This evening, Tom from BorisWatch will review London’s transport policies over the years since the city got its elected leadership back in 2000. It’s at The Yorkshire Grey on Theobalds Road / Grays Inn Road (doors open 6pm, talk sometime around 7ish). Hopefully I’ll see some of you there.
So I thought this afternoon I would mention what is probably my own favourite example of transport policy from our current mayor is the Boris Cable Car (as I want it to forever be known and remembered).
The idea for The Mayor’s Cable Car originally came from a report highlighted by Green AM Darren Johnson in 2008. The report was making a variety of suggestions for potential solutions to the perceived need for additional crossing points — especially for road vehicles — in the east of the city. (I haven’t examined how real that need is, but the area is in the middle of extensive redevelopment with massive residential and commercial construction, and there has long been problems with the way the north and south circular routes feed traffic into the area.)
Boris clearly loved the idea: unlike a boring road bridge or another hidden tunnel, it was big and flamboyant; it was a Boris project. And he had good reason to like the idea: a cable car is a relatively uncomplicated, reliable, and energy efficient option, given the constraints of that section of the river.
The first reason that the Boris Cable Car is such a perfect example of the mayor’s approach to transport, though, is that it is not a solution to the transport problems or needs of the area. The cable car could take 2,500 people per hour — equivalent to a well served bus route — between the Dome and ExCel. While those attractions are going to get more development around them, it’s not obvious that the demand is or ever will be great for this very specific journey, and the journey does not even really make sense as a stage integrated into any obvious longer journey. Most importantly, it doesn’t solve the supposed lack of river crossing supply here: the demand is from road vehicles that are fed into the area on the north and south circular routes, and which then have to wait at the Woolwich Ferry bottleneck, or navigate their way to the Blackwall Tunnels. Either more road crossing supply is needed — and a bridge near Woolwich has long been on highways department wishlists — or demand on these roads needs to be cut. And the under-served demand here is for longer distance movement of people and goods — things that the Boris Cable Car can’t help with (but which the new DLR, East London Line, and Crossrail crossings might, a little bit).
The second reason that the cable car so perfectly represents the mayor’s transport policy is that when he first adopted the idea, he promised that it would be entirely privately funded, cost the taxpayer nothing, and be open in time for the Olympics. A private developer would build and operate it, making their investment back with fares, etc. But of course the estimate for construction soon jumped from £25 million to £40 million, and, given the capacity and average level of demand for the crossing, it had no chance of ever making a worthwhile investment opportunity. Then people started talking about more realistic timeframes. Even before the idea was dropped, the mayor had started spending taxpayers’ money. The mayor has now promised several times that transport projects would be privately funded — the best he could do was Barclays’ fraction (less than a fifth, if I remember correctly) of the bike hire cost.
Like the bike hire scheme, the Boris Cable Car is a delightful idea but it’s not a significant transport solution. These projects give the impression of making brilliant revolutionary changes without actually having to do so, and without actually solving the everyday transport problems that make millions of people miserable. It’s a conspicuous and media-friendly big engineering distraction while London’s existing transport infrastructure — like the East London river crossings at Woolwich, Blackwall, Greenwich, Rotherhithe, and on the Jubilee Line — are left closed for days.
It’s only a shame that it was dropped (and surely it will be quietly forgotten now that it can’t be cited in the re-election campaign) for such a ludicrous reason — the campaign against City Airport expansion (which is a good cause) pointed out that the cable car intruded into the airport’s “crash zone” and could therefore be hit by a crashing plane. Like the mayor himself, his cable car would have been flamboyant, albeit, not widely useful.