Tag Archives: boris johnson


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.)