Tag Archives: induced demand

Big roads, crap cycling and bendy buses in the Development Pool

While London’s attention is turned to Blackfriars Bridge, those blissfully unaffected by the bumbling buffoon Boris* might like to take a look at the 45 proposals that councils around England have submitted to the DfT’s Development Pool in the hope of being picked for a share of the current £630 million available for local transport projects.

Heads of council transport departments and engineering consultancies have dusted off the bypasses, relief roads, distributors and links that they have been drawing and re-drawing, submitting and resubmitting for funding for fifty years.

Look at your local area in the Development Pool and you’ll find them all there. They’ll be called something like “town centre improvement”, “bus rapid transit”, or “cycle route enhancement and congestion relief package.”

Things like the Weston-super-Mare package, which will provide better bus services and enhanced cycle routes, by, erm, widening town centre roads and ensuring that they have substandard and probably unusable shared pavements alongside.

Of the Cross Airfield Link Road, proposed to open a large brownfield site to light industrial and retail developments,** the Weston package says:

The approval is for a single carriageway road 2.4km in length, four roundabout junctions and parallel shared-use foot and cycle ways. The proposed road is 7.3m wide single carriageway. A 3.0m wide segregated shared pedestrian and cycleway will be provided along the northern side of the new road with a 3.0m footway along its southern edge. Both the cycleway and the footway will be segregated from the carriageway by 5.0m verges which are to be planted with trees to create a boulevard along the road’s length. The scheme design includes Toucan crossings in strategic locations.

This sort of stuff should be illegal — I mean that, actually legislated against. Proposing a shared pavement as a transport route in a built-up area should mean automatic rejection from the Pool, pending a suitable revised design. Three metres should be the bare minimum width requirement for a two-way dedicated cycle track on busy roads like these, where large trucks are expected, and even then the council/agency should have to provide a very good explanation for why a 4.0m track or a pair of 2.5m unidirectional tracks would be unreasonable. Weston are proposing to spend our money on a future facility of the month, and that should be against the law.

There is a pattern to the Development Pool proposals. Another Westcountry project is the “South Bristol Link”. It’s a Bus Rapid Transit route, and definitely not the South Bristol Link Road, the extension to Bristol’s southern bypass that the council has been drawing and re-drawing, submitting and re-submitting for funding since the sixties. It just happens to be a road, and to follow the route of the South Bristol Link Road. But it has bus lanes, which makes this a Bus Rapid Transit project, and definitely not the same old bypass. Bristol has grown since the road was first proposed, but the route was set aside, leaving a strip of undeveloped land surrounded by housing. Here’s the artist’s impression of the Bus Rapid Transit system:

Look at that lovely 3.0m shared pavement — in this case divided into equal shares of 1.5m footway and 1.5m bidirectional cycle track. Doesn’t it look so inviting, riding against traffic, alongside the car parking bays, in a space barely wide enough for one bicycle. One bicycle is presumably all that the council are expecting: there is no provision for two bicycles travelling in opposite directions, or travelling in the same direction at different speeds. The council will no doubt seek a solution to that problem if and when it ever arises.

It’s a classic British road mockup. Hide all the cars and clutter and put unnaturally large pedestrians and cyclists in the foreground. The road would be carrying thousands of vehicles per day, swelling with induced demand, but here it’s all free flowing, and just a single homeowner parks a car in their neat free parking bay, gift from the council. Perhaps all the other cars are parked in the city centre because neither a 1.5m bicycle track nor a bendy bus to an edge-of-town park and ride interchange are attractive methods of getting to work?

A 1.5 metre bicycle track will be of no use to anybody. The parking bays will, if you let them, fill with second and third cars, and spill out over the drop kerbs and green spaces. Within a few years the city will discover, to everybody’s surprise, I’m sure, that there is limited demand for a bus between suburban housing and an edge-of-town park and ride interchange, and the bus lanes will quietly be turned into general traffic lanes.

I’m really quite embarrassed for Bristol, having praised them for exceeding our (low) British expectations on Redcliffe Bridge. Seriously, what the fuck, Bristol? “The country’s premier national and international showcase for promoting cycling as a safe, healthy and practical alternative to the private car for commuting, education and leisure journeys.” Bristol’s “cycling city” status clearly hasn’t really sunk in for the highways engineers, who plainly have no experience of cycling or how to provide for it, but who confidently give it a go anyway having read something once in an instruction book.

The city council are cutting hundreds of jobs, and I think I’ve spotted where a few of them of them could go.

While cutting those jobs, the city is seeking £43 million for this bypass Bus Rapid Transit line. I think the Cycling City team could use the money far more profitably, retrofitting the city’s existing big roads with wide, fast, direct, prioritised, attractive tracks, and could never support Bristol throwing the money away on the South Bristol Link. But even for an urban road project, and even leaving aside the contemptible crap cycle facilities, this is an especially bad scheme. The one potential benefit of a bypass is to have a designated road on which to push traffic from city streets. But to capture that benefit you have to reclaim those city streets immediately — make it unattractive to drive on them for anything other than essential property access and loading — otherwise people will just find new ways to fill the old streets with more ridiculous car journeys. With a southern bypass Bristol could close ratruns through the southern suburbs; take back space on the main southern arterial roads — the A38 through Bedminster, for example — for the pedestrians and cyclists who spend more money in the shops along them; it could even close some more of the inner ring road. Bristol failed to capture those benefits when it previously built big bypass roads, on the northern and eastern fringes, and it would fail to capture any potential benefits of a southern bypass, proposing to make it a little bit less attractive to drive only on a couple of residential streets and a country lane:

Take a look at your local schemes on the map. There are potentially worthwhile projects in the pool too, like rail upgrades and even reversing railway closures. More has been written about the bids by Sian Berry and George Monbiot. The DfT are soliciting comments on development.pool@dft.gsi.gov.uk, deadline TOMORROW, Friday — though I’m not sure why, and whether anybody will ever read them.

* but we’re all affected, sadly, due to London’s unfortunate influence over the nation.

** it’s actually one of the least indefensible of the new roads, and one of the least bad sites for such developments, being on brownfield located alongside a railway and within walking and cycling distance of the town’s population and railway stations. I’m sure they will fail to make good use of all that potential, but it’s still progress over road-only out-of-town greenfield sprawl.

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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.

Friday photo: modern mail

This is the view from my office kitchen back when I had that real job (before I gave it all up to do this instead).  The sun is rising over the city, with the Docklands towers just visible, pale in the distance between the Barbican towers.

The street in the foreground is Mount Pleasant. You can just see the Rosebury Avenue viaduct between the houses left of centre.  Just poking into shot on the left is Mount Pleasant sorting office, the central hub of the London sorting offices.

And all this derelict land in the foreground has been cleared for overflow car-parking for the staff.  I’m sure that the employees, even the 9-5 managers, would call to their defence the fact that this place operates 24 hours a day, which the tubular railways do not (shush, don’t mention the fact that buses and bicycles do).

But the presence of, and even more so the presentation of, the overflow car parking is significant.

Several floors beneath this building is the Mail Rail, an underground narrow gauge electric freight railway built by the Post Office in the mid 1920s to link Whitechapel sorting office in the east to Paddington station in the west via Liverpool Street station and several other central London sorting offices.  There were once plans to link even more terminus stations and sorting offices this way.

Over the years those plans slipped away, ever more unlikely to be realised, as the Post Office, a nationalised industry unable to persuade politicians the treasury of the merits of such capital expenditure, discovered that it could do things cheaply and easily enough using our heavily subsidised road freight infrastructure.  Indeed, trucking stuff around on our streets has been made so absurdly cheap that by 2003 the Post Office was telling us that Mail Rail cost five times what it would cost to truck the mail across town.  It can’t have helped that there are a million health and safety rules on that sort of underground machinery, while society seems happy to let drivers kill and be killed in their workplace.

And it can’t have helped that the Post Office were, according to the unions, deliberately running down the railway, pushing up its running costs, and taking much of the mail by road anyway so that it could hide many of the costs of the truck depots and fleet from the estimates on the grounds that those would be needed, Mail Rail or not.

And so in 2003 it mothballed the Mail Rail and started driving dozens of 60 foot articulated trucks around town.  Especially to the main sorting office, Mount Pleasant.  Situated at the top of the Farringdon Road, most of them either come via Elephant & Castle and Blackfriars Bridge, or down the Euston and King’s Cross Roads.

Why would it close a perfectly good Mail Rail to invest in trucks and depots and drivers, making dubious claims about savings?  Because it has a long term business plan that it can’t openly acknowledge.  If the Post Office were to remain doing what it has always done, it would make good business sense to maintain the Mail Rail, a fantastic device that allows them to get the mail in to and between its central London sorting offices without having to drive trucks into the central zone.  But the Post Office doesn’t expect to be doing what it has always done.  It has already lost its state monopoly — albeit in the most bizarre fashion which allows private companies (and subsidiaries of other countries’ state postal services!) to compete for the easy and profitable job of collecting the mail while obliging the Post Office to then do the more labour intensive job of taking it the “final mile” (Mount Pleasant is a much more colourful place since the DHL and UPS and UKMail and, my favourite, Norbert Dentressangle trucks started turning up to dump their letters on the poor posties).  And the process of privatisation has slowly eased along over the years, reaching, last month, the passage of the act that allows the government to sell the company, if and when it is ever ready to do so.  Once complete, ever more of the Post Office’s business, including delivering to that final mile in places where, as in London, it can be profitable, will go to the cheaper competitors, unencumbered by such expensive frills as unions and customer service.

And I’m willing to put money on what happens next, either while the government is rushing to get the business into a state that looks attractive to potential buyers, or immediately after it has been sold off.

Mount Pleasant will be closed, sold off, and demolished. The building shows the signs of a bare minimum maintenance regime.  Enough to keep it hobbling through.  When they needed a bit more space to take the incoming mail, they built a corrugated iron extension in less than a week.  Clearly not a structure they expect to last.  And that car park.  That wasteground overflow car park.  Derelict land being kept derelict in central London.  That’s an organisation that says: we won’t be long; we’re not putting down roots.

There will be an order to preserve the Mail Rail, behind a concrete slab in the basement of whatever “mixed-use development” replaces Mount Pleasant, just in-case circumstances change and a use is found for it in the future.  But an accident or act of untraceable night time vandalism during construction will result in the tunnels being flooded and written off.

Indeed all central London sorting offices will close, for they all sit on extremely valuable land whose sale will help keep the company’s books looking healthy for a while.  The sorting offices will consolidate into just a few.  Big metal barns on the ring roads.  It’s already happening in Yorkshire.  Perhaps there will be one at Staples Corner for the mail from the north.  One in North Greenwich for the mail from the continent, coming through on trucks loaded on the Shuttle.  Sites convenient for the motorways and the North Circular.  Not like Mount Pleasant and the other central sorting offices, hidden away on little city streets.

No more will you see the posties on their iconic Pashley cargo bikes.  They tried to get rid of them already, but they discovered that there wasn’t enough room at Mount Pleasant and Oxford Street to store that many new vans.  The new sorting offices will have room.  They’ll have to, if they’re going to do central London rounds that start from the North Circular or beyond.  No one at the Post Office will mention the loss of the Pashleys, but they’ll press release the fact that the new sorting offices’ motorway-side locations mean that they will no longer have to drive 60ft articulated trucks through central London streets, and the mayor and the cycle campaigners and the bloggers will celebrate.

This is why “smoothing the flow” doesn’t work.  Making the roads easier to use and more reliable reduces the cost of road transport and allows businesses ever more opportunities to change their practices and cut their costs by using more road transport.  Create capacity and somebody will create a way to fill it.  It’s great for business, they say.  Why should a shop pay expensive central London rent for a store room when it can drive its stock in from a cheap barn on the north circular?  Why should a hotel invest in a washing machine and a maid when it could have its laundry driven to a cheap barn on the north circular?  Why should a bar pay up-front for an ice machine when it can have ice driven in from a cheap barn on the north circular?

Why should the Post Office maintain central London sorting offices, bicycle deliveries, and an underground freight railway, when its competitors are all operating out of barns on the north circular?

Because we pay for it.  Road freight isn’t cheap, it simply avoids paying its bills.  We pay for the rehabilitation and lost income of the people hit by the vans.  We pay for the care of the people dying from air pollution related diseases and sedentary-lifestyle related diseases.  We pay for the trains and taxis and buses because cycling and walking is difficult and unpleasant in a city choked with vans and trucks.  We pay for the noise pollution and the water pollution.  We — or Camden taxpayers, anyway — pay for the bollards that they’re constantly knocking over outside the Packenham Arms, ’round the back of Mount Pleasant.  And we pay because making this kind of business cheap makes other kinds of business difficult.  Liveable cities attract businesses and talented employees, retail spend, and tourism.  London, we are regularly reminded, is competing with the other great world cities and European capitals to attract the headquarters of big companies and major employers.

The Post Office isn’t cutting its costs, it’s externalising them, dumping them on the rest of us, like the competitors who in turn dump the expensive bit of the business of delivering mail on the Post Office.

This business plan, of course, depends on road transport remaining cheap and easy for all time.  Like the railway closures of fifty years ago, we will look back at this era and marvel at the short-sightedness of it all.

Ratrunners rout railway

London Reconnections reports that Heathrow Airtrack — the old proposal to link ready-built platforms under Heathrow T5 to Waterloo via the Windsor lines through Staines and Putney — has been quietly shelved.  It was never a very interesting railway and, since I don’t anticipate using any airport in the foreseeable future, I have difficulty caring about its demise.  But it’s a vaguely interesting story, I think, for the reason that it was dropped.  Interesting to hardcore transport nerds, at least.

Because these railway lines out of Waterloo are already heavily used commuter lines, introducing a new Airtrack service to the system would require some difficult timetable shuffling and fiddling with routes to make everything fit in.  Train times on the Chiswick/Brentford branch and on the Egham branch — lines that Airtrack itself needn’t even use — would have to change in order to open slots on the shared tracks around Waterloo and Staines.  Those routes each have three level-crossings, which introduces a road/rail conflict.

The three level crossings on the Chiswick/Brentford branch are not important.  They are all on unclassified residential streets with nearby main roads that have bridges.  Probably they should just be closed and replaced with footbridges — I’m sure the budgetary and safety cases must be strong.  Increased train frequency could lead to long block closures of these crossings during rush hour, and it wouldn’t matter.  No bus routes use these roads.  A few west London Chelsea Tractor drivers might get upset at the loss of a ratrun.  Boo hoo.

What matters are the Egham crossings, all on relatively important roads into the town and its residential areas, without realistic alternative routes.  The residents of Egham are adamant that, while Chiswick and Brentford residents shouldn’t need to run a car, out there in the wild rural isolation of Egham it’s simply not possible to survive without a Range Rover to take the kids to school (have you seen the state of the school bus and the sort of children who use it?).  Lets not argue that one right now.  There is much demand on the roads in Egham, and the changes to train times and frequencies caused by Airtrack could increase the length and frequency of crossing closures to the point where supply is insufficient to meet demand, and the queues become too long for the road phases of the crossing.

It’s a nice demonstration of why our transport system is in the condition it’s in: those clever solutions that you like to make up when you’re bored on a delayed train won’t work, because in such a complex and close-to-capacity system as the British railway network, any tinkering has massive knock-on effects elsewhere.  Run another train here?  Add a few carriages to that service?  Build a new branch to Heathrow?  It’s a bit more complicated than that.  Sometimes building a whole new railway, like Crossrail or HS2, is cheaper and easier than trying to untangle the age old lines we already have.

Oh, but, why don’t they just build bridges over the railway in place of the level crossings, you say?  Another of your excellent ideas, and that’s where we get to the really nerdily interesting bit.  Currently, the presence of level crossings in the town make the ‘B’ roads that run south through it marginally less inviting to the motorist than the busy A30 and A320 bypasses.  Replace the crossings with bridges and Egham becomes a ratrun.  The minor inconvenience of waiting at the gates is the price the townsfolk pay for relatively quiet and livable streets.  The extra road capacity would change the congestion profile of the main roads, and over time, change the business profile of the high street and the social profile of the town.  In the chaotic complexity of the road network, a tiny tweak can set in motion slow but significant changes.  So we can’t run trains from Waterloo to Heathrow because it would necessitate the creation of a ratrun for motorists through a town that the Heathrow railway wouldn’t even run through.

Resolving these road/rail and resident/ratrunner conflicts is, of course, just a political decision.  Any decision will inconvenience a lot of people and have long term, surprisingly far-reaching, and not entirely predictable consequences. The politician’s job is to decide who to inconvenience more; which option is expected have less problematic consequences.  There is no one objectively right answer.

It just happens, though, that Egham is in Runnymede & Weybridge, the constituency that elected our dear transport secretary.  I didn’t say there weren’t any objectively wrong answers.

If you build it they will come

On the London Cyclist thread “is there anything super about the Cycle Superhighways?,” we hear Chinese whispers on the reason why TfL decided against making real superhighways and instead came up with the overpriced and failed PR exercise that are the blue lines on the side of the road:

“TfL said the routes are simply not being used frequently enough to warrant separation of traffic.”

and,

Boris, when asked why the Superhighways are not segregated, always says “There is just not room on London’s roads”.

Whether Boris used one or both of these excuses, he is wrong.  The reason he is wrong is Transport Economics 101 stuff — the sort of thing that even amateurs like us understand.  Simply, the demand for transport — and especially the demand for a specific mode of transport in an area with competing modes — is extremely flexible, and easily adjusts to supply.

People like to go places.  If you give them fast and affordable railways, they will jump on the train to the seaside.  If you give them fast and affordable roads, they will drive their car to work.  If you give them budget airlines, they will herd into planes to southern Europe.  A new transport mode releases latent demand: previously, though they would have liked to have gone somewhere, they chose not to because it was too difficult or expensive.  And it induces demand in other ways: a new road creates car journeys by allowing small local shops and services to be closed and merged into large centralised versions that people have little choice but to drive to, or by removing the incentive for efficient means of transporting goods, or by making it feasible to develop residential suburbs and new towns far from centres of employment, etc.

This is why in densely populated places like the UK, building a new road to solve one problem always creates another before long: the new road makes driving easier and cheaper, so more people drive and they drive further and more frequently, putting additional pressure on all the existing infrastructure surrounding the new road.  We could bulldoze corridors through the cities and pave the whole countryside, build ten times the road capacity that we currently have, and the road network would be just as overloaded as it is now.  This we already knew.

What is less well known is that the reverse is just as true.  Make it more difficult to drive somewhere and people will not drive there.  Make taxis sit in traffic jams instead of subsidising their industry by allowing them into bus lanes, and their fares will take the train instead.  Make it more expensive for goods vehicles to get into central London and the businesses and organisations that are based there will stop being so wasteful with goods.  Impose airport taxes on budget flights to the continent and people will realise that they can have an equally appalling stag night somewhere nearer home.

Take away a transport route and our remarkably robust network copes just fine.  A sudden emergency causes disruption because people aren’t expecting it; but sufficiently well publicised road works have a far more modest impact because people adjust their plans around them — take a different route, move their journey to an off-peak time, or do something else instead.  Permanently closing a whole road is even better tolerated still: such closures do not leave the surrounding roads gridlocked, at least, not in the long term.  People shift modes and shift behaviours; and eventually, all of the businesses and development patterns that had adjusted to a world in which everybody drove down that road will happily adjust back to one in which they don’t.

The amount of road space that we have now is essentially arbitrary: it could go up or down without making the slightest difference to the traffic jams its users moan about.

So it is not true that our streets are too small to accommodate dedicated cycling facilities.  Our streets are already too small, and will always be too small, to accommodate even a tenth of the potential for private motor-vehicle use, and we cope with that situation.  The road network copes with this situation because nine out of ten Londoners are quite aware of the fact that trying to drive a car through town is an absurd thing to do, and they don’t do it.  Taking away a little bit more will make a negligible difference because a few of the more stubborn Motorists will wake up to the fact and the volume of traffic will adjust accordingly.

And it’s not true that there is no demand for segregated facilities, and anybody who says there isn’t must be living in a fantasy land.  Pick a random non-cycling London commuter and ask them about cycling: more often than not they will tell you that would love to be able to replace their horrible bus journey with a bike ride.  But ninety-nine out of a hundred of them will tell you that they don’t do so because the roads aren’t safe, and there’s nothing to stop a truck driving into them.  Not because they’re afraid that they might get sweaty, or because it occasionally rains, or because they don’t know how to use a spanner, or because they’ve never heard of cycling before.  Entirely because there is no infrastructure that is perceived to be safe.  Cycling has a modal share at the lower end of single figures; it could plausibly account for a third or more of commutes.  Provide fast, capacious, sensible, joined-up and conspicuously safe infrastructure and you will unleash the vast latent demand for cycling.

If you build it they will come.  The only reason not to that Boris has left is to protect his credentials with the primarily non-London Motorist Tories who he will one day want to vote for him to be prime-minister.

–Joe