Tag Archives: philip hammond

Rich man’s toys

Our dear Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond said something to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee yesterday, and the BBC decided that it was The News. I don’t think Hammond had intended for it to be The News. He said:

It’s an uncomfortable fact that the railway is already, relatively, a rich man’s toy*. The whole railway. People who use the railway, on average, have significantly higher incomes than the population as a whole. Simple fact. The assumptions underlying the pattern of use of HS2 assume similar pricing to the West Coast Main Line, which ranges from eye-wateringly expensive to really quite reasonable if you dig around and buy in advance. And therefore the assumption that the socio-economic mix of passengers will be broadly similar to those currently using the West Coast Main Line.

Nobody is really commenting on the fact that Hammond was not merely saying that people are priced off the railways, but that it doesn’t matter if people are priced off HS2 because they’re already priced off the railways. I would have thought that The News would have wanted to play up the HS2 connection.

But people are questioning whether it’s really true that train users are rich. It sounds like a convenient setup for bashing railways and promoting roads: the poor can’t afford to use railways, therefore anybody who wants decent, affordable railways is an enemy of the poor. Spend all the money on more road subsidies investment and fuel tax cuts instead.

I’m afraid it’s true. The National Travel Survey gives us information on modal usage and split by income quintile for a sample of the population:

(image nicked from Fairness in a car dependent society [PDF])

The railways really are being used by the rich a lot more than by the poor** — about four times as much.

(image nicked from the centre for cities)

5% of those in the highest income group use rail as their main transport mode, compared to 2% for those in the lowest income group.*** But, wait, there’s another difference between those two groups, isn’t there? It turns out that the motor car is a rich person’s toy too. Poop- poop!

But the NTS reveals something else:

(image nicked from Harry Rutter’s Street Talk)

Travel is a rich person’s toy, and that makes better employment opportunities and services a rich person’s toy.

One of the best ways to overcome that is to invest in local transport, and in local transport that anybody can afford and always will be able to afford; the sort of local transport that will stimulate town centre renewal rather than further drive decline. The bicycle, for example.

Of course, Hammond thinks that investment in transport for the rich is good for all of us: the company director who jumps on HS2 for the Channel Tunnel or Heathrow will be employing lots of people at all levels in Manchester or Leeds. Allegedly. I suspect he’s maybe more likely to be visiting his contractors in the far east, or his accountant in Switzerland.

* This was a quote from the question he had been asked by Julie Hilling, in turn a slogan used by the anti-HS2 campaigners.

** Yes, “the railways really are being used by the rich a lot more than by the poor” is subtly different to Hammond’s claim that “people who use the railway, on average, have significantly higher incomes than the population as a whole” — the former is about distance, the latter about users. One rich person doing the length of the UK would, by my metric, have used the railway considerably more than a dozen poor people popping into their town centres. If you can find better data, do share.

*** Thanks to Tom for pointing out the mistake in original wording here.

Government wakes from electric dream

So Philip Hammond’s policy — his one lonely policy* — of encouraging people to drive electric vehicles has been cut.  The government are still wasting money giving £5,000 subsidies to people who are already able to afford expensive new electric cars (though it will be interesting to see how much longer that lasts), but they will no longer be building a network of charging points, instead leaving owners to charge their vehicles at home.  The greenest ever government can’t even be bothered to keep up its greenwash.

The electric vehicles policy was never ambitious, and at best stretching the definition of “green”.  It envisioned replacing internal-combustion (ICE) vehicles with electric vehicles by 2050.  That’s forty years.  The twenty year old book that arrived on friday arguing for cycling as a political priority was already noting the overwhelming evidence for climate change and the need to do something about it.  For twenty years we’ve faffed around doing not much, and the government proposes that we leisurely carry on for another forty.  Never mind the fact that we have less than half that time to completely decarbonise if we are to avoid catastrophe.

And the extent to which electric vehicles are green also depends, of course, on how green their manufacture and the generation of their power is.  Our electricity, still mostly produced by burning a lot of imported coal and gas, is considerably greener than burning a lot of imported refined oil, but it’s not green enough to avert catastrophe if we don’t decarbonise it in the next couple of decades — a project that is already way behind schedule.  Even when we do decarbonise, the more we rely on electricity, the more dams, barrages, wind turbines, nuclear plants, and, least welcome of all, pylons we need to accommodate.

Of course, carbon is the only thing that matters about transport, right?  When I worked in a London office I would enjoy many a fun argument about people who chose to drive in London: “ah, but somebody who drives a little hatchback back and forth in zone 1 & 2 might have a smaller carbon footprint than somebody who commutes from Brighton or Bath by train every day.”**

Even if electric vehicles did solve the carbon problem, they would solve none of the others associated with car use — the nascent sedentary-lifestyle-related public health crises, the ongoing road danger scandal, the waste of urban land and spoiling of urban environment, the deleterious development patterns that exist in symbiosis with car dependency.  EVs do admittedly have one less method of directly producing air pollution.  Problems that can all be solved by shifting shifting journeys to active transport.

Active transport remains suppressed by political policy.  The lack of support for the types of interventions that are proven to work at enabling journeys to be switched to being made by bicycle; and the continuing policies that prioritise the motor vehicle and prevent pedestrian and bicycle-friendly streets, as epitomised by Blackfriars Bridge, amount to government suppression of cycling and walking.

If we are to meet our carbon deadlines — not “targets”, deadlines — we need a plan that would, by 2030, tear down the barriers that all over the country are preventing people cycling.  That is, primarily, the environment.  Most people will never cycle on the streets as they are now.  We must change the streets, and we haven’t got time to faff around about it.

It’s not like Philip Hammond has any other policies to pursue.

(Consider that our cycling mayor, from the party that gave us the greenest ever government, is father of a cycling revolution which he hopes to give London an embarrassing 5% modal share for cycling by 2030 — an achievement that he intends to make at the same time as maintaining motor traffic flow at current level and without any meaningful changes to London’s streets.)

* I’m giving High Speed Rail to Osborne and Danny Alexander, since it’s they who will pull the plug when the time comes.

** Indeed, it is because of these arguments that I spend so much time discussing all of the other problems with motorised road transport and all of the other reasons to support the alternatives, and rarely mention the carbon and climate issue.

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.

Get help.

Henry Ford is often quoted as saying:

If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said “a faster horse”.

VAT and fuel duty have just risen, while petrol prices continue to rise as it becomes increasingly difficult and dangerous to source at the same time that global demand rises.  The press seem to think that it’s time to make another fuss about the pains that come with the death of the oil age — to pretend that they could somehow be avoided.  What must be done to relieve our pain?  Fuel prices should be lower: customers want it, hauliers need it, The Daily Express Says So.  Labour think that the government could be “doing more”.  If only the government were to be fair and reasonable with the poor motorist, everything would be alright and the motorist would live happily ever after.

Henry Ford’s advice is not to ignore these cries and let things carry on as they are.  Nor he is telling us to arbitrarily impose things on people against their will.  But he is advising us to be cleverer than to simply provide the stupid and short-sighted solution that the consumer thinks he wants.  His maxim is accepted basic business practice: you don’t ask the client or customer exactly what they want, you ask what the customer is trying to achieve — what they need to do, what problem they are trying to solve, what ultimate outcome they are hoping for.  The obvious solution to a problem is often not the best.  Sometimes it’s not even a solution at all.

So what are the people crying over their fuel bill ultimately trying to do?  What people actually need to do is get to their place of employment.  They need to be able to get their food, and pick up their pension or get their kids educated.  They’d like to be able to see their friends, have days and nights out, and buy the occasional unnecessary luxury.  And they’d like their businesses to be able to source materials and ship products.  They would like to be able to afford to do all of these things.  Increasingly people are unable to do these things because so many have been lured into an expensive and destructive car habit, often entirely against their own will.  A tax cut, if it helps at all, is never going to help for long.  Fiddling with the cost of fuel is not the clever solution for getting people to work and to school; it at best puts off the crisis.

Unfortunately, like smokers and gamblers, car addicts get very defensive about their habit.  One very common theme is to cite their circumstances: there simply is no alternative for them but to drive.  It’s too far to walk, the railway was ripped up decades ago (just before the village shop and school closed), the buses go to the wrong place at the wrong time of day, and the roads are too dangerous to cycle on.  The excuses are all true, and mostly they’re used legitimately. The problem is that, like all addicts with their feelings of powerlessness, car addicts use these as excuses to do nothing except fantasise about a scenario in which their addiction is not a problem — a perfect world with lower fuel prices and a magical future in which the car can survive all of the problems that it has created for itself.  The car addict is never going to benefit from a financial break that further encourages their habit.  Fuel is not going to become more abundant or easier to source or less in demand.  Anybody who can’t kick the habit is ultimately going to get destroyed by it.

If you have no bus to a town with shops, if your schools are closing, if there is no safe route to cycle, if you are forced into expensive car dependency, why aren’t you outraged about that?  Those are outrageous things.

If it’s true that fuel prices are becoming a major problem for a significant portion of our population then it is an outrage that the government isn’t doing more to correct the failings that have forced so many powerless people into this expensive dependency.  If it’s true that fuel prices are such a problem for you then it sounds like it’s time for you to stand up, admit that you have a problem, and scream at the government not for another short-lived high, but for the help that you need to kick the habit.  If it’s true that this is such a big and urgent problem for so many people, then it’s time for Philip Hammond to put down the high-speed train set, stop pretending that this is a little unimportant job that our broke borough councils or the Big Society can handle, and come up with the big and urgent solution it needs.  It’s time to seek help, and it’s time for the government to provide it.

If it’s true.

Punch and Judy town planning policy

“Pickles and Hammond to end the war on motorists.”

The Department for Communities and Local Government put these words in a press release and today 221 national and local newspaper journalists* copypasted them into their newspapers, noticing nothing nonsensical in their conjunction.  Great job, The Media.

The press release was announcing the abolition of two ten year old Labour policies: Planning Policy Guidance 13: Transport (PPG13), and Planning Policy Statement 3: Housing (PPS3).  The department spin this as the abolition of an “encouragement” to local councils to charge for town-centre car parking, and of a rule that limited car parking in new developments in the hope that fewer residents would own cars as a result.

Given that the war “on” motorists is a war between motorists as ever more of them compete for increasingly scarce land and resources, these policies will of course merely serve to make people’s lives even more miserable as they sit in a whole new level of congestion.  Not that I expect there to be any noticeable difference to most people’s lives as a result of this policy — it’s a drop in the ocean given the mess that we’re in.  And anyway, the policy merely devolves these decisions to local councils, who are unlikely to make any changes given their own dire situations.

Philip Hammond said, “this Government recognises that cars are a lifeline for many people.”  Which is interesting, because a lifeline is “a line to which a drowning or falling victim may cling to.”  The person on the end of a lifeline did not intend to be there, and he does not intend to stay there.  To get there, something has gone wrong, and the lifeline user intends to leave the lifeline behind as soon his feet are safely back on solid ground.  Lots of people will tell you that they have no choice but to drive a car, but most of them would rather they didn’t have to.  The car is a lifeline that have grasped after the doctor’s surgery closed, and then the butcher and baker closed, and then the library closed, and then the post-office closed — all because of the rise of car-dependent development around them.  These people don’t want to have to drive twenty miles to town.  They want their services back.  Philip Hammond’s policy is to encourage new developments that force people to use a car against their will; he’s pushing you overboard and expecting you to be grateful as you’re dragged along on a “lifeline”.

On the announcement, “Decentralisation Minister” Greg Clark said something that is actually mostly true:

“Limiting the number of drives and garages in new homes doesn’t make cars disappear – it just clogs residential roads with parked cars and makes drivers cruise the streets hunting for a precious parking space.”

But this is no excuse for giving up.  It is a fact that there is far more wrong with recent development patterns than just car parking; car parking alone does not create car dependent communities.  But we have to tackle all of the problems — we need more action, not less — and car parking was a start, at least.

And of course, Hammond again plugs his hoverboard development programme.  I know I should have no reason to be surprised by the depths to which British politicians and newspapers can sink, but the scale of the current farce is just amazing.  It looks like Hammond’s entire tenure as transport minister will be based on the recurring pantomime of riding his magic car to rescue the beautiful Motorist from the nasty Labour men and their War.  Apparently this is the “new kind of politics“.

* or, rather, 221 websites indexed by Google News, which is an overlapping, but not identical set.  And some of nationals at least didn’t swallow the line whole.

Pickles and Hammond to end the war on motorists


I’ve been meaning to write a bit more about the M4 bus lane, but haven’t had the time, so here’s a rather crude brain dump while I sit in the dark on a bus somewhere on the A9 in the snowy Cairngorms.

The Dutch infrastructure minister recently announced that speed limits on some stretches of motorway would be raised.  This would not help Motorists get to their destinations any quicker, she noted, but it was a change worth making because it would make the motorists feel better.  Aside from being a delightfully refreshing piece of honesty from a politician, it highlights again that behaviour and psychology should not be ignored when designing transport policy.  Philip Hammond should have been this honest when abolishing the M4 bus lane — instead of the weak nonsense about improving journey times, just tell the truth that it’s a cheap way of making Motorists feel better.

The M4 bus lane was designed to cut the journey times of Motorists entering London — to make their journeys faster and more reliable, and thus to cut the <insert absurd made up number here> billions of pounds that the Institute of Directors like to claim is lost because of their Jags being caught in congestion their supply chain being delayed by congestion.  The Motorist probably thinks that he too would like his journeys to be faster and more reliable.  But this is not quite true.  The Motorist would like his journeys to seem faster and more reliable.

The M4 bus lane was hated not because it increased car journey times or made journeys less reliable.  It didn’t.  As previously explained, the bus lane was a clever hack to the layout of a road with a bottleneck.  It made a tiny and irrelevant cut to journey times, while cutting lane changing and accident rates and thus greatly improving consistency in journey times.  The bus lane was hated because motorists thought it increased their journey times.

Part of it was the problem of common sense.  The likes of Jeremy Clarkson and Terry Wogan despise those scientists and academics with all their fancy facts and data — the problem with these researchers is that they don’t have any common sense, and common sense tells Clarkson and Wogan that taking away one lane of the M4 must have caused traffic jams.  No amount of your facts can change that.

Another part of it was recall bias: all of those massive pre-bus lane jams begin to blur into the distance, whereas this jam that I’m sat in right now is real — and hey look, there’s a bus lane.  Coincidence?

But it was more than this.  It was about people’s perception, and particularly people’s perception of queues.  Since I’m on a bus with no reference material and limited battery life, I’ll put it in bullet points:

When sat on a Motorway in a traffic jam, Motorists usually believe that their own lane is going the slowest.  It’s simple: when their own lane is moving freely, they’re concentrating on driving, and don’t notice that the other lanes are stationary; when their lane is stationary, they have nothing better to do than stare at all the vehicles which are moving freely in the other lanes.  So even if over time all lanes even out, the Motorist perceives that the other lanes are moving better — especially if the jam is severe enough that they spend more time stationary (observing others moving) than moving themselves.   (Hence all the futile changing of lanes in jams, which just makes the jams worse.)  This is the same reason why in the Post Office — wait, do blog readers even still use those?  OK, this is the same reason why in the ticket office at a major station, you have a single queue serving several windows, rather than independent queues.  Independent queues make people nervous about their decisions.

This perception leads to Motorists overestimating their time sat in traffic, and it’s made worse when they can see moving traffic — if the opposite carriageway is moving freely, or there’s a parallel un-jammed road, then the sight of moving cars merely serves to remind the poor stationary Motorist of their own lack of motion.  Drivers asked to estimate how long they were stuck in traffic consistently over-estimate the jam if they see other traffic moving freely.

So the M4 bus lane was about the worst thing you could do if you wanted Motorists to perceive that they were spending less time in queues.  Now when they were sat in a queue they weren’t just sat there with nothing better to do than get paranoid over the relative speed of the two lanes of traffic: they could also sit there watching the buses and taxis and prime-ministers go past at speed, constantly highlighting the fact that the Motorist was going nowhere.

The research shows this — have drivers estimate their queuing time with and without visible moving traffic nearby; or compare the driver and passenger experience of a stop-start motorway jam. It’s just another of the many fascinating little quirks of psychology — one of the bizarre things our brains do when confronted with absurd man-made situations like traffic jams.  You can make Motorists happily spend more time sat in traffic jams, simply by making them sincerely believe that it is less time.

(Somewhen I’ll try to find some interesting references, but 3G has just dropped out…)

Memo to Philip Hammond: Hoverboards project

Continuing the 1963 Buchanan Report on the future of transport in towns, over the page:

A development which may offer a more direct challenge to the motor car, assuming the problem of noise can be overcome, is the air-cushion craft.  It seems to give scope for development of a small personal machine, useable perhaps eventually on ordinary pavements as a substitute for walking.  Yet it may be questioned whether it would really take this form, whether the urge to put a perspex cover over it for weather protection, to use it at higher speeds, to add extra seats, and to affix luggage containers, would not soon convert it into a motor car in all respects but the possession of wheels.

[…] It may have a different source of motive power so that it is no longer strictly a motor vehicle, it may be quieter and without fumes, it may be styled in some quite different way, it may be produced in smaller forms, it may be guided in certain streets by electronic means, it may have the ability to perform sideways movements, but for practical purposes it will present most of the problems that are presented by the motor vehicle today.

These days if you drop a criticism of car addiction into a conversation somebody will be there with a defence of car use: you could have the bigger carbon footprint.  Somebody driving their compact fuel efficient car to the shops once a week might have a smaller carbon footprint than somebody taking daily long-distance rail trips.  Congestion?  Sure, but that won’t make much of a difference to their carbon footprint.  They might drive into somebody?  Sure, but that won’t make much of a difference to their carbon footprint.  Particulate pollution?  That’s not a greenhouse gas.

Everyone seems to have forgotten that there were already multiple major problems with our transport and town planning long before we discovered our CO2 problem.  We need a solution to them all, not an excuse to ignore all but one.

(With a tip of the hat to Carlton Reid, whose joke I’m stealing.)