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.

22 thoughts on “Friday photo: modern mail”

  1. reminds me of a blog post of mine:

    Companies building their business models on road freight are some of the worst offenders in flouting parking restrictions and blocking junctions. If made to comply with even existing traffic law, let alone pay the external costs of the way they operate, they would go out of business tomorrow. And yet they portray their drivers as the heros of the open road, getting goods throuogh to the nation’s housewives against the odds.

  2. That is the problem with “efficiency savings”, they only look like savings if you ignore the wider costs, so often they end up costing far more.

  3. Strange. In the Netherlands, all main sorting offices built alongside stations, and all domestic mail was moved between them by special postal trains. When the postal system was privatised in the 1990’s, the new cooperate owners moved the sorting offices out to “big metal barns on the ring roads” just like you say. All post is moved between them by road. Here is the TNT big metal barn in Amsterdam, about 300 m from the new western bypass motorway. The old sorting office site was redeveloped.

    But this is a good thing, isn’t it? Because if you look at the TNT location, you will see it has an excellent segregated cycle path alongside it. That is part of a long high-quality cycle path through the port zone, next to the new road.

    Same story in Utrecht: big metal shed near motorway junction, ample staff car parking. But there is a wide two-way cycle path, so this is a good thing. In fact, there is a long cycle bridge over the motorway junction, so the junction is a good thing too, no?

    Provision of cycle infrastructure in the Netherlands is inextricable from the process of dispersal of employment, and the associated inevitably of road freight transport. It is standard planning policy to shift employment to the edge of urban areas, and beyond. That increases trip length for employees, and encourages them to commute by car. It is also standard policy to provide good cycle infrastructure, between the urban area and the dispersed employment. Under these circumstances, more cycle infrastructure means more road traffic. By lobbying for the adoption of Dutch policies in Britain and elsewhere, cycle advocates are also promoting a “sprawl+cycle paths” model.

  4. MailRail stopped being effective when they built the Princess Royal mail centre in Willesden (next to the railway … and the M1). The problem is that railways are expensive to build, and pointless if they only go half the distance. Maybe they should have stuck with trying to do everything in central London, but it probably was inevitable that they moved out. Mail doesn’t need to be sorted in central London.

  5. Paul – what on earth are you blathering about?

    The Netherlands have cycle paths.
    The Netherlands has urban sprawl.

    Therefore, cycle paths create urban sprawl.

    But we can counter:
    The UK has no cycle paths.

    Therefore the UK has no urban sprawl.

    See just how *$%*£ stupid that statement is?

  6. Of course my comment does not say that cycle paths cause sprawl. So there is no point in a comparison with the UK on that point.

    It does say that cycle paths generate road traffic, when their construction is an integral part of a de-urbanising planning strategy, which is intended to generate road traffic. That is exactly what is happening in the Netherlands. A large part of its new cycle infrastructure, which UK campaigners often admire, was built on those terms. If cycle paths come with sprawl, then they are a bad thing, and it would be better not to have any. However, I realise that cycle advocates are unlikely to turn against cycle infrastructure.

  7. Idiotic statements from Paul, as usual. “Cycle paths generate road traffic…” “If cycle paths come with sprawl, then they are a bad thing”. So is it a better thing to have the sprawl without the cycle paths, as we have in the UK and USA? Is Paul really unable to separate these concepts out logically in his mind because he is a pathological cycle path hater? Here’s an alternative version: The Netherlands has industrialised agriculture, and it has cycle paths. Therefore cycle paths come with industrialised agriculture, which some see as a bad thing, therefore cycle paths are bad. This is just as logical a sequence as Paul’s.

  8. It is clearly difficult for cycling advocates outside the Netherlands, in countries with almost no cycle infrastructure, to accept that anything can be wrong with the policies there. The ‘Dutch model’ of lavish cycle infrastructure has become an article of faith.

    David Arditti does believe that cycle infrastructure should be included in new developments at the planning stage, as it is in the Netherlands. He does not apparently believe, that the nature and location of the development itself are relevant, or even whether the cycle infrastructure is used at all. David Hembrow has a similar view, holding up new suburban developments as a model for cycle infrastructure provision….

    Nevertheless dispersal of population to urban-edge and village-edge housing development inevitably increases car use. So does dispersal of employment from central to peripheral sites, the process which Joe Dunckley refers to in his post.

    Unfamiliarity with planning policy in the Netherlands, and limited experience of the reality of cycle infrastructure there, lead to uncritical idolisation. When this attitude is questioned, irritation results. What needs to be done is research on the processes of housing and employment dispersal, and the associated shift in modal split. Within that framework, the impact of cycle infrastructure provision can be assessed.

    There is however a simpler way to assess the values attached to modal split, and that is to compare individual trips and individual lifestyles. An employee lives in an inner-city area, commutes to work by tram (2 km), and walks to the shops and the park. The firm relocates to a suburban site, and the employee is rehoused to a suburban development with good cycling facilities. The employee now commutes by car (20 km), and makes one 10-km recreational cycling trip at the weekend. Is this better? Many cycle campaigners seem to think so. And this example is in fact typical of the changes in Dutch cities since the 1950’s. (Of course there are many other processes at work, immigration and de-industrialisation for instance).

    However, my general impression is that English-language cycle advocates have a value preference for cycling as an activity, rather than as a component of transport and planning policy. That may reflect their position within a “cyclist subculture”, and their background as active road cyclists.

  9. “The employee now commutes by car (20 km), and makes one 10-km recreational cycling trip at the weekend. Is this better?”
    No. But it is a patently unrepresentative parody. It in no way reflects the transport patterns of Dutch society, as statistics show. The aspects of The Netherlands cycling culture that Paul does not talk about are children cycling to school (and elsewhere) and adults using the bike for social and shopping trips as well as for getting to work. These are all the activities typically done by car in the UK and the USA because of the lack of cycle infrastructure.

    Dispersal of activities is a feature of developed societies. We cannot go back to living behind mediaeval city walls. How best to manage and minimise the environmental impact of that dispersal is the question. It is clear looking at the various models demonstrated by different developed countries and regions that not having cycle infrastructure is associated with more dispersal than having it, which is the reverse of what Paul is saying. The reason for this is that in the absence of such infrastructure makes the roads too intimidating to cycle on, which results in total reliance on the car in suburban areas, which leads to further dispersal as a secondary motor-generated effect. The only alternative policy would be to ban cars, which is not democratically acceptable. Public transport could never meet most of the needs, and public transport is in any case only slightly less carbon intensive than car use.

    I would like to ask Paul (because I expect he will not answer the question), if the Dutch model is poor, which extant model would he hold up as a better example?


  10. Some adults in the Netherlands cycle “for social and shopping trips as well as for getting to work”. Most do not. They use the car (76% of passenger-kilometres, figure 2.8), trips above 3.7 km are predominantly by car (page 16), for no trip length is cycling the dominant mode (figure 2.10).

    Click to access 200910621-bijlage-1a.pdf

    There is no evidence that such activities are “typically done by car in the UK and the USA because of the lack of cycle infrastructure”. This simply restates the myth, that the population consists of cyclists who are being restrained from cycling.

    It is not at all clear that “not having cycle infrastructure is associated with more dispersal than having it”. What evidence is there? The claim contradicts the historical pattern, that lack of cycle infrastructure predates urban dispersal.

    There is no evidence that “absence of cycle infrastructure” results in “total reliance on the car in suburban areas”. Again this rests on the assumption that the population are all latent cyclists. Mostly, motorists drive because they want to.

    There is no extant model for a western society with high cycle use, if that was the question. That is disappointing, but that is the way things are. There are enough extant models for low car use: if the population can’t afford a car, then they can’t use it either.

  11. Paul –

    Now you are arguing that certain planning strategies creates urban sprawl – something that I think everyone here would agree with. And July 22nd, 10:10, you clear say that cycle paths only create urban sprawl when connected with this kind of planning strategy – therefore cycles paths are not in and of themselves causes of urban sprawl. Instead it depends on those cycle paths are planned.

    This is something everyone here would agree with.

    But you have continued to rail against something. The planning strategies in the Netherlands seem to be the target of your complaints, and the way that cycle path advocates outside of the Netherlands laud the cycle paths, but fail to note how those cycle paths contribute to urban sprawl.

    But you also argue that those cycle paths are not used for practical cycling by the majority of the population, and that cycle paths do not bring out the cyclist in the normal person.

    There are two arguments going on here, and they seem to contradict each other. Why complain that cycle paths contribute to urban sprawl if cycle paths don’t actually get used for commuting – which is what is essential for them to contribute to urban sprawl.

    Of course, logical consistancy can’t be expected from someone who appears to be obssessively focused on attacking cycle paths.

    One thing confuses me though – Paul, do you actually like bicycles? Because you certainly appear here to hate bikes.

  12. Cycle paths do not cause sprawl, and my comments do not say they do. So there is no reason to go into that point further. The provision of cycle infrastructure is embedded in planning strategies, both at the urban edge and in inner city areas (gentrification).

    The fact that the paths are under-used, does not contradict this at all. In fact, it is typical in the Netherlands that the best cycle infrastructure is the least used, especially at the urban edge and outside the built-up area. Some high-quality cycle paths seem to be built purely for show, or more likely as greenwash.

    A typical case would be, that employment is relocated from a city centre, where it is accessible by radially-structured public transport, to a site next to a motorway junction, beyond the former built-up area. There would usually be a new or improved cycle path, alongside the main road to the motorway junction. However, with the new development perhaps 10-15 km from the city centre, and 20-30 km from the opposite side of the agglomeration, very few employees will use it. They will travel by car. In fact, non-motorists who previously cycled to work, will tend to buy a car in such circumstances. This process of employment dispersal is comparable that described by Joe Dunckley in this post. (It is accompanied in the long term by a shift to road freight transport).

    In other words, it is not cycling itself which is embedded in the planning strategies, it is the provision of cycle infrastructure. That infrastructure is often provided without any regard to how many people will use it, or to where most cycling is done. It is not surprising that it fails to ‘induce’ cycling.

    What concerns me is, that cycling lobbies in the UK, and possibly in other countries will push for “cycle-friendly” new developments, and become a de facto pro-sprawl lobby themselves. It ought to be clear by now, that this is the issue.

  13. Paul –

    ‘What concerns me is, that cycling lobbies in the UK, and possibly in other countries will push for “cycle-friendly” new developments, and become a de facto pro-sprawl lobby themselves. It ought to be clear by now, that this is the issue.’

    Only in your head, Paul, only in your head.

    Everyone else wants cycle-friendly modifications to the urban sprawl that we already have.

    Your strawman doesn’t exist.

  14. I don’t mean to set up a straw man argument here but is the gist of Paul’s comments this:
    The situation in the UK whereby urban sprawl developments are approved without any mention of cycling or walking is better than the situation in NL where urban sprawl developments are only approved with the inclusion of world beating segregated cycling infrastructure linking them to the nearest towns.
    Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  15. The gist of the argument is, that no sprawl and no cycle infrastructure, is better than sprawl with cycle infrastructure.

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