsides through Primrose Hill backstreets to their West End playgrounds, at the expense of the massive public improvements that are so desperately needed for the rest of us. They’re used to getting their way, and feeling that under threat they have mounted an increasingly desperate campaign of misinformation to frighten fellow motorists and NIMBY neighbours into joining their fight. Now they’ve made enough of a cacophony to start making politicians twitchy.

So make yourself heard

The minority vested interests are relying on the majority who stand to benefit from this scheme not noticing the consultation, or dismissing it as something that’s “just for cyclists” without spotting the broader benefits. So please make sure you respond to the consultation, supporting the scheme, highlighting the improvements that are most important to you, and making suggestions for how it could be made even better for you. It only needs 10 or 15 minutes, but the deadline is this Sunday.

Cyclists need more situational awareness and training

No more learned an authority than Lord Alan Sugar recently proclaimed that cycling infrastructure is unnecessary because cyclists simply need more situational awareness and training.

I realise now that the noble lord has a point. We could save the tiny number of very important people like Lord Sugar who drive into London minutes on their journeys if we just train everybody to be more situation aware.

There’s just one thing I’d have to add to Lord Sugar’s training programme: it’s not just the cyclists we’d have to train.

Because these signposts also need more situational awareness.

These traffic lights need more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

This guardrail needs more situational awareness.

This utilities cabinet needs more situational awareness.

These bollards need more situational awareness.

This street lamp needed more situational awareness.

These stands needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness.

These bollards need more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness.

This 20mph sign needs more situational awareness.

This bollard bottom right needs more situational awareness.

This utilities box needs more situational awareness.

This stand needs more situational awareness.

This bin needs more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

This lamp post needs more situational awareness.

All of this needs more situational awareness.

These signs need more situational awareness.

This stuff needs more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian crossing needs more situational awareness.

This zebra crossing needs more situational awareness.

These bollards need more situational awareness.

These 20mph signs need more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

And this bridge needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian crossing needs more situational awareness.

All of this shit needs more situational awareness:

This railway needs more situational awareness:

This underground railway needs more situational awareness:

This lake needs more situational awareness:

This “Let’s look out for eachother” sign needs more situational awareness:

This sign needs more situational awareness:

These bollards need more situational awareness:

This sign for cyclists needs more situational awareness:

This photographic representation of a cyclist on a phone box advert needs more situational awareness:

This pedestrian guardrail needs more situational awareness:

Traffic signals need more situational awareness:

Ponies need more situational awareness:

The sea needs more situational awareness:

All of this needs more situational awareness:

Cycle paths need more situational awareness:

Trees need more situational awareness:

Rivers need more situational awareness:

These Dutch things need more situational awareness:

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness:

This bus lane and contraflow cycle lane needs more situational awareness:

These trees need more situational awareness:

This traffic signal needs more situational awareness:

This pedestrian crossing button needs more situational awareness:

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness:

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness:

This pedestrian crossing needs more situational awareness:

If we can train the cyclists to have more situational awareness and we can train the road signs and the bollards and the bridges and the pedestrian refuges and the zebra crossings and the traffic lights and the fences and the bell bollards and the utilities boxes and the bins and the railways and the lakes and the phone boxes and the guardrail and the cycle paths and the sea to have more situational awareness… then we’re 👌. Lord Sugar will once again be able to do whatever the fuck he likes.

Oh, except we’ll also have to train all the houses, and some of those are quite old and set in their ways…

Cycling probably isn’t in decline in Bristol, but the city still has complacency issues

This popped up in my Tweetdeck saved searches column:

It caught my eye because I’m quite ready to be critical of Bristol. And I will be.

But first, some reassurance. These numbers are (a) just a levelling off after years of growth, (b) probably not representative of the real situation in Bristol, and (c) probably a load of rubbish.

The numbers come from the Department for Transport. Here’s how they look when plotted as an index relative to 2000, alongside motor vehicles (beware, truncated y axis):

image

So this “decline” should be seen in the context of cycling journeys still being higher in number than in the last decade.

But actually this probably isn’t the right data to even tell you whether there has been a levelling off. You might get a clue from the fact that this data puts cycling’s mode share at 1-2% in a city that claims several times that much cycling.

It’s because this is Department for Transport traffic count data, and the DfT only count on main roads. Roads like these:

roads

The biggest, busiest and fastest roads in the city, including several where cycling is not even legal.

But Bristol’s strategy for cycling has largely neglected the main roads. (That is itself one of my criticisms of the city, but we’ll get to that.) Bristol’s rise as a cycling city is built on the foundations of its off-road routes on post-industrial corridors — the Railway Path, harbourside, greenways and towpaths. And in recent years its main policy developments have been slower speeds and filtered permeability on residential streets and in the city centre, as well as the development of additional joined-up off-road arterial routes.

So one could almost hypothesise that a fall in DfT main road traffic counts are what you’d expect to see in a city where the policy has been about creating alternative routes to the main roads.

Finally though, even for the dataset that it is, these numbers need to be taken with a big pinch of salt, because they are DfT traffic counts. The clue is in the fact that the line for cycling is really all over the place. These are based on a single day per year sample, probably collected by folk sat by the side of the road with pencils and paper, and so subject to big sampling noise.

That doesn’t mean Bristol’s doing alright

In 2012, we took the Cycling Embassy to Bristol to admire the Railway Path, the Living Heart Campaign for city centre filtered permeability, the then newly completed Concorde Way arterial route and the harbourside. Since then there have been some developments.

Bristol had just voted to replace its ineffective council-led model of local government with the mayor-led model, and there were high hopes that the city might start seeing some progress after years of plodding along. Hopes were higher still when independent George Ferguson was elected later that year with a mandate for improving cycling in the city. Ferguson’s policies even promised to finally start addressing the main roads, and thanks to the volunteer-run Bristol Cycling Campaign, there’s even a network plan ready prepared to work through.

So three quarters of the way through his term, what have we got?

The Baldwin Street cycle track and the Clarence Road cycle track (2 years late and with the council instantly pandering to incompetent motorists by reducing its defences). Two very welcome schemes. But that’s three years for a kilometre of tracks, not even fully connected to the wider network. At this rate it will take centuries to complete the network.

But far more worrying than what hasn’t happened is what has. Bristol is still designing crap like this — and building it, despite the countless warnings they’ve received:

brt

Busy, narrow, discontinuous shared use footways of the kind that should have been consigned to Crap Facility of the Month 15 years ago. This is not the stuff of a “cycling city”.

Bristol is still doing far better than — and doing nothing quite so embarrassing as — the likes of Birmingham or Leeds or Manchester, of course. But that should go without saying. That should go without saying. Bristol is expected to be better than Birmingham and Leeds and Manchester. But it’s certainly not exceeding expectations. It’s not moving forward or graduating from the low-hanging fruit of greenways to the hard work of fixing main roads. When London is building the NS/EW superhighways and many more kilometres of good stuff besides, nothing Bristol is doing looks exciting anymore.

And I think that’s because Bristol doesn’t appreciate what it has got, or understand how it got it. It has fallen for its own myth that it is an alternative city, and takes it for granted that the cool, green, self-reliant people of Bristol have a cycling culture. In fact, that culture arose alongside its off-road routes, and it could disappear just as quickly.

Worse even than the crap facilities on new roads is closing the Ashton Bridge for a year, severing greenway routes, to build a busway — diverting anyone who is left willing to cycle onto a dual carriageway. Or closing the Railway Path for months with similarly inadequate diversions. Over the past few years the city has variously proposed destroying the Railway Path entirely, destroying the riverside “chocolate block” path, and destroying part of the harbourside, all in the pursuit of mediocre bus systems serving the outer suburbs.

It is clear that council officers in the city have no appreciation of how absolutely critical these kinds of routes are — how dependent the growth in cycling modal share has been on them, how much they contribute to the city’s mobility, and how easily and how totally the city can be set back by allowing such routes to be destroyed. But outside the council there’s a complacency too. I don’t think many people quite appreciate just how critical the harbourside routes are, for example, because they exist by default as spaces left behind by industrial decline, rather than as something that had to be fought for, paid for, planned, designed and built. Yet they tie together the city’s radial routes in the centre — a vital function that other cities can struggle with immensely.

I could go on.

Bristol is still far better than Birmingham or Leeds or Manchester. But it’s not radical. And it needs to start taking its cycling infrastructure seriously. Because mode share can go down as well as up — and the fall can be faster than the ascent.

A picture of a corpse

I saw a corpse on the street on the way to work this morning. Not for the first time, and, well, traffic violence is hardly worth commenting on these days. But a corpse is still enough to mark a day apart.

According to people on twitter, passers by were taking pictures of the corpse. People on twitter thought it distasteful, not right, undignified. Best move on, let the police and TfL clean up, nothing to see, nothing to share, nothing to comment on.

I didn’t get my camera out, but I took away a picture.

A line of cones and the blue folding “Police Road Closed” sign, gently swept traffic into a neat turn down a residential side-street towards the Clapham Road. The four lanes of the Brixton Road were incongruously empty. People walked in it and their comments and conversations could be heard. You don’t normally hear what anybody says on a London street.

Four red double-deck buses and one large tourist coach were all that was left of a queue that I guess must have been much longer. A TfL man must have worked his way down the queue, turning the buses back to send them around the diversion, and he was waving the coach through a three point turn. Beyond the police tape, empty and silent, the bus at the front of the queue sat at an angle, frozen in the middle of pulling out from the bus lane.

Beyond that, some way, a small pile lay in the middle of the northbound traffic lane. A jacket, leather I guess, and some other scraps of clothes. A few little pieces of rubbish left from where the paramedics and air ambulance trauma surgeons tried to resuscitate the corpse in the road. Perhaps they tried to replace lost blood. Perhaps they cut it open where it lay in a final attempt to get it started again. But they weren’t part of the picture, just a trace in the scene some time after their departure.

And then there was the corpse. Moved to the footway, just placed on the kerb, perfectly parallel to the northbound bus lane. Just lying there, out on its own in an empty stretch of street. They’d spread a crumpled greying-white sheet — too small — over it, and a bare, pale, very pale left arm and shoulder lay uncovered on the kerb, one of those old, broad, dirty stone south London kerbs. Not muscled, not skeletal, not obese, not hairy, a fairly typical arm for a fairly typical corpse.

And some way further on still, a motorbike stood on its stand where it had been wheeled onto the footway, out of the way. I don’t know motorbikes. Something dark, modern, clean and not obviously seriously damaged.

I only glanced over for a second, from behind the railings far away on the diversionary path, and I turned away and I kept walking but I took away a picture.

On the way home, the road was as it always is. Swept clear and back to the gushing open sewer of traffic it always is. Two kerb stones were perhaps a little cleaner. And flowers had sprouted beside where the corpse’s feet lay.

It’s not right to take pictures of corpses. It’s distasteful, undignified to share pictures of corpses. When people see pictures of corpses they’re liable to think there might be dead people behind the corpses, and they’re liable to become curious about who the people are and why they are dying. When people see pictures of corpses, looking human, looking humdrum, perhaps lying on boring kerbs, their own boring kerbs, in their own mundane streets in front of their own ubiquitous red buses, like they do every other day somewhere in this city, perhaps they might question why there are people dying on their morning commute, and why we keep just sweeping them away.

Show some respect, eh. No pictures. No front pages.

DSC_3693

Motorists are welcome to the roads they pay for

So George Osborne has decided that the money raised from Vehicle Excise Duty — “road tax” — should for the first time in 80 years be ringfenced for spending on roads, through Highways England (the recently rebranded Highways Agency). CityMetric think this sends a message telling motorists that they own the roads, and the Guardian Bike Blog is worried that it will increase the already prevalent sense of entitlement to bully other road users.

You can have your motorways

I think it’s brilliant. Osborne has “given” motorists the roads that they already own — those roads that sane people long ago stopped using with anything but a motor vehicle. And that makes it a perfect time to take back the rest of them.

This is the Highways England road network. Motorways and motorways-in-all-but-name.

highwaysSo if this tax sends a message it’s exactly the right one: you pay for the motorway network. Want to own the road? Bugger off to your motorway. The county A roads, borough B roads, city streets and country lanes are not yours.

By ringfencing the tax for Highways England, Osborne has made it much plainer that motoring taxes don’t come close to paying for the costs and harms that motoring accrues, and has emphasised that because streets and lanes and other lesser roads are run by the local council, motorists outside the motorway network are actually being subsidised by the rest of us.

His message fits neatly with a related one: “roads were not built for cars”. Because this tax is largely going to roads which were built for cars. The two combine to say: these motorways are the roads for cars; everywhere else you’re a guest benefiting from the generosity of local council tax payers. Motorists can take the motorways. In return, they need to start giving something back.

Sleight of hand

By giving the Highways Agency greater autonomy as Highways England and at the same time setting it up with an income stream, the worry for many is that Osborne is creating the conditions for a motorway building boom that can’t be traced back to government decisions when it inevitably proves to be extremely unpopular.

But I’m not sure we should be so worried.

It costs Highways England just under £4 billion per year to run the motorway network, including the small number of capital projects — junction rebuilds, carriageway widening, new technology, and the rare new length of road.

Very neatly, the road tax is expected to raise just a little over £4 billion per year for Highways England. CJZJJWKUwAAYjcO

Previously motorists paid £4 billion into the Treasury, and £4 billion found its way from the Treasury to Highways England via the Department for Transport. Now motorists will pay £4 billion into Highways England. There’s a bit less democratic oversight but otherwise nothing has changed.

It seems unlikely that Highways England would be able to greatly increase the scale of its road building activity without either borrowing money or, if a chancellor is feeling brave, receiving additional specific grants — either of which would further emphasise the extent to which motorists fail to cover their costs, the expense of road construction, and look embarrassing when repeatedly referred to in the inevitable backlash.

The clever thing Osborne has done, though, is delay the official introduction of this system until 2021. And even then it will take time for the new system to get embedded. So it will probably be a decade before those petrolheads expecting Osborne’s road tax announcement to lead to a massive road building boom realise that they’ve been had and that the tax only just covers the existing annual expenditure.

What really matters

You might have noticed that I’m not taking this thing all that seriously. I don’t think it will make much difference. Petrolhead pricks who need to dress in a metal shell to bully people will bully people regardless of whether they can cite some tax-based sense of entitlement in the sentences they attempt to string together. And a road building boom remains as dependent on the political will to be seen borrowing and spending on such unpopular projects as it ever did.

But the announcement perhaps isn’t entirely irrelevant. It creates another opportunity to make the serious point: there are some motorways for accommodating through motor traffic, and there are some streets and lanes that clearly aren’t. But at the moment most of our roads fall somewhere between the two, and aren’t fit for purpose because we’re trying to make them be too many things at once.

Osborne has decided, correctly, that motorways are for motoring. Now we need to look at the rest of our roads — the ones that belong to us all — and decide for each of them how best to make them do their job, because right now they aren’t working.