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.