Insults, injuries and incompetence

Boris shouldn’t just apologise for blaming cyclists for getting injured. He should correct the policies that are based on this mistake.

It will come as news to nobody that making a journey by bicycle on Britain’s roads means exposing yourself to a considerable number of people who are operating potentially lethal machinery despite having neither the skills nor the temperament for the task. The fact that a significant proportion of the people society has allowed to drive on the public highway are simply not competent behind the wheel is far from a new phenomenon. Indeed, it was one of the inspirations for starting this blog two and half years ago.

Over those years the blog has strayed off into all sorts of other areas, like designing out the need to deal with incompetent drivers entirely, but the original issue has been back at the top of my mind — partly due to the other thing I’ve been working on. Mostly, though, I think it’s because of the forceful reminder of the fact that comes from moving to SW17, just off Cycle Superhighway 7. Perhaps I’m just imagining it, or perhaps it’s simply the psychological bias towards to the recent, but after a New Cross-Bloomsbury commute, the roads between Tooting and South Kensington seem to have more than their fair share of the sort of motor vehicle operators who demonstrate a screaming lack of the aptitude and/or attitude that the activity requires.

It’s particularly highlighted in south west London by the near zero speed limit compliance around CS7 between Kennington and Clapham outside of the rush hour congestion, and the folk using the bus and cycle lanes to pass already speeding traffic as they try to get their high-powered cars — which I’ve always presumed must be stolen from the West End — back to Stockwell and Streatham. Or the few folk who still insist on commuting to the City by car, desperately seeking a ratrun back to the Surrey suburbs and not allowing any of LB Wandsworth’s traffic calming to slow them down as they slalom in and out of cycle lanes on residential streets like Burntwood Lane…

Burntwood Lane, LB Wandsworth
Morons in South West London just see traffic calmed residential streets with schools on them as the next level up in the game. Few of the bollards shown remain in situ.

And yet there is one person to whom this blindingly obvious problem might have come as news, at least until recently: Boris Johnson. During his successful campaign for re-election in the spring, the famously carefree with facts Mayor made the absurd claim that two thirds of cyclists who had been injured and killed on the city’s roads were breaking the law when they were injured. After months of pretending that he was trying to remember what the evidence for the obviously fictional factoid was, he finally retracted it — once the election had long passed.

Last month, Jenny Jones MLA asked the mayor to apologise:

In your response to question 2450/2012, you admit that Transport for London’s statistics and research completely disprove your previous claim that two thirds of cyclists who have suffered serious injuries were breaching the rules of the road at the time. Will you now apologise for wrongly blaming cyclists who have been killed or injured on London’s roads through no fault of their own?

The mayor instead decided to send a great big “fuck you” to victims:

Please refer to my response to MQ 2450 /2012.

But it seems to me that Boris has much more to make amends for than merely insulting the victims of bad driving and the way we operate our streets, and he needs to take far more substantial action than making an apology.

Because Boris is responsible for the problem, and if he really has been labouring under the delusion that it is cyclists who are responsible for the carnage on the capital’s streets then his mistake would at least explain why his policies have so far failed to do anything to address the problem.

The office of Mayor of London has always incorporated the role that in the rest of England and Wales is now played by the recently introduced Police and Crime Commissioners. Policing priorities are therefore ultimately Boris’s responsibility. And there is no remotely realistic policy in place for tackling the problems of life-threatening incompetence, aggressive anti-social behaviour, and barefaced criminality amongst operators of motor vehicles that is on near constant display every evening along Cycle Superhighway 7 and the residential streets of south west London. Boris has allowed deadly dangerous driving to carry on as the norm, apparently because he was oblivious to it, preferring to pursue policies targeted at changing cycling behaviour.

He has added insult to injury and he needs to apologise for both.

The cycle lobby: Andrew Gilligan messes it up

Andrew Gilligan accuses “the cycle lobby” of thinking only of themselves and not “putting themselves in the heads” of non-cyclists. In-fact, failure to think as a non-cyclist is exactly why the policies of Boris Johnson are such failures.

Despite the “cycling mayor” image he encouraged early on, after four years in City Hall, Boris has been getting a beating from folk who cycle in London. His flagship scheme for cycling was meant to be the Cycle Superhighways, intended to “transform” London, “boost safety” and — independently of all other initiatives — contribute to modal shift to the tune of 120,000 more daily journeys:

“I’m not kidding when I say that I’m militant about cycling, and these Superhighways are central to the cycling revolution I’m determined to bring about. No longer will pedal power have to dance and dodge around petrol power – on these routes the bicycle will dominate and that will be clear to all others using them. That should transform the experience of cycling – boosting safety and confidence of everyone using the routes and reinforcing my view that the bike is the best way to travel in this wonderful city of ours.”

Kulveer Ranger, said: “Cycle Superhighways form a key part of the Mayor and TfL’s target to increase cycling in London by 400 per cent by 2025, compared to 2000 levels. From cycling the proposed routes myself, and speaking to a whole range of cyclists, I’m sure that these routes will prove a hugely welcome addition to London’s cycling infrastructure – giving many more people the confidence to ride”.

But this hyperbole soon backfired on Boris when it turned out that the Superficial Cycleways were, except for sections of existing dedicated infrastructure taken over on CS3, little more than £100 million paint on the road — paint that dances and dodges around petrol power, does nothing to transform the experience of cycling on the capital’s busy arterial roads, and does nothing to boost the confidence of the would-be and wanna-be cyclists that Boris claimed would be attracted by the novel hued bike lanes. Although TfL have been able to claim that there has been a large increase in bike traffic on the Superhighways, they don’t really appear to be doing much to enable or encourage non-cyclists: at most, some existing cyclists have been tempted out of the backstreets and onto the main roads; few new cyclists have been created. The most common question Londoners have about the Superhighways is: are they joke?

Since people started dying on his Superhighway at the Bow junction on the East Cross Motorway, Boris has taken the emphasis off the dozen radial routes which were once “central” to his cycling revolution, and when he does talk about them these days he will tell you that the blue paint is a navigational aid — no mention of excluding “petrol power”, boosting safety, or transforming experience. What were originally sold as part of a cycling revolution which would enable and encourage people to take to their bikes have turned out to be, at best, something to help existing cyclists find their way to the square mile.

This is why Boris has failed on cycling: he’s trying to drive a cycling revolution — more people cycling for more of their journeys — by providing for existing cyclists. Hilariously, Gilligan is so clueless about the substance of the disagreement between Boris and “the cycling lobby” that he attributes this problem exactly backwards:

“Cycle lobbyists need to put themselves in the heads of a non-cyclist or politician most of whose voters aren’t cyclists, asking why we should arrange the streets for the 2 per cent who cycle rather than the 98 per cent who drive or take the bus.”

Go Dutch, and The Big Ride, are precisely the product of the London Cycling Campaign “putting themselves in the heads of non-cyclists”, and calling for streets to be arranged for the 98 per cent who currently would never dare to cycle on them. The Go Dutch campaign was squarely pitched at the non-cyclist, showing everybody how, with a determined leader, London’s busy roads could be transformed into places where anybody and everybody can use a bicycle, and share in all the benefits that come with cycling. Gilligan seems to think that the campaign and ride was a demand by existing cyclists that they must be pampered and privileged in their niche activity. Far from it. The point that The Big Ride made was that the “cycling revolution” that Boris Johnson promised will not be delivered so long as he continues designing cycling policies and “Superhighways” for the 2 per cent who already cycle. Indeed, many of those who rode with us on Saturday are, on any normal weekday, part of the 98% themselves.

As part of the two per cent willing to — no, no, as part of the one per cent happy to — cycle on the streets of London as they are, Boris is the last person who should be appointed to lead a “cycling revolution” aimed at enabling the 98 who don’t cycle to take it up. He boasts that “scooting down Euston underpass” and around Hyde Park Corner are “no problem” when you’re “used to it”, and his now infamous comments about the Elephant and Castle being “fine if you keep your wits about you” tell you everything about how far he has penetrated the minds of ordinary non-cycling folk.

Boris’s “cycling revolution” seems to be designed around the premise that there is a large population of Londoners who are just on the cusp of taking up cycling and who just need lessons in “keeping their wits about them”, or blue paint and hire bikes to help them to “get used to it”. Boris understands how his 2% cycle so he designs policies for more of it. But the conclusion of last year’s Understanding Walking and Cycling project (admittedly primarily based on research in England outside of London) was that there is no such substantial section of the population just waiting to take up cycling in traffic, ready to be nudged in by one cheap and simple little thing. The Understanding Walking and Cycling project — which has informed and given urgency to infrastructure campaigns like Go Dutch — “put themselves in the heads of non-cyclists” and found that the 98% will not cycle so long as they expected to keep their wits about them and get used to the Euston underpass. There are very few waiting to join the 2% cycling in heavy and fast traffic: if you want a cycling revolution, you have to try something new and different. The 98% look at the policies of the Cycling Mayor and see irrelevant “Superhighways” which they presume must be good for Cyclists but on which they would never dare to cycle themselves. They look at Go Dutch and see civilised dedicated space on which they might. And Gilligoon thinks it’s the latter who are out of touch and appealing to the minority on cycling.

Boris even came close to showing signs of understanding all this when he talked of not having to “dance and dodge around petrol power”. But like so much about Boris, that turned out to be all waffle and no substance.

The problem with Boris and his cycling revolution, and the many reasons why he has messed it up on cycling, obviously go far far wider and deeper than his inability, as a contented member of the 2%, to understand why the 98% are so reluctant to join him. But I’m not sure I can bring myself to write about, or even think about, it any more. Please, just make it stop.

What won’t bring about mass cycling: tackling bicycle theft

A “fact” was recently quoted at me: a third of people who have their bicycle stolen don’t bother replacing it, they just give up.* Thus, if we want everyday mass utility cycling, we have do something about bicycle theft.

Boris Johnson would surely agree. In his 2008 transport manifesto, he claimed he would “make London a truly cycle-friendly city through increasing secure cycle parking”.

Doing more to improve secure parking and stop theft are, of course, good things, and things that I have actively supported. But, in the words of the classic series from Freewheeler,  it won’t bring about mass cycling. To understand why, you only need to imagine living the Netherlands and getting your bicycle stolen. In fact, you don’t even need to imagine it, because many cities in the Netherlands have very high rates of bicycle theft. In recent years, theft has been running at an annual rate of about 1 in every 20 Dutch bicycles stolen: many Dutch people will be victims several times in their lives. I’m pretty sure that the owners of these bicycles didn’t give up. Why would they? They got a replacement and jumped back on.

People giving up as a result of one bicycle going missing is a sign of the much wider ill-health for cycling. Clearly cycling in the UK doesn’t hold much attraction if it takes just one set-back to make people give up forever. The Understanding Walking and Cycling project found that, in the absence of big changes to the infrastructure and to cycling’s image, there is not a very large population of British people almost ready to take to their bicycles, just waiting for a gentle nudge and the right encouragement. But clearly there are plenty who are almost ready to give them up.

The headlines at the moment are about a supposed growth in cycling rates, focussed on urban centres where the growth appears to be real. But the same headlines were being printed in 1981 and a claimed recent growth in cycling was the opening line of  this 1992 book. Cycling growth is going to remain extremely fragile so long as it’s expected to take place in the prevailing British traffic conditions.

* I have not been able to verify this “fact” — not that I put much effort into it — but the exact number doesn’t matter.

Floppy bus

Utrecht’s 25 metre buses — 7m longer than London’s — are so bendy they’re floppy.

Boris Johnson is half way through the fourth year of his term as mayor of London, approaching an election, and his great achievement in office has been to phase out the city’s bendy buses. A big justification for the policy is that the long vehicles are dangerous, especially for cyclists.

More than a third of journeys in Utrecht are made by bicycle. The big bendy buses don’t seem to be a problem. Why might that be?

Perhaps it’s something to do with having a city government that designs streets in a way that doesn’t put cyclists under large vehicles.


To Deptford Bridge, my bus back when I lived in Deptford, on the rare occasions when a bicycle or train wouldn’t do the job. This week, local blogger Darryl marks the end of the 453 bendy bus. The bendy buses have been one big political pantomime, introduced as a conspicuous symbol of Ken’s commitment to public transport, and scrapped as a conspicuous symbol of Boris’s commitment to, er, taunt Ken.

The friday photo theme is just an excuse to plug my photography site.

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.

Once more unto the bridge, dear friends, once more

After the Conservative group of the London Assembly walked out on the first attempt to discuss Jenny Jones’s Blackfriars Bridge motion, the members redeemed themselves somewhat by voting unanimously — all parties, all members — against making Blackfriars Bridge and the Blackfriars Station road junction even worse for cyclists and pedestrians. Boris has refused their plea for a review of the speed limit increase, but even he recognises that the plans are nowhere near good enough for the centre of a modern world-class city.

But the mayor has lost control of his officers and TfL quietly revealed on tuesday that the diggers will move in this weekend — and be out again by monday morning.

Tomorrow is the last friday of the month: there will therefore be a Critical Mass.  The Mass gathers under Waterloo Bridge on the South Bank and usually sets off on a spontaneous route around London any time between 6 and 7. ***Update: a more specific protest gathering will ride on Blackfriars Bridge at 6pm. The rides will merge somewhat, so come to both/either. *** Critical Mass means all sorts of things to all sorts of people; the one thing that unites everybody is the belief that we should be able to have a nice bicycle ride in our city. The overwhelming majority of Londoners are denied that bicycle ride because of TfL’s roads, and TfL are acting like they’d rather it were all of us. Set aside everything else you might think about Critical Mass, focus on that issue, and come along. RSVP on Facebook, and invite your friends!

Then on monday we will be gathering again en masse at 8:15am on Blackfriars Bridge for a short, gentle, polite and peaceful ride around the junction, before disbanding to whatever it is we all do. RSVP on Facebook, and invite your friends!

Bring placards, t-shirts, Boris wigs, cargo bikes. “TfL will kill again” is my favourite slogan so far.

This battle is about so much more than a few city clerks on Bromptons — or whatever the stereotype of the London cyclist is this week — having to deal with more hostile traffic on the way to the office from Waterloo. Blackfriars represents a battle over the very basics of what sort of a place we want London (and Britain) to be. By driving these great roads and massive junctions through the centre of our cities we are not just sacrificing — sometimes literally — cyclists and mass cycling. We are destroying a chance to step towards a fairer, more pleasant and more liveable city. And with that we are falling behind the progress of the rest of the world and sacrificing London’s future as a competitive world city. And all to avoid inconveniencing the pampered powerful few, and to accommodate a bunch of wasteful business practices.

TfL have misjudged the mood on this one. In the 1950s the future was the car and road transport, and for five decades TfL could get away with their assumptions and their institutional motorism. The times are a changin’. We need to show TfL that they can’t get away with this in 2011.

There has been much comment on TfL’s actions being a failure of democracy — by ignoring our elected representatives and by putting the convenience of the few who drive in central London ahead of the many who walk and cycle. But TfL’s failures go way back. Our society is supposed to be more than a democracy, better than a pure democracy. Our society is democracy but with safeguards to protect the weak and vulnerable few from the powerful. But our streets are the product of fifty years of letting the powerful drive out — and drive into — the vulnerable. It’s time for a u-turn: come and tell TfL it needs to be driving things the other way.

If you haven’t done so already, read why Danny and Mark have been stirred to protest this issue.


Boris Johnson recently addressed People’s Question Time at Battersea Arts Centre, by talking of his delightful cycle, carried on a river of blue from City Hall to Battersea Arts Centre on the CS7. As a local resident who cycles regularly down that route, I thought I’d share a snapshot of the glorious journey myself and Boris are accustomed to. This section of the CS7 is split level and comes with a fetching red fence.

What a smooth surface. Sublime.

The CS7 can also
be used to park any signs you may have.

traffic flow. By letting cars park on it.

This is the ghost of the CS7. not even one year old. Joking aside, the CS7
shows several faults in Boris’s transport “legacy”. What was trumpeted as a transport revolution was clearly a very expensive PR stunt, now that they can’t be bothered with the upkeep. Yet again, Boris uses the fact that he cycles to detract from the fact that he
can’t provide for cyclists. Within two days of the CS7 being laid it was being dug up by a water company. If the CS7’s dilapidated now (and these photos are taken over a quarter mile distance) what will it look like in May 2012, election time?

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.

How Boris learned to stop worrying and love the Brum

I believe that by tackling congestion, we will tackle emissions. Cars that are moving emit less CO2 than those that are stuck at traffic lights, or in traffic jams. This is why I will not allow smaller cars into the Congestion Charge zone for free, or introduce Ken Livingstone’s £25 charge on large family cars.

–Candidate for Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, 2008 manifesto (PDF)

A small car: many cars in this class have carbon emissions below 100 g/km.

That’s another of the mayor’s election manifesto promises.  “Smaller cars” being shorthand for “cars with smaller engines which therefore emit less carbon dioxide”.  To put it in context, before the 2008 election, the hybrid Prius, at only just over 100 g/km CO2 was the car of choice for those who wanted a greenwash.  There wasn’t much else on offer.  But the long-term trend in improving fuel efficiency of conventional small cars meant that some were beginning to compete with the Prius on miles-per-gallon and carbon emissions — and today several diesel cars are well below 90 g/km CO2 (one of the reasons why driving is so cheap).

Ken’s “new technology exemption” for hybrid cars had been a way of nudging people’s choices in a direction that would support development of alternative car technology, while also being less bad for London’s air quality and emissions targets.  (And Ken was proposing to compliment this incentive with a £25 disincentive for Chelsea tractors, which Boris also refers to above.)

Boris didn’t like all that nudging.  Nudging people’s behaviour with taxes and charges was a nasty Nu Labour thing to do.  He couldn’t get rid of the Congestion Charge completely because its success has nowadays given it popular support, and, more importantly, he needs the revenue from it.  So his transport manifesto was simply saying that he would keep the central Congestion Charging zone, but that it would only be about congestion: it would be technology and emissions blind.  By keeping the traffic moving “smoothly”, emissions would be reduced anyway, he said.

(Keeping traffic moving “smoothly” is itself a crazy fantasy, of course.  Because latent demand for road transport in London is so much larger than supply, the roads will always be just on the edge of gridlock no matter what you do to “smooth” traffic flow, cut congestion, or add or remove capacity.  But all that aside for now…)

I don’t really object to the mayor’s election stance on this issue.  The problems caused by people driving into London are many and great; carbon emissions are just one of the problems, and we should be pursuing policies that solve as many of the problems as possible, not policies that solve (or rather, make a slight impact on) one while continuing to encourage the behaviour that causes all the other problems.

But this was a Boris manifesto pledge, remember.  What happened next?  In 2008, he kept his promise and dropped the proposed £25 Chelsea Tractor charge.  In summer 2009 he began “reviewing” the exemptions rules.  And finally on the 4th of January this year, the new rules came into force.  The Prius lost its exempt status.  So the mayor had finally achieved his technology and emissions blind congestion charge?  Er.  Not quite.  The new rules allow smaller cars into the Congestion Charge zone for free — exactly what Boris promised not to do.

Most of the cars covered by the new “greener vehicle discount” are diesels — the biggest producers of the particulate pollutants that contribute to the deaths of thousands of Londoners from horrible lung diseases.  And the mayor introduced this big new incentive, this great theatrical nudge, to encourage the uptake of diesel cars just weeks before the city faces a £300 million fine for its deadly air quality.  (Not that Boris had a chance of keeping pollution within the thresholds even before this policy, given that he has done nothing substantial about the problem in three years.)  Can’t imagine £300 million?  Imagine the current round of London Borough council budget cuts not happening.

What changed the mayor’s mind?  What happened to “smoothing the flow” with a flat charge?  It’s almost as though smoothing the traffic flow is a meaningless phrase that can be used to justify any policy you like…

The Boris Cable Car

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.

Street Talk

I was watching Newsnight the other day, and the leader of the UK Uncut movement came on to describe how the protests came about: “a bunch of us were down the pub, and we thought, ‘why not?'”

That’s what happens when you get people together in pubs.  Nothing happens just by watching Newsnight — nobody leaps out of their armchair and takes action.

So I leaped out of my armchair and did something about it: I decided that we need a forum, a forum where we could drink and argue, and have those “why not?” moments.

Probably my favourite thing about London is the great variety of drink tanks that have appeared in recent years.  One of my favourites is Skeptics In The Pub — the monthly pub event that, in addition to being interesting and entertaining, has helped inspire countless blogs and podcasts and even several “mainstream media” books and columns, and which spawned campaigns including libel reform and 10:23.  Put a bunch of passionate and intelligent people together in a pub and stuff happens.

Sorry, pathos over.  It’s just an excuse to go to the pub with some interesting people, plus a short talk from an expert speaker to give you something to talk about.

So ours is called Street Talks.  Basically, it’s about transport and the built environment — the places we live and the policies which affect them — with a heavy and unavoidable London bias.  Tom Barry, editor of the brilliant Boriswatch, is our first speaker, on Tuesday 8th March at The Yorkshire Grey.  A hardcore transport nerd, Tom not only “reads through TfL Board minutes so you don’t have to,” he even keeps an eye on the TfL traffic cams to document the traffic jams created by Philip Hammond’s removal of the M4 bus lane — I’m very happy he agreed to give us a “State of The City Address” to kick things off.  Later in the year we have Jim Davis from the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, Andrew Cameron, author of the new government guidance for street design Manual For Streets, and, soon to be confirmed, several other experts from across much the same spectrum of topics as are covered on this blog.

The Yorkshire Grey is on Grays Inn Road/Clerkenwell Road, a short walk from King’s Cross, Farringdon, or Chancery Lane.  There’s a hire bike station on Nothington Street, the next side street up GIR.  You don’t need to book, and we ask only for a quid to help cover the speaker’s costs.

There’s a blog and/or a mailing list that you can subscribe to for updates on events, and a facebook page where you can tell us that you’re coming, if you like.

Massive thanks to Mark, ndru, Dawn, the speakers, and people who don’t even exist on the internet for helping make it happen.


Our friends in Outer London

On Wednesday, Green London AM Jenny Jones tweeted the question that she will ask at next week’s Mayor’s Question Time:

Having given Biking Boroughs £25k to draw up extra plans, will you look again at giving them an additional multi-million pound ringfenced budget so they can take those ideas forward and contribute to your strategic targets?

The Biking Boroughs scheme was launched a year ago:

Kulveer Ranger, the Mayor of London’s Transport Advisor, said: “2010 is set to be the year of cycling in the Capital, with the launch of London’s Cycle Hire scheme and the first two Cycle Superhighways. However, it’s in outer London that the greatest scope exists to increase the number of people travelling by bicycle. It’s staggering that half of all car trips in outer London are less than two miles in length, a distance you can cover on a bike in around 10 minutes.

“The Biking Boroughs scheme aims to harness the huge appetite that already exists for cycling in outer London, making it even easier to replace unnecessary short car trips with pedal power and delivering health benefits, better air quality and encouraging the use of local shops and town centres.”

At the time, each of the 13 boroughs were given £25k — enough to pay for one member of staff to think for a year, but not enough to actually do anything.

So yesterday, after this thinking time, the Mayor announced that he is giving the boroughs a few weeks to submit proposals for a slice of £4 million.  (I assume that the timing, a few days ahead of Jenny Jones’s MQT question is all part of the political pantomime.)  Divided amongst the 13 boroughs, that amounts to just £308,000.  But, the funding is spread over three years — so it amounts to about £100,000 per year each, running out after three years.

The Mayor’s press release helps us visualise what the fund means by telling us what fantastic things the boroughs could do with £4 million:

  • 40,000 new on-street cycle parking spaces, or…
  • training 200,000 lorry drivers in safety and awareness of cyclists, or…
  • training courses for 66,000 cyclists, or…
  • 100km of quiet cycle routes in suburban areas.

All initiatives which can already be seen working excellently in Waltham Forest.

I have my own preferred ways to visualise what this fund means:

We have thrown away more than 1,000 times as much money on a road building strategy that we have known for decades doesn’t work, and now we’re spending a tiny fraction of what it costs to do the one thing that has been shown to work.

But all of that aside, what really jumped out from the press release was a comment from Boris.  The delightful and charming thing about Boris — his only quality as a politician — is that when he gives a statement, he lets his own personality and thoughts (even when his own thoughts are empty waffle, as they frequently are) slip in amongst the PR speak.  So when Boris says this:

This funding will enable our friends in Outer London to develop exciting ways to make cycling bloom in their boroughs making it easier to replace some short car journeys with pedal power.

in amongst the marketing crap we get a little insight into the way he thinks.  We are not all just Londoners.  We are Londoners plus Our Friends In Outer London.  And, alongside his Important Duties to Londoners as Mayor of London, Boris occasionally finds a spare moment to charitably toss our friends some chickenfeed do our friends a favour.


Fast, direct, uninterrupted and comprehensive

Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Sir!  I propose to build a great railway linking your metropolis to the ports, spa towns, and coal fields of the West Country and Wales.

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson: Gosh, well, ah, that sounds all rather jolly good.  I can image it now.  The Barclays & co. Great Western Railway.

IKB: Ah, yes, Mr Mayor.  Now there is just the matter of building the bridge over this river.

BJ: Bridge? Oh, yes, brilliant.  A bridge, hey.  One problem.

IKB: Mr Johnson?

BJ: Well, you see, this valley.  It’s really quite narrow.  Not too much room for bridges around here.  And bridges, blimey, those things are expensive aren’t they?  No, no, I can’t allow you to build a bridge.  Not until you’ve proven that there is a real demand for this railway of yours.  But you can build a bit of a bridge.  A trial section of the bridge.  We will monitor uptake and if it proves to be a hit, we will potentially allow construction of a bit more of the bridge, somewhere else on the river.

IKB: A bit of a bridge, Sir?

BJ: A bloody good bit of a bridge, I can tell you.  There’s a bit of room.  You can build one tenth of your bridge.  Yes.  It will be spectacular.  One of the great industrial monuments of our city.  The Mayor’s Loco Superskyway, they will call it.  I am sure the people will flock to it.

IKB: Superskyway?  You’re telling me to build a Supe– a bit of a bridge?

BJ: You’ll have to share it with boats, of course.

IKB: A bridge that’s… how would that even work?

BJ: You’re still thinking “bridge”.  Think “Loco Superskyway” and it will all make perfect sense.

IKB: How will I get my passengers to Bristol or my coal from Newport?

BJ: Well, you know, you just load them onto your great new railway, bring the train along our fabulous new Mayor’s Loco Superskyway, and then where the Superskyway runs out you, you know, do whatever it is you do at the moment to shift passengers and coal, until you’re back on your railway at the other side.

IKB: The coal is currently transported by sea or canal.

BJ: Perfect.  You’ll be right at home here.  The river’s far less dangerous than most people think, you know.  Only ten or twelve bodies wash up each month.

IKB: I rather think my passengers might object to being asked to swim their own railway carriages across the Thames.

BJ: Piffle.  It’s a marvellous way to travel.  More people are injured on land.  We’ll organise Skywalks — one day each year we will drain the River Thames so that everybody can walk across it and see how enjoyable it is to cross the river under their own power.  We’ll do everything we possibly can to encourage people.  There’ll be 140,000 new passengers thanks to our Superskyway.

I’m not really sure where this joke is headed anymore.  Much like a lonely piece of isolated bicycle path.  It was only made out a sense that I owed you something, it turned out not to be as good as it looked at the beginning, it ran out without warning, and you don’t really see the point of it.  But it was the best I could do, given other priorities.

(Cartoon nicked from an early ’90s Private Eye.)

Pie in the Skyride

Boris Johnson is “doing an awful lot to try to encourage cycling“. He’s doing Skyrides. Did he mention that he’s doing Skyrides? He is, you know. He’s doing Skyrides.

Actually, I usually only find out that he’s doing Skyrides on the day they happen — in the evening, after they’ve happened. Usually when Boris is telling us what jolly good fun everyone has had, and how everybody is now going to cycle everywhere. Or when Freewheeler is making fun of them. The point I’m getting at is that, while the Skyrides may be well advertised, they are not any better advertised than most big events in London. The high turnout at Skyrides can not be explained by fantastic advertising alone: the advertising merely alerts people to the existence of an event for which there is already vast but stifled demand. A day of conspicuously safe, quiet, unintimidating and unpolluted car-free streets almost advertises itself.

On a Skyride, people who would like to be able to cycle without having to interact with double-decker buses and men with ven get to do so. When they go home afterwards and the road-blocks are rolled back, do they feel in any way different about cycling among the chaotic metal missiles? Previous reviews of the evidence suggested that most merely remain unconvinced, no more or less likely to make journeys by bicycle. But one new piece of anecdotal evidence mentioned in an aside at the Embassy meeting (sorry, I noted the idea but now don’t remember who said it) suggests that some would-be everyday bicycle users do think differently after a Skyride than they did before.

Before the Skyride, people would like the opportunity to cycle — they want an easier, quicker, more fun way to make mundane everyday journeys; they’re worried about the amount of the family budget being gobbled by the car or the season tickets; and they want the family to be able to get some relaxing gentle exercise in the fresh air together. Their ears have pricked up at all the talk of The Mayor’s Cycling Revolution™, and they’re thinking of signing up, but aren’t completely decided yet. They hear about a Skyride and want to give it a go — it’s the excuse they’ve been looking for to dust off the bikes and remember how it’s done. And they go out and play in this car-free utopia, and see just how great things could be. And at the same time, they’re shown exactly how that compares to the real world — while being bombarded with helpful messages about how to survive vehicular cycling.

Skyrides don’t merely fail to encourage everyday cycling. By temporarily taking away the cause of the problems with our streets, they highlight just how bad the problems are. The would-be cyclist, on the edge of joining The Mayor’s Cycling Revolution™, can never go back to cycling with the traffic — not after they have seen and experienced Utopia. Just as your fancy gadget ceases to be fun the moment you see the amazing specs on the latest model, riding a bike ceases to be easy and fun when you’ve seen how much better it can be. The air ceases to be fresh and the exercise ceases to be gentle and relaxing. (Some people go as far as emigrating as they seek again that found but lost utopia.)

Skyriders may yearn to see that lost utopia again; yearn for it to exist always. But until it does, they will never be recorded as “cyclists”, never be part of a revolution, never be considered by the politicians, planners, and tabloid hacks who don’t even acknowledge their existence. Until that Utopia is built, what else can normal people do but silently dream of bicycles?

I think the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain wants to be the answer to that question.  I think they can be.