Thinking outside the box van: Birlea Furniture (@Birlea_Ltd)

The EU are currently looking at whether to allow bigger and longer trucks. Birlea Furniture put together a helpful display of a double-box lorry, CX07AXU, on Tavistock Place, showing how they can be seamlessly integrated into our towns and cities.

By driving over the kerbs and parking in the cycle track, which is designed for much lower weight loads, the driver has helpfully ensured that the road surface is kept in good condition, and that Important People aren’t inconvenicned. By forcing half a dozen cyclists each minute to swing out into the oncoming traffic, Birlea Furniture are sending an important message about the consequences that these bicyclists’ selfish choices have for fragile British business.

Well done, Birlea Furniture.

We hope that by thinking outside the box we keep you happy…

Edited to add: Almost simultaneously, Pedestrian Liberation happened to post on HGV parking and loading rules.

Delivering excellence

In a post about designing ever increasing amounts of truck and van dependence into business models, I mentioned that an “Edgar’s Cool Water” had followed me on twitter and had justified their business with the argument that some people in London and the South East need water deliveries because their workplaces do not have plumbing.

I did a double take when quickly scrolling through old phonecam pictures.

The road is Gough Street; behind the brick wall on the left is the Royal Mail’s interim staff car park. On the right is the back entrance to ITN Grays Inn Road, built less than a decade ago.

I guess businesses these days just can’t afford luxuries like including running water in the plans for their new offices, or operating within the law, hey Edgar?

I’m reminded for some reason of the Old Lady Job Justification Hearings.  I can think of something better they could be doing

Business models

I’m just off the Deerstalker, having spent a few days trying out the new second-hand-but-unused Dawes Galaxy on the hills.  Thanks to the generosity of the Scottish taxpayers the long-distance train ride back, with bed in comfortable single-occupancy cabin and breakfast tea in a spacious lounge and lots of bicycle space, cost £19 when booked several weeks in advance.  One side of the political spectrum would argue that we should allow the sleeper trains to “fail”: that subsidy is an indication that the business model has failed and the business should go with it.  That there is no place for services that don’t make money.

I just rode over from Euston to Look Mum No Hands for extra breakfast and laptop charge.  On Gordon Street a couple of private hire cars were stopped half on the pavement, engines idling, drivers looking bored.  A BMW driver sped up to the junction at Woburn Place, abruptly stopped in the junction, looking at the bicycle paths and contemplating the “no left turn” signs for a few seconds, before screeching into a left turn across the cycle paths.  At Exmouth Market, a white van was parked blocking the street, just beyond the “no motor vehicles” sign.  At Skinner street, where there are proper with-flow kerb-separated bicycle paths (perhaps the only example of such in London?) I stopped for a picture to add to the CEGB flickr pool, and a cab, #68625, promptly pulled in at a gap in the kerb and parked in the bike path across a driveway (or, more likely in central London, a fire access route).  I pointed out what he had done, and that several cyclists had already had to either swerve out into the road, or squeeze past: “it’s OK, I’ll only be a minute, I’ve got to pick someone up.”

Outside Look Mum No Hands, two vans are parked in the bus stop: V185 OUG and a “tree management” van FY59 VDT (using his hazards exempts).  Opposite, another van, S619 BTC is parked on the pavement and pedestrian-crossing table and straddling double-yellows at the Domingo Street junction, delivering a package to Sandwich Box.  No, that van has now been replaced by Cafe Deli Wholesale YF59 YTY, parked in the same place and using his hazards exempts.  He’s delivering bottled drinks to… Look Mum No Hands.  Printflow van EX60 KKE has driven up and along the pavement in order to get past on the narrow street.

Four plain white vans, including DK05 WOD, are driven past on Old Street by people using handheld mobile phones. A City Sprint driver is on his phone, a Kier van driver looks like he’s texting.  I’ve lost count of the number of private cars driven by people using their phones.  Interestingly, a Mitsubishi Barbarian(!) driver is texting, a Mitsubishi Warrior driver is on the phone, and a Mitsubishi Shogun driver is drinking from a thermos.  Mitsubishi pickup truck drivers almost overtake Range Rover drivers in the chart of law breakers, but the woman driving the black Range Rover W6 PSW with tinted windows scores an equaliser by using her hand-held mobile phone.  A G-Wiz driver demonstrates that it’s just as easy driving electric cars while using your mobile phone.  The driver of an empty minibus with a schoolbus sign on the back, KX56 BVW, is driving one handed while drinking; the Casa Flenghi van driver is reading his directions or itinerary while rolling through the heavy traffic; behind him, the driver of Clockwork logistics T6 CWK is more interested in watching LMNH and in his cigarette than on the road space he is driving into.  The driver of a large JSM dump truck is taking big bites of his sandwich while closely overtaking a pack of cyclists at speed.  A motorbike races down the queue for the lights by using the advisory bike lane, forcing cyclists to an emergency stop as he cuts in.  A taxi follows, half on the pavement.  Another taxi stops the traffic for a U-turn, neatly avoiding the bike stands as she mounts the pavement.  Keltbray, GBN, Kilnbridge, McGrath, and countless other large skip lorries appear to have only the bare legal minimum of mirrors.

Each time I look up, at least one in ten of the passing drivers is doing something at least dubious — careless, discourteous, dangerous — if not flagrantly illegal.  They know they can get away with it.  The police don’t have time to deal with traffic offenses, and they know that if they hit a pedestrian or cyclist, the CPS and judge will be sympathetic and understand the unfortunate fact that pedestrians and cyclists do tend to just come from nowhere.

Many hundreds of cyclists have gone past.  Just one rides (slowly, carefully) along the pavement opposite.  I wonder why he doesn’t want to use his right to the road?

Countless business models in our cities are based on moving goods around, and are borderline-profitable, relying on a mix of illegal and legal-but-immoral practices — speeding; parking in bus stops, bike lanes, buildouts, clearways and footways; red light running and no-entry ignoring; eating and phoning and fiddling with satnavs while on the move — to stay in the black.  Others are very healthy businesses, using lawbreaking to boost their already ample profits just because they can.  Businesses have built themselves into a dependency on bad driving and law breaking.  Our cities could easily survive without the deliveries of bottled water and bagged ice cubes; with fewer disposable spoons and paper cups; with hotels doing their laundry in-house; with a few more parking places converted to loading bays; and with employers sacrificing a tiny little bit of profit to allow their delivery drivers the extra time they need to keep to the speed limit, park up to take calls, and walk the few extra yards from legal loading bays.  We could even manage with fewer taxis — if they made fewer dangerous and illegal moves, they might not look so competitive compared to public transport or hire bikes.  If the road rules were properly enforced, businesses would soon innovate; discover new and legal means of moving things around — or that things don’t really need to be moved around at all.

And a few would fail — because they have invested too heavily in a business model that depends on breaking the law.  And they would be replaced by something else — something unburdened by that investment.  And that would be fine.  We should stop propping up business models based on breaking the law.  We should let those businesses fail, if necessary.

My laptop has finished charging.

When did trucks become a problem?

Too busy even to make lunch, I picked up some of the ever awesome streetfood from Simply Thai at Exmouth Market.  Interestingly, TfL had picked the market as a method for distributing their latest marketing campaign: some truck shaped postcards reminding one that undertaking at junctions can be fatal.  The campaign has prompted another outburst of blogging noting that the authorities are engaging in victim blame and doing too little to improve standards of drivers and hauliers.  The Cycling Lawyer, for example, discusses the need for more cuddlier trucks in London.  The Lawyer suggests that rather than frightening cyclists, the authorities should be thinking about things like enforcing proper design standards on lorry owners, and reducing urban speed limits.  The LCC have at least retaliated with their own truck/cyclist safety campaign.

What never seems to be asked at all, though, is why these trucks are even driving into London.  It is always simply assumed that they have to be there.  Suggest in public that the congestion charge should be many times higher, or that central London roads should simply be closed to private and commercial motor transport altogether, and somebody will point out that we all rely on the goods that are driven in.  It would be unfair to penalise those whose livelihoods depend upon cheap and easy access to our city centres.  People doing vital things — like the truck delivering ice to an establishment on Charing Cross Road during last night’s critical mass; the truck on the double yellows blocking Ludgate Hill in the monday morning rush hour so that it could deliver critical life sustaining water to offices; or the truck on Queen Victoria Street that was filling up with dirty table cloths to be taken to an industrial estate for washing.  How else do you propose that offices might get water, bars get ice, or hotels get clean towels?

When the Congestion Charge was introduced, traffic in central London fell by 25%: the roads freed up and journey times fell by a third.  But three years in, traffic was only 16% below pre-CC levels.  By the end of 2007, traffic speeds and delays were back to pre-CC levels.  The long-term effect that the Charge has had is a shift in the make-up of central London traffic rather than a reduction in congestion or emissions, or an improvement in our environs.  Unfortunately, Boris seems to have stopped collecting data on the CCZ traffic, but the data from 2007 already hints at a trend (take a look at page 40 of the TfL report for a nice visualisation of the change in the context of overall numbers of vehicles):

Table 3.1  Key year-on-year changes to traffic entering the central London charging zone during charging hours, 07:00-18:00. [To keep column headings concise, they indicate change compared to previous year; I’ve also condensed vehicle type names.]

2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2002-2007
All vehicles -14% 0% -2% 0% 0% -16%
– 4+ wheels -18% -1% -2% -1% 0% -21%
Chargeable -27% -1% -3% 0% 1% -29%
– Cars & minicabs -33% -1% -3% -1% 0% -36%
– Vans -11% -1% -4% 2% 1% -13%
– Lorries -10% -5% -4% 6% 9% -5%
Non chargeable 17% 1% -1% -1% -1% 15%
–  Taxis 17% -1% 1% -3% -5% 7%
– Buses 23% 8% -4% -3% 5% 31%
– Motorbikes 13% -2% -9% 0% -3% -3%
– Bicycles 20% 8% 7% 7% 12% 66%

So cars (shame that they grouped these with minicabs, which I suspect have a very different profile) fell immediately and stayed down, at least as far as 2007.  Many of those drivers shifted to taxis; a few took to bicycles and motorbikes (but the effect is not impressive, given the low base rate compared to cars).  But the potentially interesting pattern, I think, is how vans and lorries initially fell (although, as we would expect given their vital work, by much less than cars), but have since started growing again.  It’s a shame that the data stops three years ago, too soon to draw any definite conclusions about a growth trend for deliveries.  But it’s enough for me to speculate on a hypothesis.

My hypothesis would be that, by initially reducing the journey times through central London, the congestion charge had the counter-intuitive effect of making it cheaper and more attractive for businesses and organisations to drive ever more goods through town.  Transport infrastructure projects have shown again and again that in highly and densely populated places like England, there is always far more latent demand for transport infrastructure than can ever be provided.  Create vacant capacity and within a decade or so, people will have found a way to use that capacity.  (Take it away, and within a decade everybody will have forgotten why they needed it.)  Offices and bars have discovered that driving bottled water and bagged ice into town is so absurdly cheap that it’s a more attractive deal than buying a mains water cooler or an ice machine; hotels have discovered that driving their bedsheets to a barn on the M25 makes more business sense than paying for a washing machine and a maid to operate it.  Waste has become cheap.  All London’s spoons are plastic now.

The numbers from TfL aren’t good enough to say whether businesses are or are not finding creative new ways to re-fill central London’s briefly free-flowing roads.  But opposite the Exmouth Market stands one great big anecdote: the Royal Mail.  The Mount Pleasant Sorting Office is the largest in London, situated amongst the creative industries and start-ups of Farringdon — not the busiest part of zone 1, but well within the CCharge Zone.  The Mail must contribute thousands of pounds to the CCharge every day for the scores of articulated trucks — including road trains with multiple trailers — and hundreds of vans that drive the mail into central London from around the country and around the world, to be sorted and driven out again.  These are the trucks that you have to watch out for turning at Old Street or the Elephant & Castle.  These are the trucks that will broadside you changing lanes on the Farringdon and King’s Cross Roads.  These are the trucks that TfL are warning you about while you buy your lunch in the shadow of the sorting office at Exmouth Market.

Alongside Mount Pleasant, the Post Office had a dozen big district sorting offices in central London.  Today it drives mail between the remaining ones in articulated trucks.  But for 76 years, the mail was shuttled between seven of the sorting offices on awesome little computer-controlled electric trains that ran on the private underground Mail Rail line, from the Whitechapel office to the Paddington office.  It collected the out-of-town mail straight off the trains at Paddington and Liverpool Street, and sent the mail out again to the same stations.  At their final destination offices, the mail would of course be loaded on to bicycles for the final mile to your door.  Very little mail now comes in by train; the bicycle they announced this year was over — the roads have become too dangerous lately, they said.  And the quiet, safe, direct and dedicated little electric railway under London?  The Royal Mail announced its closure in April 2003, two months after the Congestion Charge was introduced.  Running a railway had not become more difficult or expensive, but driving a truck had become vastly easier and cheaper.

The Congestion Charge is a great money maker for TfL, and a great incentive for a section of drivers to give up their cars.  But as a mechanism for keeping London traffic moving, it might ultimately be doomed to failure, along with all the other schemes that attempt to solve road transport problems by creating vacant road capacity: there will always be somebody with a new idea for using that capacity.  Again, the only hope for our city centres seems to be to reduce road capacity: to close a significant proportion of roads and lanes for private motor vehicles.  The offices and bars and hotels will cope.  They might even rediscover that magical device that we all have: the one that produces water at the merest turn of a tap.