Tag Archives: evidence-based policy

Repost: Pickles peddles pointless parking press release

Not having anything new to post, but having been reminded of this antique scrawl by last week’s Cycling Embassy response to the Department for Communities and Local Government’s consultation on whether they should interfere in local parking policies, I figured I could fob you off with something originally posted way back in august 2011.

This week, the Department for Communities and Local Government put out a press release about town centre parking. Unlike last time, they didn’t even have to announce that Pickles is ending The War On The Motorist™. On that point, their work was done for them, by 36 newspapers and the Daily Express. Aren’t they well trained?

This time around, Rubberknickers Pickles is ending The War by lifting restrictions on how much of our town centres can be given over to car parking. The idea is nothing new, of course, but it is assumed that most will have forgotten the previous occasions when it was announced. The “news” is that the paperwork has gone through: the new version of the government’s planning rules are complete.

As far as I can tell, the notorious limits on car parking provision that have been dropped were Policy EC8, “Car parking for non-residential development,” in the Planning Policy Statement 4 of 2001 [PDF]. This policy instructs local authorities:

Local planning authorities should, through their local development frameworks, set maximum parking standards for non-residential development in their area, ensuring alignment with the policies in the relevant local transport plan and, where relevant, the regional strategy.

In determining what their maximum should be, the policy suggested that authorities think about the needs of non-car users, the effects of congestion and need to tackle carbon emissions and air pollution, and:

h. the need to make provision for adequate levels of good quality secure parking in town centres to encourage investment and maintain their vitality and viability

j. the need to provide for appropriate disabled parking and access

k. the needs of different business sizes and types and major employers

That is, the notorious Labour control-freakery over town centre parking was, er, an instruction for local authorities to develop guidelines that they think are suitable for their own local situations. The Policy document goes on to state that these local standards that authorities have developed should then be applied to planning applications — unless the planning applicant gives a good reason for them not to apply.

So these maximum limits are locally decided and not really binding. That doesn’t quite look like “centrally controlled parking quotas” to me. In his press release, Pickles says:

The Government believes councils and communities are best placed to set parking policies that are right for their area and based on local need – not Whitehall. Local people know the level of parking that is sustainable for their town centre.

Which seems to be exactly what the old Policy document supported.

Perhaps there was some other Labour policy, rule, or law that I haven’t been able to find? Anybody?

I’m not sure what real difference the removal of this policy makes. Previously councils were made to think about the effect of congestion and pollution and the like on their town centres, and the needs of people on foot and bike and bus. When a planning application came in they would know how to recognise whether it would be bad for their town, and they would have a good pre-prepared excuse to reject a development that would make their town centre a more congested and polluted place, or which would hinder walking, cycling, and public transport. But I assume that they’re still allowed to reject those developments if they still don’t like congestion and pollution and dead places?

But perhaps the new policy document will send a message to local authorities: your town centres are in a bad way, and you need to do something about it. In his press release, Pickles says that the removal of this rule will “provide a big boost to struggling high streets”:

The new draft National Planning Policy Framework, recently published, will do away with these anti-car restrictions introduced in 2001 and give high streets a boost to compete for shoppers. It will encourage new investment in town centres, provide more jobs and encourage more charging spaces for electric cars.

Unfortunately, Pickles doesn’t explain how the new Policy will translate into more competitive town centres with more jobs. More importantly, he presents no evidence to support the statement. So I went looking for it. Luckily, Greg Marsden has already reviewed the evidence on parking policies.

One of the studies that Marsden reviews is the 2002 Lockwood Survey, which divides “town centres” by size of the town/catchment area, and whose summary states:

4.   Findings of the parking survey:

Major District Centres: Poor store performance is linked with low levels of parking, reliance on car parks more than 5 minutes walk from prime shopping streets and high charges (the report gives indicative levels).

Sub Regional Centres: Poor store performance is linked with reliance on car parks more than 5 minutes walk from prime shopping streets and high charges (the report gives indicative levels).

Regional Centres: Poor store performance is linked with high charges for 3 and 4 hour stays (the report gives indicative levels).

But when Marsden looked at the data he found it a lot more difficult to support these conclusions. In “major district centres”, those with very low levels of parking were indeed more likely to be performing badly. But those with mildly low levels of parking did better than those with high levels. And in regional centres, those with higher levels of parking were struggling more than those with lower levels. But those with very high levels of parking did a little better than those with very low levels.

There simply doesn’t seem to be any pattern in this data at all. The authors of the original report had cherry picked those parts of the data that made it look like low parking provision was harming shops, while ignoring those parts that said the reverse. Marsden found the same for parking charges and the proportion of parking spaces within a five minute walk of the main shopping area: the data was all over the place, showing no obvious and consistent relationship with economic performance. Why not? Because if variation in parking provision has any effect on town centre attractiveness and competitiveness at all, it is masked by far more important factors — perhaps factors like whether the town centre is easy to get to, has shops people want to use, and is a nice place to be.

So why is Pickles press releasing his new policy as the saviour for struggling town centres? Why did most of the newspapers toe that line? We’ve developed a national myth that giving over more of our town centres to parking is good for the businesses in them.

Sustrans documented the nature of this myth by talking to traders and shoppers on Gloucester Road in Bristol. Bristol is relatively dense and affluent with above average cycling and car ownership rates and, even by British standards, appalling public transport. Gloucester Road doubles as a major artery with many bus routes and a neighbourhood centre lined with mostly independent shops. As Bristol Traffic documents, its bus and bike lanes are usually filled with parked cars.

Not Gloucester Road, but a near-by case study which might teach us some things about why town centres are in decline

Shopkeepers on Gloucester road estimated that more than two fifths of their customers came by car. In fact it was only just over a fifth. They greatly underestimated how many people walked, cycled, or took the bus. The shopkeepers were perhaps being big-headed, believing that their businesses were capable of attracting people from a wider catchment area, when in fact most customers lived within an easily walkable distance.

And the shopkeepers greatly overestimated the importance of drivers to their business in another way: while the people who walked were likely to stick around and visit several shops and businesses, the drivers typically pulled up, ran in to one shop, and got out of there as fast as they could. Perhaps that’s because often they couldn’t even be bothered to park up properly and instead stopped in the bike lanes outside their destination.

High street shopkeepers and business owners greatly overestimate the importance of drivers to their success. Why? Perhaps proprietors are more likely to be drivers themselves, and, as is so often the case with motorists, can’t get their heads around the fact that so many others aren’t? Perhaps their view of the street through the big shop window is dominated by the big metal boxes passing through? Perhaps they see the apparent success of the big soulless out-of-town supermarkets and shopping malls, attribute that success to the acres of car parking, and leap to the conclusion that car parking is all that a business needs for success — that the model which succeeds on the periphery can be applied to the model that is failing in the centre.

I suspect that the opposite might be true. Those who are attached to their cars will go to the barns on the ring-roads. You won’t attract them back to the town centres. But by trying — by providing for the car parking at the expense of bike paths and bus lanes and wider pavements — you might drive away the surprisingly high proportion of town centre customers who don’t come by car, who come precisely because, unlike the malls, the town centre is walkable and cycleable and because the bus can get through. Town centres aren’t just competing with out-of-town malls and supermarkets any more. Those who don’t want to drive to out-of-town barns can sit at home, click on some buttons, and have things driven to them. Compared to most of the traffic-choked high streets in this country, that’s quite an attractive option.

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A simple question

I like Select Committees. They do a good line in scrutiny, as we’ve seen lately with the Media Select Committee’s hacking enquiry. On tuesday the Transport Select Committee sat to look at road safety, calling a representative of the Association of British Nutters as a witness.

The ABD made some assertions and MPs responded with the simple question: how do you know that’s true? You can see the delightful outcome at As Easy As Riding a Bike, with further comment at MCRcycling.

It reminded me of an exchange with The ABD on twitter — perhaps the event which first got the thin skinned ABD blocking its detractors on twitter. Back in July, the ABD tweeted something about average speed cameras on the extremely expensive new section of the A3 at Hindhead. @highburyonfoot, @jamesgleave1, and I briefly exchanged tweets speculating about why this Motoring organisation should object to average speed cameras. They said:

Assn of Brit Drivers @TheABD Assn of Brit Drivers
@highburyonfoot @steinsky @jamesgleave1 Av Spd Cams encourage anal attitude to speed limit rather than attentive driving.
16 Jul Favorite Retweet Reply

There was some comment on this:

James Gleave @jamesgleave1 James Gleave
@TheABD @highburyonfoot @steinsky in what way? Surely sticking to the speed limit is a part of attentive driving?
16 Jul Favorite Retweet Reply

Simon Bannister @simon_bannister Simon Bannister
@TheABD @highburyonfoot @steinsky @jamesgleave1 Car drivers shld be a bit more anal IMO – self control, restraint, attention to detail etc..
16 Jul Favorite Retweet Reply

Caroline Russell @highburyonfoot Caroline Russell
@steinsky (@jamesgleave1) @theabd have a v low opinion of drivers’ ability to judge speed, yet think cameras unnecessary as deterrent.
16 Jul Favorite Retweet Reply

John Dales johnstreetdales John Dales
I.e. @TheABD is for ‘drivers who THINK of (not for) themselves’ & ‘Attentive’ = above the law. Nice!
16 Jul Favorite Retweet Reply

The ABD were strangely silent on these questions. But I was interested in the far more basic issue: how do you know that’s true?

Joe Dunckley @steinsky Joe Dunckley
[citation needed] RT @TheABD: Av Spd Cams encourage anal attitude to speed limit rather than attentive driving.
16 Jul Favorite Reply

It turned out that this request for evidence was more difficult for the ABD to respond to than I had expected.

Caroline Russell @highburyonfoot Caroline Russell
RT @steinsky: @TheABD [citation needed]. Where is the study that shows this? > perhaps @TheABD can circulate?
16 Jul Favorite Retweet Reply

Joe Dunckley @steinsky Joe Dunckley
two days down, still no evidence… RT @steinsky: [citation needed] RT @TheABD: Av Spd Cams encourage anal attitude to speed limit rather…
18 Jul Favorite Reply

Joe Dunckley @steinsky Joe Dunckley
Another day passes without evidence appearing… RT @steinsky: [citation needed] RT @TheABD: Av Spd Cams encourage anal attitude to speed…
19 Jul Favorite Reply

Joe Dunckley @steinsky Joe Dunckley
Oh gosh, is it really more than a week with no evidence already? RT @steinsky: [citation needed] RT @TheABD: Av Spd Cams encourage anal a…
24 Jul via web Favorite Reply

Joe Dunckley @steinsky Joe Dunckley
Oh, I wonder if @TheABD ever found that reference? RT @steinsky: [citation needed] RT @TheABD: Av Spd Cams encourage anal attitude to spe…
12 Sep via web Favorite Reply

They never did get back to us with their evidence for the claim that average speed cameras encourage inattentive driving. It’s almost as if it never existed…

Norman Baker defends evidence-defying policy

Norman Baker, our ever embarrassing Lib Dem Minister for The Bits Of Transport That The Government Doesn’t Care About and part-time conspiracy theorist, pops up in the HoL Sci & Tech Committee report on evidence-based behavioural change policy, defending the coalition’s approach:

Even where ministers are aware of relevant evidence, other factors may lead them to disregard it. This appears to have been the case with current alcohol pricing policy (see Box 3, page 21). Norman Baker MP, a Minister at the DfT, explained: “evidence is best used to inform policy … but not to drive it in an unreconstituted way”; the Government “have to make choices based not just on the evidence-base … but also on the political objectives of the Government at a particular time, and to ensure fairness across the country”. Other considerations might include immediate reaction to events, judgements about ethical acceptability, cost and cost-effectiveness. These considerations might justifiably affect the extent to which a policy is based on the available evidence.

What does “political objectives of the Government” even mean? It sounds awfully like “ideology”. What does “immediate reaction to events” mean? Sounds to me a bit like outlawing a recreational drug because a couple of people who coincidentally used it recently died, or locking a lot of people up for petty crimes because they happened in the context of a recent big news story.

Of course, cost, cost-effectiveness, ethical acceptability, and indeed general public acceptability must be taken into account. But those things are pieces of evidence like anything else. This stuff is all part of the evidence that evidence-based behavioural change policy needs to be based on.

As the report itself goes on to discuss, behavioural change policies will fail if the public does not understand the problem — or the magnitude of the problem — that the policy is trying to solve. The solution must be seen to be proportionate to the problem. Sometimes you need to prepare the public and make your case: a few years of “clunk-click” paved the way for seatbelt legislation. If an intervention is a really good one, it only needs to be on the border-line of public acceptability to work and to very quickly become accepted: opposition to the ban on smoking in public places quickly disappeared, and it takes effort to find people opposed to the congestion charge these days.

Equally relevant is the fact that the public acceptability of interventions depends on their success. Design an intervention that doesn’t actually work — perhaps by ignoring the evidence — and you invite a backlash. The report cites the example of high alcohol prices in Scandinavia. This could perhaps help to explain the media’s obsession with The War On The Motorist: policies to tackle the problems of mass motoring might be unpopular if the number of vehicles on the road carries on growing regardless (even if the situation would have been even worse without those policies).

I don’t know. The formula might be complicated, but I can’t think of any part of it that should not be based on real world values. Can anybody see a favourable interpretation of Baker’s words?

Nudge nudge, do you follow me?

Call me a stereotype of the scientist buried in his own irrelevant little world, but it occurred to me that I know far more about how to manipulate the behaviour of transformed cell lines than that of people. The War On The Motorist™ was, of course, part of the great evil Labour project to change some of our more anti-social and self-destructive behaviours. So I thought I should probably find out about how these government-led behavioural change projects work.

There are, of course, all sorts of different ways that governments can try to reduce destructive behaviour, from outlawing it to asking nicely, via making the bad options harder and making the good options easier:

(This table, incidentally, neatly describes where the chaps at Cycle Chat slipped up when claiming that the rise in domestic recycling rates demonstrates that we can achieve mass cycling without cycling facilities: mass domestic recycling required a change in the physical environment — kerbside recycling boxes — exactly equivalent to the changes to the physical environment that are required before we can expect most people to cycle.)

The current government has an ideological bias against some of these varieties of behavioural change, and in favour of others.* Regulation and taxation is, of course, off the agenda. Rather, the government says it wants to influence behaviour by making it easier for us to make the right choices. It will do this, it claims, without making the bad choices impossible or even more expensive, and without even requiring our conscious deliberation. In the fashionable pop-economics terminology, it’s going to “nudge” us in the right direction.

The pop-economics writers have some favourite examples of “nudges”. Changing the environment by putting the fruit bowl in plain view and easy reach, without banning the junk food option. Or reducing laundry loads by changing the hotel bathroom signs from “hang your towel on the rack if you are going to reuse it” to “most guests hang their towels up and reuse them”. The environment or the information nudges people into making the right choice, without actually taking choice from them.

It all sounds very nice, but I wonder what the evidence says about the government’s approach? Does it really work? Are they doing it right? And what does it mean for transport and The War On The Motorist?

Luckily, the House of Lords Sci & Tech select committee are ahead of me. I like select committees. So far as I can tell, their job is to closely and carefully scrutinise what the government is doing (or failing to do), point out when the evidence indicates that they’re messing things up, and then to be completely ignored by government, media, and the unfortunate oblivious electorate. The HoL Sci & Tech committee produced a report a couple of weeks ago looking at the present government’s approach to behaviour change programmes, and in particular, the extent to which they were informed by the evidence of what works and what is worthwhile. I’ve been scrolling through it and will probably dump a load of thoughts on the blog this week.

My initial concern was that, though it speaks of nudges and wanting to avoid limiting choice through regulation, it is not regulation that the government is really trying to avoid: it is spending money on doing a job properly. We’ll see if I’m at all reassured by the time I’ve finished digesting it and posting about it…

* Of course, the far end of the libertorian wing will object to any and all government-led behavioural change, but I will assume for now that we all understand why we need it, and why we need it done properly

In which I have to agree with the ABD

…that remedial lectures are not an appropriate alternative to prosecution for people who use mobile phones while driving. Stopped clocks, and all that. Rather less frequently than twice a day in the ABD’s case.

Lincolnshire, amongst others, are extending their remedial courses — the sort that are already widely offered as an alternative to prosecution for those caught driving too fast — to those caught using phones while driving. Greville Burgess, principal road safety coordinator for the Lincolnshire Road Safety Partnership, claims that such courses “could save lives”, but, this being a local newspaper, no evidence or source for the claim is cited. Burgess says:

“The evidence from other diversionary courses is very positive in that nationally less than 1 per cent re-offend within three years of completing the course. This strongly suggests that education rather than simple penalty points and a fine is more effective.”

But the latter does not follow from the former: Burgess does not give us the re-offending rates for those who take the penalty points. Is there really a statistically significant difference in rates at which people are caught — mark that, caught* — re-offending depending on which sentence they picked? But then, the utility of such numbers would be compromised anyway by the very fact that the offender picks the sentence: there is no randomisation in the groups we are comparing. The person who thinks that £60 and the points is the more lenient sentence might be very different to the sort of person who would rather spend £80 on the day-long remedial course. (Of course, both sentences look to me like absurdly light ways to deal with those who endanger the lives of others, but…)

This is the sort of intervention that is perfectly suited to a proper randomised controlled trial. While we’re at it, we could see whether combining the interventions — prosecution and remedial education — works better than either one on its own. If education really does work so well, why not make it a compulsory addition rather than an optional alternative to prosecution?

I don’t know what evidence Burgess thinks he has for his claim that these courses save lives, or are better than the alternatives, and I can’t find any likely candidates in the literature. But there is plenty of research on the topic, and a review of all the best evidence we have on driver education programmes — 32 properly randomised and controlled trials of advanced and remedial driver education programmes.  They found that the courses entirely failed to prevent re-offending.

And so far as I know, nobody has ever thought to investigate whether there might be side-effects to these policies. We have a prime-minister who sees moral hazard everywhere he looks, and is worried about whether we have sufficient deterrents to crime. We should not limit our assessment of driver education programmes merely to the rate of re-offending amongst participants. We must look at the wider and less immediately obvious effects of classifying mobile phone use while driving as the type of activity that merely merits spending a day getting a good talking to from a retired policeman. Perhaps there are no such side-effects. We don’t know until we look.

But I almost forgot. The prime-minister is also keen on some offenders being allowed their second chance.

I fear that this is now the second time I have found myself siding with the Association of British Drivers. But if I were to write about them every time they said something totally batshit crazy, I’d never get a moment’s rest.

* my own entirely unscientific observation is that, despite being universally recognised as extremely moronic behaviour, mobile phone use while driving is very common. The capture rate must be pretty embarrassing. I fear the 1% re-offending rate says far more about the efficacy of the policing than the efficacy of any remedies.

Pickles peddles pointless parking press release

This week, the Department for Communities and Local Government put out a press release about town centre parking. Unlike last time, they didn’t even have to announce that Pickles is ending The War On The Motorist™. On that point, their work was done for them, by 36 newspapers and the Daily Express. Aren’t they well trained?

This time around, Rubberknickers Pickles is ending The War by lifting restrictions on how much of our town centres can be given over to car parking. The idea is nothing new, of course, but it is assumed that most will have forgotten the previous occasions when it was announced. The “news” is that the paperwork has gone through: the new version of the government’s planning rules are complete.

As far as I can tell, the notorious limits on car parking provision that have been dropped were Policy EC8, “Car parking for non-residential development,” in the Planning Policy Statement 4 of 2001 [PDF]. This policy instructs local authorities:

Local planning authorities should, through their local development frameworks, set maximum parking standards for non-residential development in their area, ensuring alignment with the policies in the relevant local transport plan and, where relevant, the regional strategy.

In determining what their maximum should be, the policy suggested that authorities think about the needs of non-car users, the effects of congestion and need to tackle carbon emissions and air pollution, and:

h. the need to make provision for adequate levels of good quality secure parking in town centres to encourage investment and maintain their vitality and viability

j. the need to provide for appropriate disabled parking and access

k. the needs of different business sizes and types and major employers

That is, the notorious Labour control-freakery over town centre parking was, er, an instruction for local authorities to develop guidelines that they think are suitable for their own local situations. The Policy document goes on to state that these local standards that authorities have developed should then be applied to planning applications — unless the planning applicant gives a good reason for them not to apply.

So these maximum limits are locally decided and not really binding. That doesn’t quite look like “centrally controlled parking quotas” to me. In his press release, Pickles says:

The Government believes councils and communities are best placed to set parking policies that are right for their area and based on local need – not Whitehall. Local people know the level of parking that is sustainable for their town centre.

Which seems to be exactly what the old Policy document supported.

Perhaps there was some other Labour policy, rule, or law that I haven’t been able to find? Anybody?

I’m not sure what real difference the removal of this policy makes. Previously councils were made to think about the effect of congestion and pollution and the like on their town centres, and the needs of people on foot and bike and bus. When a planning application came in they would know how to recognise whether it would be bad for their town, and they would have a good pre-prepared excuse to reject a development that would make their town centre a more congested and polluted place, or which would hinder walking, cycling, and public transport. But I assume that they’re still allowed to reject those developments if they still don’t like congestion and pollution and dead places?

But perhaps the new policy document will send a message to local authorities: your town centres are in a bad way, and you need to do something about it. In his press release, Pickles says that the removal of this rule will “provide a big boost to struggling high streets”:

The new draft National Planning Policy Framework, recently published, will do away with these anti-car restrictions introduced in 2001 and give high streets a boost to compete for shoppers. It will encourage new investment in town centres, provide more jobs and encourage more charging spaces for electric cars.

Unfortunately, Pickles doesn’t explain how the new Policy will translate into more competitive town centres with more jobs. More importantly, he presents no evidence to support the statement. So I went looking for it. Luckily, Greg Marsden has already reviewed the evidence on parking policies.

One of the studies that Marsden reviews is the 2002 Lockwood Survey, which divides “town centres” by size of the town/catchment area, and whose summary states:

4.   Findings of the parking survey:

Major District Centres: Poor store performance is linked with low levels of parking, reliance on car parks more than 5 minutes walk from prime shopping streets and high charges (the report gives indicative levels).

Sub Regional Centres: Poor store performance is linked with reliance on car parks more than 5 minutes walk from prime shopping streets and high charges (the report gives indicative levels).

Regional Centres: Poor store performance is linked with high charges for 3 and 4 hour stays (the report gives indicative levels).

But when Marsden looked at the data he found it a lot more difficult to support these conclusions. In “major district centres”, those with very low levels of parking were indeed more likely to be performing badly. But those with mildly low levels of parking did better than those with high levels. And in regional centres, those with higher levels of parking were struggling more than those with lower levels. But those with very high levels of parking did a little better than those with very low levels.

There simply doesn’t seem to be any pattern in this data at all. The authors of the original report had cherry picked those parts of the data that made it look like low parking provision was harming shops, while ignoring those parts that said the reverse. Marsden found the same for parking charges and the proportion of parking spaces within a five minute walk of the main shopping area: the data was all over the place, showing no obvious and consistent relationship with economic performance. Why not? Because if variation in parking provision has any effect on town centre attractiveness and competitiveness at all, it is masked by far more important factors — perhaps factors like whether the town centre is easy to get to, has shops people want to use, and is a nice place to be.

So why is Pickles press releasing his new policy as the saviour for struggling town centres? Why did most of the newspapers toe that line? We’ve developed a national myth that giving over more of our town centres to parking is good for the businesses in them.

Sustrans documented the nature of this myth by talking to traders and shoppers on Gloucester Road in Bristol. Bristol is relatively dense and affluent with above average cycling and car ownership rates and, even by British standards, appalling public transport. Gloucester Road doubles as a major artery with many bus routes and a neighbourhood centre lined with mostly independent shops. As Bristol Traffic documents, its bus and bike lanes are usually filled with parked cars.

Not Gloucester Road, but a near-by case study which might teach us some things about why town centres are in decline

Shopkeepers on Gloucester road estimated that more than two fifths of their customers came by car. In fact it was only just over a fifth. They greatly underestimated how many people walked, cycled, or took the bus. The shopkeepers were perhaps being big-headed, believing that their businesses were capable of attracting people from a wider catchment area, when in fact most customers lived within an easily walkable distance.

And the shopkeepers greatly overestimated the importance of drivers to their business in another way: while the people who walked were likely to stick around and visit several shops and businesses, the drivers typically pulled up, ran in to one shop, and got out of there as fast as they could. Perhaps that’s because often they couldn’t even be bothered to park up properly and instead stopped in the bike lanes outside their destination.

High street shopkeepers and business owners greatly overestimate the importance of drivers to their success. Why? Perhaps proprietors are more likely to be drivers themselves, and, as is so often the case with motorists, can’t get their heads around the fact that so many others aren’t? Perhaps their view of the street through the big shop window is dominated by the big metal boxes passing through? Perhaps they see the apparent success of the big soulless out-of-town supermarkets and shopping malls, attribute that success to the acres of car parking, and leap to the conclusion that car parking is all that a business needs for success — that the model which succeeds on the periphery can be applied to the model that is failing in the centre.

I suspect that the opposite might be true. Those who are attached to their cars will go to the barns on the ring-roads. You won’t attract them back to the town centres. But by trying — by providing for the car parking at the expense of bike paths and bus lanes and wider pavements — you might drive away the surprisingly high proportion of town centre customers who don’t come by car, who come precisely because, unlike the malls, the town centre is walkable and cycleable and because the bus can get through. Town centres aren’t just competing with out-of-town malls and supermarkets any more. Those who don’t want to drive to out-of-town barns can sit at home, click on some buttons, and have things driven to them. Compared to most of the traffic-choked high streets in this country, that’s quite an attractive option.

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.