Tag Archives: latent demand

This pretense of neutrality

On Saturday I wrote about the leaked draft of the Tories’ coalition’s draft new planning policy document:

LAs are told to take into account existing local car ownership rates when doing this.  Fair enough, but why aren’t they also told to take into account the elasticity of modal share in the local area?

The line reminded me of the comment made recently by Andrew Boff, summarising the views of Conservative members of the London Assembly, who recently rejected the idea of a “road user hierarchy” which puts cyclists and pedestrians above motor vehicle users:

“It is true that we [the Conservatives] are, by instinct, anti-hierarchical and I agree with you that we should be making decisions to accommodate people’s choices not what we think their choices should be.”

Boff’s statement and the planning policy document imply the Tory position is that politicians should keep their own ideals out of transport planning and merely provide for the journeys that are already being made — to remain neutral, and let the people choose.  Leaving aside how this fits with the idea that creating new journeys is required to boost the economy (“roads for prosperity” under Thatcher; high-speed rail and reduced planning control under the current government), the idea that merely “making decisions to accommodate” the modes that people currently “choose” to use could be either a neutral or a desirable policy is either spectacularly naive or spectacularly dishonest.

People’s transport “choices” are informed by the real world. The fact that somebody is making a specific journey by a specific mode does mean that they choose that journey and that mode or that they wouldn’t prefer to go somewhere else or use a different mode if it were available. This should be self evident. I write from a village in Dorset where people have today “chosen” not use the bus or train.  Their choice may be informed by the fact that neither have been provided.

It is impossible to make a transport decision, even a decision to “accommodate” the status quo, which does not affect people’s choices, because people’s choices do not reflect an ideal isolated from the real world.  And “carry on with what we’ve had for fifty years” is no less a political decision than “do something different,” because what we’ve had for fifty years is itself the result of a political decision.  Cities do not naturally grow up with eight lane roads running through them; there is no objectively correct traffic signal priorities determined by the laws of physics.  These are things that we have been given as the result of political decisions, decisions which affect our choices for which modes of transport to use, and more importantly, which modes not to use, however much we might want to use them.

This is a pretty core principle which affects everything in transport.  Politicians must understand this if they are to get it right.

A couple of quick examples that passed my eyes this week (just a couple — really, any transport project or infrastructure could illustrate the principle).

First, Ian Visits reviews the history of the Docklands development, and the reason that the DLR was built.  The original idea was that the Jubilee Line would be extended through the derelict industrial lands of the East.  But the government took a look and realised that nobody was trying to make that journey — well duh, there was nothing and nobody there — and concluded that the £450 million would be wasted building a tube line for a journey that nobody made.  So the Docklands Development Corporation built the light railway instead, and of course the glass skyscrapers and posh apartments soon followed.  Suddenly there were a lot of people making journeys to and from the Docklands, so they reversed the earlier decision and extended the Jubilee Line out to it.  Now there are 64 million journeys a year on the DLR, over 40 million through Canary Wharf on the Jubilee Line, and now Crossrail is on the way.  The whole point of the Docklands redevelopment was “build it and they will come”.  Saying “they don’t come so there’s no point building here” clearly missed that point.

Second, in Reversing Dr Beeching, which looked at the fact that Scotland (and to a lesser extent Wales) is reopening its railways, the new Kincardine Line, north of the Firth of Forth in Fife, was explored.  The line connects the town of Kincardine to Stirling and the rest of the railway network.  In the planning stages, all of the journeys made in the catchment area were analysed, and an estimate was made of how many of the journeys to Stirling would shift onto the railway.  About 150,000 journeys a year were predicted, and the line only really got built at this time because it could also be used to get coal to the nearby power station. But of course, in the first year of operation it took three times as many passengers as predicted.  Why?  Because the railway opened opportunities for people to work and shop and spend their leisure time in Stirling and Glasgow, instead of having to drive to Dunfirmline or Falkirk.  The fact that people were driving to Falkirk before the railway was built is not evidence that they wouldn’t rather have been going to Stirling by train.

There is always a difference between people’s transport ideal and the least-worst option that’s available in the real world.  That difference is latent demand.  There was latent demand for a railway to Stirling, and there was latent demand for a tube line to the Docklands.  The fact that people were making different journeys, to different places, by different modes, was not evidence that the new lines, when built, would not be used.

(This is, incidentally, why the government’s decision not to pursue a network of electric vehicle charging points, though the correct decision, was made for the wrong reason.)

London can never provide for everybody’s ideal means of getting around.  Most people in London travel in overcrowded buses and overcrowded tube trains, not because they want to, but because those are the least worse options available.  Maybe on their journey they are dreaming of an ideal world where there is room and resources enough for all of us to have our own personal helicopters, but there isn’t.  Or perhaps they have a more down-to-earth fantasy of room and resources enough for us all to drive into Central London, where congestion has magically been solved.  Perhaps they have already abandoned those dreams, and merely long for the day when they can onto a bicycle without fear of being run off the roads by the trucks and taxis.  The politician’s job is to eliminate the impossible and decide which are the least worst remaining options.  That inevitably means accommodating some people’s ideals more closely than others’.

I fear I’m labouring the point, and anyway, the Tory assembly members’ argument fails on, from the politician’s point of view, a much more basic and important point: if Tory AMs think that the people who take the bus, or the people on the tube, or the people sat in cars in traffic jams, or the people braving the streets on bicycles are content with the transport choices available to them and would like their representatives to carry on giving them more of the same, they’re clearly not talking to their electorate, who would disabuse them in a second.


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.

Fear of cycling

In last week’s the week before the week before last’s post, if you build it they will come, I described why we should expect that building proper cycle superhighways — fast, capacious, direct and sensible routes that are segregated from high volumes of fast moving motor vehicles — should unleash a massive latent demand for cycle commuting in British cities.  But there is an argument that dedicated and segregated cycling infrastructure like this could actually be counter-productive.  The argument goes like this:

Firstly, providing dedicated infrastructure sends the message that cycling on roads is dangerous.  Like helmets and hi-vis, bike paths say that cycling could get you killed, and that it’s up to you — not the person in the 3 ton Chelsea tractor or the 50ft artic — to take precautions not to get killed: in this case, that precaution is to get off the road.  Most people don’t like danger, and so will simply stop doing the activities that they perceive as dangerous.

And second, taking cyclists off the main roads and putting them on their own paths will mean that cyclists and Motorists will encounter each-other less frequently, and so Motorists will stop expecting to see cyclists and forget how to drive safely on roads with cyclists, making the cyclist less safe on the occasions where they must leave the bike path and rejoin the road network.

For these reasons, some cyclists and cycling campaigners oppose dedicated segregated cycle paths, and actively promote the status quo of “vehicular cycling”.

The first objection is clearly irrelevant.  People don’t need segregated space to believe that London’s roads are unsafe.  People already believe that London’s roads are unsafe, and they’re not stupid for believing that.  By far the most common reason given for not commuting by bicycle by those who would like to commute by bicycle is that the roads are too dangerous.  And so 98% of London commuters do not commute by bicycle.  That dismal outcome has been achieved without any dedicated cycle paths to give the impression that roads are unsafe.  The reasoned argument might say that segregated paths give the impression that cycling is dangerous, but the evidence-based argument says that it is high volumes of fast moving motor vehicles that give the impression that cycling is dangerous.

The second objection is wrong too, but much more interestingly so.  The mistake in the logic of this objection mirrors the great mistake that cycling campaigners made in the mid-twentieth century to get us into this mess.  In 1935, when high-speed motor vehicles were becoming common on our roads, some people began to worry that the roads weren’t wide enough to accommodate all of the people who were trying to use them.  In particular, the Motorists pointed out that the roads were simply too narrow to have these great big slow cyclists using them, and suggested that they be sent somewhere else where they wouldn’t get in the way.  No, no, said the cyclists.  We have every right to be here.  It is you Motorists with your inappropriate speed who should be going somewhere else.  And so the cycling campaign organisations and the Motorist organisations found themselves united in the call for the provision of new infrastructure specifically for fast cars.  Thus the motorway network was invented.

The flaw in the campaigners’ logic then and now was to assume that by providing dedicated segregated infrastructure, there would be a universal shift to that new infrastructure, but that everything else — the volume of traffic, for example — would stay the same.  But obviously that is not what happened when we built the motorways.  By providing fast and capacious roads dedicated to motoring, we unleashed the latent demand for private motorised transport: motoring suddenly became more attractive than cycling or taking the train or sitting at home, so everybody bought a car and filled up the road.  Rather than the conventional old roads returning to the quiet pre-car utopia that the cycling campaigners had predicted, the construction of the motorways led to more cars than ever clogging the country lanes and residential streets, as they made their way from the motorway junction to their final destination.

Create a network of real cycling superhighways into and through London — direct wide joined-up and pleasant motor-free routes; about twelve of them, say, radiating from a partially de-motorised zone 1 — and you will not merely provide a nicer path for the people who already cycle.  You will unleash the latent demand for cycling and cyclist numbers will swell to ten times their current number.  Not every metre of these cyclists’ journeys will be on the twelve superhighways, nor will all of their journeys be on routes served by one.  Rather than taking cyclists off the roads, real superhighways will create more, just as Motorways helped put many more cars on the country lanes and residential streets.  Drivers will be more used to seeing cyclists, and more used to being cyclists.

Author’s note: I’m afraid I’ve rather had to abandon the blog for a hectic couple of weeks.  Here’s one I started writing earlier but never got to pollish.  Normal service should be resumed next week. –Joe