Streets versus Democracy

We don’t have to accommodate private motor vehicles in places like central London.  The world wouldn’t implode if we did not; the economy wouldn’t collapse.  We don’t have to accommodate any specific number of private motor vehicles in central London.  We could choose to accommodate twice the number that we currently do, by bulldozing great corridors through houses, offices and public buildings, or by digging multi-billion pound tunnels and paving the parks for parking lots.  We could choose to accommodate half the number that we currently do, giving what is currently road space instead to wider pavements and bus and bicycle lanes or street markets or cafes or flower pots or office blocks or docking stations or tramways or whatever we want to do with the scarce resource that is zone 1 land.

It is not necessary to increase, to decrease, or to maintain the current level of cars, taxis, or even trucks in central London.  Which one we choose is just a political decision.  Each of the options has consequences, good and bad, but London would adjust to the circumstances, whatever we decided to do with roads.

When transport bureaucrats say things like “there is not the capacity to give all road users the space and facilities that they would like“, that means that there is a decision to be made about which road users get the space.  Remember: that is a political decision.  Technocrats in highways departments can model the options and make suggestions, but it is not for them to dictate what gets built.

There are three layers of government (I would like to be able to say politicians, but government it is) making that political decision in London.  The Secretary of State for Transport, with the consent of parliament where required, has a say on whether major new roads get built, and sets a few rules and a lot of guidelines for the authorities who design and maintain roads — for example, local authorities are asked to maintain the capacity of their road network, where possible.  At the other end of the scale, the borough mayors and executives, with the consent of councilors, decide what to do with the little roads and pockets of public space — within the rules set from above.

In the middle is the Mayor, who in London is responsible for the network of main roads, and some of the public realm around them, under the constraints of central government rules, borough lobbying, and the oversight of the London Assembly.  The last mayor took an active interest in roads and streets, with election promises that led to redistribution of road space from private vehicles to bus lanes and pedestrian space, most noticeably in Trafalgar Square.  The current mayor has quietly dropped such policies — including Ken’s plans to redesign the five lane roundabout and inaccessible traffic island that is Parliament Square.  Boris Johnson’s only roads policy is to “smooth the traffic flow” — an ill-defined aim which could be used to justify any number of contradictory actions and which, given London’s transport elasticity and the chaotic nature of traffic flows in complex networks, is probably impossible to achieve.  But as an election promise, smoothing the traffic flow allows Boris to leave the unglamorous world of roads and public spaces to the highways department technocrats, who will dictate the removal of pesky flow perturbing pedestrian crossings, and the installation of fast new urban motorway junctions at Blackfriars Bridge, without so much of that wasteful and obstructive democratic oversight.

Three London Assembly members are attempting to inject a bit of that absent democratic oversight and they have put a lot of pressure on TfL to properly accommodate the needs of more than just car and taxi users at Blackfriars Bridge.  Val Shawcross (Labour AM for Southwark, leader of the assembly transport committee and Ken’s deputy for the forthcoming election), Jenny Jones (Green AM and mayoral candidate), and John Biggs (Labour AM for the city constituency), are all doing the politician’s job excellently: they are trying to make their bureaucrats do what their constituents need and want them to do.  So far as I am aware, Boris Johnson, Mayor and Chairman of Transport for London, has remained silent on the issue, despite transport and the public realm being the main part of the mayor’s remit, and this being one of the biggest road redesign projects of this mayoral term.

In his short 1978 book Motorways versus Democracy, the great campaigner John Tyme documented his battles with the Department for Transport in a series of public inquiries into the more destructive parts of the 1970s motorways project.  The motorways project could not, he explained, be considered the result of legitimate democratic processes.  The decision to focus transport planning and spending on motorway construction, to the exclusion of all alternatives, was taken by Marsham Street bureaucrats under the influence of a well organised roads lobby, with complicit secretaries of state and only token oversight from parliament.  The need for road construction was never questioned or studied or debated in parliament, and the public consultations and inquiries which were supposed to allow the public to influence government decisions were not fit for purpose.  Residents and stakeholders were denied the opportunity to question the need for new roads, only the route that they took; and they were denied the information that would allow an informed evaluation and opposition to be made.  If the department had conducted studies on alternative routes and alternative modes, or on the effects that their projects would have on traffic and future development, those studies all remained locked away in the department.  And the true extent and effect of a motorway would be hidden from stakeholders: though the department knew that a motorway would induce new demand that would require later extensions, spurs, link roads and relief roads, these would never be mentioned in proposals for the original road, so that by the time most stakeholders realised that they would be affected, it would be too late to contribute or object to the original project.  At the end of the inquiry, the motorway would be built, regardless of the personal pleas and legal objections raised.

Blackfriars Bridge shows that little has changed.  Transport and the quality of our streets and public spaces have a huge effect on our daily lives — on our health, wealth and happiness — and on the general success of a city or region.  It is the largest part of the mayor’s portfolio, and on every major road redesign in London, the buck stops with Boris.  But Boris is ducking his duty to Londoners, ignoring the needs of the majority of central London street users, and leaving the decisions to his bureaucrats, who are pushing through dangerous traffic-generating street designs in the name of “smoothing the flow”.  TfL have opened a legally meaningless token “engagement” with stakeholders — a token engagement in which, like the motorways inquiries of the 1970s, stakeholders are denied the information that would allow them to make an informed decision.  But TfL aren’t short of opinions from street users.  What they’re lacking is leadership: somebody to make the political decision when “smoothing the flow” for a minority is not worth the inconvenience and mortal danger to others.

Edited to add: I originally forgot to mention that TfL have turned down a freedom of information request for the background information on the Blackfriars Bridge redesign on the grounds that the information would cost too much to collate.  (That was actually the main inspiration for this post, but I rather got carried away and forgot why I was writing it!)  Thus, like the motorways projects of the 1970s, we are denied the information that would allow us to properly evaluate the plans and the claims that TfL have been making in support of their design.

10 thoughts on “Streets versus Democracy”

  1. By the way, was the Parliament Square detached from the pavements across the streets to draw the protesters’ camp away, or that happened before and was just a coincidence?

  2. Nope, Parliament Square has always been a desolate and isolated traffic island — I think the current layout was built in the 1960s, and as far as I know, has never had pedestrian crossings to the centre.

    Before the fences went up (the best part of a year ago, and what a beautiful permanent replacement they are for that ugly colourful democracy camp that was there before) tourists always used to stand at the roadside on sunny days looking longingly at the grass and trees and statues, before eventually giving up and going somewhere else…

  3. Has anyone thought to break up the FOI request into the four constituent parts and make one request, delegating the other three to like-minded individuals? Maybe, if we could get enough people asking one part each, we could sneak under the money element that they are hiding behind.

  4. As I understand it, other FOI requests have been submitted, by professional campaigners who perhaps have more practice in asking the right questions.

    From what I hear, the response was more revealing in what it does not say than what it does. Hopefully that will come out in the mainstream media before very long. Sorry to be cryptic, but a controlled release is more likely to have an impact, and it is not for me to control.

  5. Thanks for the hints, Paul.

    I don’t know the person who submitted that FoI request, and I only know about the denial because a few weeks ago it occurred to me to that somebody should FoI the modeling etc on the junction, since TfL were constantly citing it without publishing it. Then it occurred to me that somebody almost certainly had already — so I checked WDTK? for requests and subscribed to teh feed.

    Dan: I was going to say that, yes, that would be possible. I don’t know much about the FoI rules and am too lazy to even Google this one, but I suspect that they could in turn reject such requests as being the blatant attempt to subvert the rules that they are — especially if we had discussed in public blatantly subverting the rules. There’s probably already a precedent set on that.

    From Paul’s hints though, that’s all moot — sounds like more relevant requests are pending, albeit not via WDTK?.

  6. According to Wikipedia, Parliament Square was created in 1868, partly to improve traffic flow! Wikipedia does not say whether the central open space was always surrounded by fast-moving traffic but, as I recall from seeing it first in 1960, it has had the present form for more than 50 years.

    On the general point: The decision was taken in 1973 not to proceed with the Motorway Box and a corollary of that decision should have been that London would need to be planned around other transport modes. John Tyme’s point was that traffic forecasts were no more than extrapolations of past trends and trends in other places, yet they had become policy with little thought and discussion. The saturation point in these forecasts could not be reached in London without changing London dramatically, because there just wasn’t space, but politicians had not faced up to that. Forty years later many politicians still have not faced up to that: the decision that should have been taken almost 40 years ago, to plan London around transport modes that are economical with space, still has not been taken fully. This is because there are vocal sections of the press and the population who prefer to think that there can be unconstrained private vehicle movement in London, and who insist that planning objectives include “smoothing traffic flow” even though they negate other objectives.

  7. Phillip Hammond may be a vain man, an ambitious man – but he is not a stupid man. His rhetoric may be irrational, his decisions perverse but he understands the credentials for power – appearing to give people what they think they want.

    And most of us want to use our cars unfettered and, if possible, at lower cost. The cockpit is the last escapist command centre many of us have access to. Made all the more comfortable to cope with the increasing external discomforts.

    The wise man will say that giving motorists what they want will make motoring even more difficult and dangerous. But while the motorist is in denial over this – Phillip Hammond will bounce any politician with a contrary view. This is a terrible cost of democracy, the weakness of populism, but the the consequences of denying people what they want (being undemocratic) are probably worse.

    So that’s it really. Until the motorists themselves come to the self realisation of the paradox that better motoring can only be achieved by less motoring – we are whistling in the wind about significant cycling and public transport modal changes.

    In a nice world politicians should be leading. But democracy often means they have to follow. This lot certainly are. The mystery is how, say, the Dutch motorists decided on this change 40/50 years ago and how, or even if, it could be replicated here.

    Till then – the debate on segregated or vehicular cycling is a distraction.

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