Tag Archives: motorways

The M4 bus lane (repeat)

I heard Radio 4 news report that the Games Lane™ on the M4 in west London came into force today and that there had been “no noticeable effect on the rest of the traffic”. Of course there was no effect on traffic: the Games Lane™ is just the old M4 bus lane, de-restricted in 2010 by the then new government. The bus lane was just an engineering hack, and abolishing it was always a pointless political gesture that could do nothing to help the Motorist. This seemed like a good excuse to re-publish this 2 year old post on why.

I rather let the announcement of the removal of the M4 bus lane pass without comment during the busy period, but with work commencing on painting over the lines, it seems a good moment to revisit the topic. Because while the M4 bus lane was never a remotely important feature of the national or local transport system, and the effect of its removal will be negligible, it has always been of huge symbolic significance.

The short stretch of bus lane at the inner-London end of the motorway was introduced in June 1999 by John Prescott — one of our best and most progressive transport secretaries (one of those non-achievements like “best British cycle route” or “most likeable cab driver”) — and was something new and difficult to understand. The government tried to explain how it would help everybody, how Motorists themselves would benefit from it, but all anybody heard was that the amount of concrete that Motorists could put their cars on was going to be reduced for the first time ever. The media were desperate for it to fail. What if it set a precedent? Take this fabulous rant from a BBC correspondent, in the days before BBC correspondents had their teeth filed for fear that they might be accused of anti-Tory bias.

The M4 bus lane was the symbol of the first government that had ever shown signs of recognising that the country has a dangerous car addition; the first ever road policy whose entire purpose was not to make it easier for more people to drive more cars further and faster. And in the tabloid media fantasy world, that amounted to a declaration of war on the motorist.

The irony is that the purpose of the M4 bus lane was not any different to any roads policy that had come before. It was introduced to smooth the traffic flow: to make journeys faster, easier and more reliable for motorists on the M4. The issue is explained with nice diagrams here. I won’t try to explain the whole thing in words (well, I did try, and failed, and deleted it), but the take home message is that the rate-limiting step for this section of the M4 is a bottleneck at Brentford that can never be eliminated. Where that bottleneck occurs, three lanes became two, causing merging and lane-changing throughout the three-lane section — behaviours which are known to slow overall traffic flow. By effectively making the M4 consistently two lanes wide, the bus lane is in fact a clever hack to make the traffic run more smoothly and reliably. It needn’t be a bus lane at all, it only needs for this section to be consistently two lanes wide instead of three lanes merging into two.

And it works. Despite having less space, and despite the reduction in speed-limit that coincided with the change in layout, journey times for all road users fell after the bus lane was introduced. (Only by seconds — it’s a very short stretch of road — but you know how much a second means to a Motorist.) And with less lane-changing, accident rates fell. Even the Daily Mail had to acknowledge that it had been a successful implementation of an evidence-based intervention for improving journey times, reliability, and safety.

But this was soon forgotten, because it just didn’t feel right. An empty lane that you’re not allowed to use doesn’t feel like it’s helping you when you’re stuck in a traffic jam, especially given the absurd rule that allowed rich businessmen to sail past in their taxis from the airport to the city (and still allows them to do this in most remaining London bus lanes). And the fact that it was a bus lane, not a hatched-out or fenced-off wasteland, seemed to make an important difference to many people — the AA took the bizarre stance that the lane’s success could only be measured in modal shift; that any other beneficial effect would be a failure. By the time Philip Hammond decreed that in the name of ending the War On The Motorist the lane must go and the road revert to three lanes, no journalist could remember it being anything other than Prescott’s folly, a joke on a road that is barely used by buses, and the cause of much Motorist misery. No journalist mentioned that it had once been hailed as a great success independent of its role as a bus lane. No journalist questioned the received wisdom that the bus lane was a stupid, pointless, unfair, in-your-face ideologically anti-Motorist waste of money.

The lane improved journey times by seconds. Removing it will probably worsen journey times by seconds. It will affect cabbies marginally more, and every few days the Motorists will close the road by smashing up their cars when changing lanes. It doesn’t matter; it never mattered. But installing it had the symbolic significance of suggesting that the government might, for once, now and then, just consider transport policies that go beyond Motorism; to occasionally provide for more than just the car user. Its removal is the symbol of the opposite stance: that this government will continue to provide for the car, and nobody else.

But more than that. By removing the M4 bus lane, Philip Hammond is telling us that this government will happily pursue policies that hit the Motorist, so long as they hit the non-Motorist harder. This is the deliberately spiteful act of a government that cares for dogma not evidence.

Privatising roads might be silly, but does it really matter?

So the government is looking into some form of privatisation of the motorways and trunk roads that are still under their control — that is, the English Highways Agency network.

It sounds radical, it sounds like it could be frightening, it sounds almost like a parody. Actually, it’s boring. It’s probably even more boring than the familiar private roads like the M6 Toll and all our big motorway suspension bridges. It will probably turn out to be about as boring as the management of motorways and trunk roads in Scotland, where private companies manage and maintain the roads using railways-style regional franchises. You’ll know them by the names and emergency contact numbers plastered over the countryside on massive signs, but otherwise, the difference they make to the road user is entirely hidden: the roads are still toll-free and they’re still full of potholes. As far as I can tell, the main purpose of this kind of “privatisation”, like with Network Rail, is as a quick way of fiddling the accounts on the national debt. The extra billions that these things inevitably end up costing taxpayers are apparently worth it for the extra tens of billions of borrowing being kept off the national books, so that George Osborne can appear to be on trajectory for his arbitrary debt reduction target.

I wouldn’t worry too much about any implications for cyclists. England’s trunk roads network is way beyond the stage where anybody would dare cycle on it. We’re talking about motorways and motorways in all but name.

Where things might matter is with the prime-minister’s suggestion that privatisation might allow large-scale road construction programmes to recommence, with the idea that companies who build new roads could collect tolls on them capturing the headlines. It would be a shame if this happened. The Tories should try to think back and remember why they abandoned that approach last time.

But do we actually have to worry about a return to large-scale motorway construction led by private investors? I not sure we do. Quite aside from the many reasons that forced the Tories to abandon that unpopular policy last time around, I can’t imagine the private sector wanting to invest in a dying technology.

Local Transport Today reported this week that, despite private motor vehicle use in London being in near constant decline for thirteen years, the Department for Transport are standing by their prediction that in two decades time, traffic in London will be a whopping 43% above 2010 levels. Similar predictions are made for the rest of England, with 44% in the country as a whole. Given the exodus of young people from learning to drive, who do they think will be driving this traffic in the mid 2030s? What technology or fuel are they expecting to be an affordable means of powering all this traffic? Where do they think it’s going to go? This is the city whose streets are famously “too narrow”, whenever you propose giving some street space to something other than private motor traffic, but which apparently have room spare for 43% more of that.

Look at it. Just look at it.

Look at it. Just look at it.

What purpose could such absurd and crudely fantastical forecasts of traffic growth and confident rejections of the idea that motoring has peaked and is passing have? Is it perhaps meant to be the prediction in a predict-and-provide programme? Or is it less a prediction and more an ambition, for this greenest-ever-government? Are they pining for The Great Car Economy?

It’s true that car use fell in tandem with the economy, but if we want to stop the plummeting economy, we have to come to terms with the fact that both falls are merely symptoms of the fact that the cheap fuel that powered both cars and economy is a thing of the past. The lines on that graph simply aren’t possible these days.

Whatever. I can’t see private investors having such confidence in roads as a growth market that’s worth putting their money in. Unless someone can give them plausible answers to the questions like “by the time the road is built, who will want to drive on it?” and “how will they power their vehicles, and how will they be able to afford that?”, I’m not sure they’re going to want to take the risk on a the basis of a made up graph.

This quite aside from experience with the M6 Toll Road, whose operating income still doesn’t, and didn’t even during the economic boom times, come close to paying off the annual interest on its construction costs, despite attempts by the road’s owners to encourage new development around its junctions. Turns out that, despite their moaning, most people are quite happy to sit in traffic jams on the old roads if it saves a few quid on the toll.

But there is potentially another reason why Cameron might want to offload our motorways, beyond fiddling the national debt or encouraging new construction. The old Severn Bridge is falling down. The Scots are spending £790 million replacing the Forth Road Bridge (though nearby infrastructure projects suggest that the final bill might end up at £7.9 billion). Who knows how much the emergency repairs to the Hammersmith Flyover will end up costing London? The main motorway and trunk road construction boom began in the late 1950s, and a big chunk of engineering is about to reach the end of its design life, corroded and crumbled by rock salt, ice and billions of truck movements. What if privatising the motorways is just preparation by central government for distancing themselves from the difficult decisions of whether to repair, replace or abandon our collapsing concrete highways in the sky?

What is missing from this graphic?

With lots of little bits and pieces of road and rail infrastructure funding announced in the autumn budget statement, I thought it was about time to get around to assembling the transport costs comparison infographic that has been on my todo list for months. I keep hearing all these millions and billions getting spent, but I’m no good at imagining what that amount of money means.

The format is nicked from the XKCD radiation infographic (subsequently also applied to money). I considered the option of having separate orders of magnitude — millions and billions — but in the end decided it was probably more helpful as a comparison tool with everything on the same scale.

I’ve actually only included a few of the Autumn Statement projects, because they turned out to be a bit boring when compared with a lot of the other projects and numbers I gathered. And I’ve not been very meticulous in my research or fact checking — this isn’t intended to be a perfect scientific dataset, just a quick way to see big numbers in context. The idea is that when Boris Johnson says he’s really doing a jolly lot to encourage biking in the outer boroughs, you can see that his fund for biking in the outer boroughs is about four times the size of the budget for a one day Zone 1 bicycle ride, and a bit less than the budget for a fancy Zone 1 pedestrian crossing. When Norman Baker tells you that the coalition is committed to local sustainable transport, you can see that their fund for it is only slightly larger than the electricity bill for London’s traffic lights.

Indeed, a few of the figures are really quite dodgy — the pavement parking costs, which were extrapolated as a mere thought experiment by Pedestrian Liberation, and of course the estimated costs of crashes, air pollution and obesity, which all rely on all sorts of questionable assumptions and on inventing market values for things that can’t have market values —  but I thought that it might be worth seeing them anyway. The final version would be accompanied by a long list of references and footnotes. (The graphic itself should also be a bit tidier!)

I’ve included all the numbers that were of interest to me and could found within a couple of minutes with Google. What else should I have included? What have I got wrong?

Image below the fold…

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Friday photo: urban motorways

The four mile M32 arterial motorway, from the M4 right into the centre of Bristol, and beneath it, Bell Hill / Stapleton Road, a residential street made unfit for people by the presence of the motorway.

Once upon a time, Bristol was divided only by the River Avon, the river which flows east to west through the city centre harbour and under the Clifton Suspension Bridge in the spectacular Avon Gorge. There was a North Bristol and a South Bristol. The Victorian railways made some new barriers to movement of people around neighbourhoods within the city, but they largely ran along the edge of development, boxing it in, rather than cutting through and dividing places.

But then, at the start of the 1970s, the planners smashed a path through Eastville and St Agnes for the M32, tore down the Thirteen Arches railway viaduct, fresh kill from the Beeching axe. Perpendicular streets were cut in two; parallel streets were half demolished, the other side made unbearable by the new motorway that looked in on the upstairs windows. Lower Ashley Road has become two streets that share only a name, separated in the severed neighbourhoods of Easton and St Pauls. St Agnes, which once lay between the two, and merged with them as fuzzy overlapping neighbourhoods do, doesn’t really exist anymore. There is now a North Bristol and a North East Bristol, the motorway making a far more formidable border than the river has been for centuries. There are just a half-dozen potential crossing points for people on foot or on bicycles, and most of those are intimidating period concrete underpasses through complex tangles of wide and fast motor junctions. If the walls don’t stop you, the death strip will.

The motorway allows the rich to move out to the Gloucestershire countryside and commute back into the city each day, in ever longer jams of single-occupancy vehicles as the years pass. They’ll tell you how hard-done-by they are, having to pay so much more in tax than is spent on roads, having to put up with the sight of all those freeloading losers who get to bypass the jams in the new motorway bus lane, the pedestrians who can stroll through their underpasses unimpeded by signals or signs or stacking traffic, and the cyclists who ride by in the parks beside the motorway on one of those extravagant taxpayer-funded Cycling City routes.

The people who have really paid for the M32 are the people of St Agnes, forced out of their homes. Their neighbours left living in the dead-end stubs of terraces amongst the ruins and under the watch and the 24/7 noise of the passing traffic. The businesses that withered and died and the communities that slipped away. The kids who go to Millpond Primary School, twenty metres from the edge of the motorway, breathing the fumes all day, and the kids they’ll never meet, living a hundred metres away in an entirely separate community across the impenetrable frontier. No amount of motoring taxes can ever pay for the things that were taken from these neighbourhoods — safety and security, health and peace, community and prosperity, lives and livelihoods — because those things were never offered up for sale. Car ownership in Easton and St Pauls is low — people have never been able to afford to run a car, never needed or really wanted to own one — but they’ve paid for the car more than any in Bristol.

Where the M32 is the dagger thrust into the heart of the city, the Railway Path is the thread that ties the neighbourhoods of northeast Bristol together.


Ringways explained

By Jay Foreman.

A particularly marvellous portrayal of Abercrombie. A couple of notes/queries though:

  • I’m not sure that it’s true that the ringways were dropped because the planners were shocked by the destruction they would cause.  It was surely only public opinion — the outrage of the people — that stopped them?
  • The video does finally and very briefly touch on induced demand near the end, but fails to note that for that reason, not only would the ringways themselves have ground to a halt (as the M25 does), but we would have ended up with at least as much traffic on streets like the South Circular streets, and certainly not less.

If you start at the Wikipedia article, you can continue onto a couple of very nerdy sites about the Ringways.  The fact that they weren’t all built is just more evidence of The War On The Poor Motorist.

(Oh and you should also go and watch Foreman’s previous video, about the Northern Line.)

The golden age of the motorway

“The great highway will never look empty again.”

When they opened, the first motorways were the sparsely populated playgrounds of the privileged few — the few who could afford a car.  They could drive as fast as they liked and would never meet a jam.  But perhaps they could see even then that the motorways would create the traffic to fill themselves, and that this was a solution that wouldn’t scale.

But it will not be many years before they look this way again.  It is currently a matter of faith amongst electric vehicle proponents that we will make the technology and/or infrastructure breakthroughs that would make them suitable for long-distance journeys, and nobody even dares think about post-oil long-distance haulage.  (The aeroplane and the jetpack should serve as warnings to everyone with blind confidence in the impossibility or inevitability of a breakthrough, though.)  But however it is powered, whatever happens, the private car — and building your whole life around using one — will never again be the attractive choice it was (or people thought it should be) in the eighties and nineties, and whether you think that’s a good thing or not, no amount of tabloid whining will ever change it, politicians will never have the power to prevent it, and new generations are growing up for whom the car is increasingly irrelevant.

A lot of individuals and businesses will invest in adapting to the way the world now is.  Other individuals and businesses are being born unburdened by investment in the old world, and they will flourish.  And a few individuals and businesses will carry on whining and blaming the government for their ever more expensive lack of change.  Those privileged few will enjoy a new golden age of the motorway.  And then they will be gone.

(Video via the absolutely delightful BBC Four series, The Secret Life Of The Motorway.)

Crap cycling and walking in car sick Glasgow

On Sunday I took a look at Glasgow, a town I have previously only passed through without stopping.  Here’s my commentary: a mix of cameraphone and proper camera photos; some of the commentary comes from the live tweets that accompanied the cameraphone pictures.


M8The great overwhelming presence in Glasgow’s built environment is the M8, which crashes through the centre of the city, dividing the central business district from the inner suburbs, and filling them both with a tangle of concrete flyovers and junctions.  While several British cities have motorway arterial routes, a massive backlash prevented the planners of the 1960s implementing their dream of flattening our city centres and neighbourhoods to build networks of through motorways.  Instead, most cities stuck to bypasses and orbitals, with smaller and not quite so destructive inner-city ring roads.  In this through-motorway design with big city centre grade-separated junctions, Glasgow looks very North American. Continue reading