Tag Archives: road freight

On van dependency

I found this post in my drafts, from way back in october 2010, when this blog and my thoughts on transport policy were young. I thought it was really time to chuck it out and get it out of the way. I think it was probably waiting for another illustration I’d had planned but never shot, or something…

Private cars (including taxis and minicabs) for transporting people make up perhaps only a half of the inappropriately used vehicles clogging our city centres on weekdays. Nor are they the most polluting of these vehicles. Fighting car and taxi dependency and fighting for support for alternative modes of transportation for people will not alone make our cities liveable again.

This week, because somebody drove into me last weekend, I have mostly been catching up with the pedestrian and bus passenger’s experience of central London. On Monday morning, already late (I always forget that a half-hour bike commute takes an hour on public transport) and not up to hobbling even the short distance from Cannon Street to Grays Inn Road, I waited outside the station for a number 17. I could see the number 17. It was just down the end of the road at Monument Station. But it took a while for it to arrive on account of the long line of vehicles parked along Cannon Street’s double yellows, beside the “no loading” markings. Vehicles like Thoroughshred‘s DU02OVK.  (This van’s hazard lights of course indicated that the vehicle had temporarily broken down, and the driver was visiting a nearby friendly office building who helpfully supplied the box of old documents that fixed the van’s immobility.) Note that Thoroughshred care for the environment by using “low-emission vehicles”. As my bus was finally approaching, Office & General Cleaning had an unfortunate incident on the opposite side of the road: the driver quickly braked and pulled in on the double yellows, firing up his hazards. What were the chances, two vans broken down on either side of the road, blocking the busy bus routes of Cannon Street? All counted, there were seven unfortunate van drivers who had broken down on the yellow lines of Cannon Street that morning, and twenty three on the two miles to Grays Inn Road.

(Office & General Cleaning, it should be noted, use low-sulphur vehicles, and make the bold and scientifically illiterate claim to have eliminated all chemicals from their cleaning “regime”. This makes their business “environmentally sustainable”.)

Here on the recently remodelled Long Acre, with its fabulous dedicated bicycle contraflow, private mail van EU57OKC makes vital deliveries of toner to Rymans.

One particularly worrying breakdown had occurred on Ludgate Hill, where Eden Springs were stopped, hazards flashing, on the double yellows in the eastbound bike lane just below St Paul’s. In an attempt to get the vehicle working again, the driver was bravely unloading large bottles of water onto a trolley, and an adjacent office must have selflessly agreed to store them for the company. Eden Springs are clearly doing important work in London: as they point out, water is vital to the health of office workers, and it’s not like you can just turn a tap and expect it to come pouring out like magic. Eden Springs have a philosophy: to be an environmentally responsible partner. (After livetweeting my bus journey, I discovered a new follower: Eden Springs. Somewhere somebody is living their PR career dream.)

Elsewhere, on New Change, a van sat at the lights full of towels and tablecloths that it had collected from restaurants to be cleaned on an industrial estate on the north circular. On Exhibition Road they delivered paper cups and single-use wooden spatulas to the museum cafés. On Great Queen Street a lorry swapped around the furniture between conferences at a hotel. All over Soho, bars took deliveries of ice cubes.

Everywhere people were delivering blank paper and printer cartridges, stepping over the bags of paper recycling strewn across the pavements. Everywhere people were delivering disposable cutlery while the council swept up the disposed of cutlery. And everywhere people were delivering water. Water. A substance that is available on tap in every London building for a negligible cost.

Whenever one suggests that the price of the congestion charge should be vastly greater than it is, that there should be stricter limits on the vehicles that are allowed into city centres, or that a significant proportion of zone 1 roads should be closed to vehicles entirely, one is asked what one would do about all the people who simply have no choice but to drive into Central London: the businesses who need things delivering. Vans are essential and the costs they’re already asked to bear are hurting, we’re told.

Well if businesses in the centre of the city are choosing to have ice cubes and water driven to them in vans instead of turning on a tap and buying a £200 ice machine, having contract cleaners cart mops around instead of investing in a broom cupboard, and sending their laundry to a barn on the orbital instead of putting it in the washing machine, I say the costs aren’t hurting enough. Or rather, businesses are not paying their bills. Because, as is amply evident on any journey through central London, the main reason such ludicrous operations manage to survive is by breaking the rules and dumping the consequences on the rest of us.

Business is one of those fields that I’m really not competent to begin to comment on — and christ can I think of nothing I’d like less than to be so. But I’m happy to speculate wildly anyway — content that on this topic I don’t really care if I’m spouting embarrassingly simplistic crap — about how Britain, and London especially, built itself into its unhappy van dependency. This situation appears to be the outcome of the pursuit of an extreme outsourcing. The vans of companies specialised in simple everyday tasks, like freezing water and washing tablecloths, serve asset light and asset stripped “enterprises” — owners of nothing, investors in little, employers of nobody, constructing products and services entirely out of the leased and the subcontracted.

Whether that’s clever responsible responsive flexible capitalism or dangerous short termist profiteering that contributes nothing of any real value to the lives of our cities is too far outside of my field even for my wild speculation. All I know is that it only works by dumping its costs on society in the form of the traffic in our towns: the vans that we are reminded are so essential.

Repost: Held to ransom

I’m on the road. Therefore, rather than write anything new, I’m fobbing you off with something I wrote a year ago, before anyone much read this blog…

Thirty-six years ago, the streets were empty.  The National Union of Mineworkers had spent half-a-year working to rule; coal-stocks had slowly dwindled and the power stations had all run out.  Factories and offices shut down; everything stopped.  Twenty-six years ago, the NUM walked out completely, and stayed out for a year.  But nothing except the mines themselves shut down.  Thatcher had pre-empted the strike.  The mines had been sent into overproduction long before and the power stations all had stockpiles.  The country had the means to import coal.  And in the mean time, power generation had shifted further into oil, gas and nuclear.  The government had made sure that the industrial action could not cripple the country.

Ten years ago today, the streets were empty.  The Road Haulage industry, with the support of the petroleum industry, had blockaded the oil refineries and fuel distribution network for eight days, and the country’s petrol stations had been dry for four.  The private stockpiles of companies with fleets were running out, and the little that was left had been reserved for the emergency services.  Train companies operating non-electrified lines cancelled services — and this time they even had an excuse for it.  Tesco began rationing food, and the post went uncollected and undelivered.  Hospitals ran out of blood, and Surrey stopped responding to emergency calls.

The air was clean, the birds sang, and the children played in front of their houses.

But as Motorists and hauliers like to remind us in the comments thread every time another bike-vs-truck Grauniad article gets published, we all rely on the roads; you may ride your bicycles and walk around town in your sandals, they say, but those lentils and that tofu still got here in a truck.  And indeed, the Institute of Directors promoted the impressive and comprehensively meaningless statistic that the blockades had cost the economy a biiiilion pounds.  Our economy and our way of life — for every one of us, even the lentil eating sandal cyclists — is entirely dependent on road transport and road haulage, and they can completely shut it down — the post, the trains, the hospitals and our food — in a week and a half.

After the Battle of Orgreave, when police set upon the striking miners, Thatcher said of the industrial action:

I must tell you … that what we have got is an attempt to substitute the rule of the mob for the rule of law, and it must not succeed. [CHEERS] It must not succeed.

The miners, Thatcher said, were attempting to impose their will on a country that did not want it; they were holding the country to ransom, and that was unacceptable.  She had a simple solution that prevented them from ever doing that again.  She destroyed them by completely cutting the country’s reliance on domestic coal — by destroying their power and their industry.

On the 14th September 2000, Tony Blair said of the refinery blockades:

No government, indeed no country can retain credibility in its democratic process or its economic policy-making were it to give in to such protests. Real damage is being done to real people.

The hauliers were attempting to impose their will on a country that did not want it; they were holding the country to ransom, and that was unacceptable.  Those sound like the words of the sort of politician who would take serious action to reduce the dangerously bloated power of a single industry — an industry on which we all rely, but on which we do not need to rely.  You would expect that the fuel protests would have added extra urgency to the already compelling case and myriad reasons in favour of reversing the harmful growth in car and road haulage dependency.

Perhaps you would expect them to have electrified all the mainline railways by now?  Maybe they would have constructed a new high-speed north-south rail artery to free up the saturated West Coast Main Line for freight?  How about new rail freight distribution infrastructure in urban goods destinations?  You would certainly have expected them to look at reforming the planning laws, transport infrastructure, tax and regulation that were making it attractive for cities and businesses to carry on creating new dependencies on cars and hauliers, and unattractive to reduce them — the sort of reforms that would reverse the absurd development that now makes it easier for food stores to create national mega-distribution hubs than to stock the food made down the street.

You certainly wouldn’t expect to see a great shift in modal share towards road haulage.  You wouldn’t predict rail freight stagnating for want of line capacity and end-to-end infrastructure.  You wouldn’t expect supermarkets entrenching their dependency on long-distance road haulage with ever greater centralisation.  You’d never believe that the Royal Mail would abandon those few things that did keep the post moving during the blockade — the Travelling Sorting Office trains, London’s awesome underground Mail Rail, and the simple delivery bicycle.

Trend 5.2 – Domestic freight lifted by mode: 1980 to 2008
Million tonnes
Road
Rail
Water Pipeline
2000 1,693 96 R 137 151
2001 1,682 94 R 131 151
2002 1,734 87 R 139 146
2003 1,753 89 R 133 141
2004 1,863 100 127 158
2005 1,868 105 133 168
2006 1,940 108 126 159
2007 2,001 102 126 146
2008 1,868 103 123 147
Coverage: Great Britain
Source: Department for Transport (road and water), Office of Rail Regulation (rail), and Department of Energy and Climate Change (pipeline)

The 2000 fuel crisis was a wake up call.  Happily for the contently sleeping politicians and planners, it came with a snooze button.

Delivering excellence

In a post about designing ever increasing amounts of truck and van dependence into business models, I mentioned that an “Edgar’s Cool Water” had followed me on twitter and had justified their business with the argument that some people in London and the South East need water deliveries because their workplaces do not have plumbing.

I did a double take when quickly scrolling through old phonecam pictures.

The road is Gough Street; behind the brick wall on the left is the Royal Mail’s interim staff car park. On the right is the back entrance to ITN Grays Inn Road, built less than a decade ago.

I guess businesses these days just can’t afford luxuries like including running water in the plans for their new offices, or operating within the law, hey Edgar?

I’m reminded for some reason of the Old Lady Job Justification Hearings.  I can think of something better they could be doing

Setting ourselves up for economic collapse

In January last year, while shadow chancellor, George Osborne said that the lesson of the credit crunch is that “the economy must never again be allowed to become so structurally unbalanced and poorly prepared for a downturn.” He was referring to our national over-reliance on the banking sector, which had made a few too many dodgy investments in the United States. But the credit crunch reveals that there is something else that our economy is disastrously reliant upon, and the Royal Mail shows that we are only ever becoming more reliant upon it.

The banking crisis was caused by banks having lent too much money to too many people who couldn’t afford to pay it back. But why couldn’t they afford to pay it back? Because all through 2007 the price of oil climbed relentlessly, breaking US$130 in the summer of 2008, just as everything was starting to collapse. In the good times, Americans had bought a house and his-n-hers SUVs on cheap mortgages and loans. They made hay while the gas was $2/gallon. In 2007 it hung around $3/gallon, and in summer 2008 it broke $4/gallon. People found themselves paying twice what they had planned for transport, and suddenly they couldn’t pay their mortgages and loans.

But the recession was more than just the banking crisis. It didn’t help borrowers that the high fuel costs were pushing up inflation and interest rates. But it also didn’t help that the fuel costs were beginning to destroy businesses and put people out of work. Partly that was because, to keep their cars running, people were tightening their belts and not spending on the luxuries.  But partly it was because a lot of businesses, just able to scrap by in the good times, were built on cheap transport, and when transport turned out not to be a cheap as planned, those businesses collapsed.

The banking crisis was just a symptom of a recession caused by a global economy that is over-reliant on an unstable resource. The bankers failed to see the crisis coming (or saw it but saw no reason to do anything about it). But anybody who was looking at oil prices saw it. Recessions follow oil shocks like day follows night.

Our economy is dangerously unbalanced and poorly prepared for the inevitable oil shocks to come, shocks which are becoming ever more frequent as we pass peak production and head into decline. Too many businesses and too many jobs are built on a needlessly wasteful use of road transport. The short-sighted business world seems to think that the recurring cost of outsourcing tasks to companies who will drive stuff around is better business than making a one-off investment in the infrastructure that will allow them to do things themselves — the now routine practice of hotels outsourcing laundry being one of the more absurd results of artificially low road transport costs.

This week I was followed on twitter by @EdgarsCoolWater, who advised that anybody who wants water should check their website, where they could order a delivery. I boasted that I already have water, for my house features the ingenious invention plumbing. Edgar replied that some people in London and the South East aren’t so lucky. I can only conclude that some businesses would rather pay a weekly charge for water to be driven to them than the one-off investment in running water.

This is as much a bubble as the banking bubble. Some time soon the oil price will spike, the diesel price will jump again, and Edgar will have to pass on his costs to customers. Businesses that are already operating on the edge of profitability will cut jobs and go under.

What’s George Osborne doing about that? Anything?

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.

When I see a medical statistician on a bicycle…

…I do not despair for the future of the human race.

In my day job I work for scientific and medical journals, a million miles from transport and planning policy.  Except that this week I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of our papers was on all the bike blogs.  (I had nothing to do with the paper, and didn’t even notice it until it was published.)  In BMC Public Health, Andrei Morgan and colleagues have done what we at AWWTM love: taken the best methods that we have for evaluating evidence and applied them to the topic of London cycling; specifically they have described the data on cyclists killed in London traffic.

The interesting factoids are:

  • While annual death rates remained relatively static over time, when considered against a background growth in estimated cycling kilometres from 0.85% to 1.48% of the total estimated traffic kms in London, they have fallen considerably in terms of deaths per estimated cyclist km.
  • Three quarters of the killings were on or at junctions with main roads.
  • Women were more likely to be killed in inner-London and during daylight; Men got killed day and night throughout London.  Men accounted for more of the total deaths, but the authors did not normalise any of these data, so we can’t say whether it’s because men are more incompetent or women more safety conscious, whether drivers behave differently around them (as Ian Walker previously found), whether men are more likely to be using the main roads where crashes happen, or whether there are simply more men cycling, especially in the outer boroughs and at night.
  • 40% of the killings were in the outer boroughs, despite there being much lower levels of cycling there.  The two are probably not unconnected: the outer boroughs have bigger faster roads and fewer cycling facilities.  The inner boroughs have slower speeds and “safety in numbers”.  People who think that London’s main roads are dangerous places are not entirely stupid.
  • There were five reported incidents in which “only the cyclist was involved”.  Presumably people riding in lampposts, or “just falling off“?
  • And of course, the most timely finding: over 40% of incidents involved freight vehicles, half of those on left-turns.

The authors — themselves London bicycle users at the School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in Bloomsbury — conclude that trucks should be banned from central London.

The paper is published coincidentally (it was written over a year ago, before peer review) in the same week that Dennis Putz was sentenced for killing Catriona Patel with a truck at Oval last year, and that Boris Johnson promoted his own ideas about banning HGVs from central London (despite delaying the LEZ which might have helped a bit), amongst many other events that have highlighted the problem of trucks in central London this autumn.  So to an extent the paper only adds more weight to a conclusion that most of us had already reached, through previous studies and through our own amateur observation and experience, and for other reasons additional to safety issues: that trucks do not belong in city centres.

Rather, the important message that I got from the paper was to highlight just how poor the evidence-base for cycling safety policy is.  The authors repeatedly had to acknowledge and apologise for the limitations of their work — in the places where I, in my lowly blog post, can speculate wildly about possible explanations for the authors’ observations, the authors themselves must stay silent because there simply isn’t good enough data on things like the characteristics of London bicycle users and their bicycle journeys.  It’s an issue that we keep coming across, in arguments over bicycle helmets, segregated infrastructure, and every other policy, intervention, and initiative: the documented evidence rarely approaches the quality necessary for making important decisions on important policies.

We at AWWTM are very much of the (evidence-based) opinion that a policy or intervention isn’t worth pursuing unless it is informed by evidence of the way that the world works, and how it might affect the way that the world works.  And it depresses us that this even needs saying, but it seems that many politicians and planners are happy to dogmatically follow policies that have been shown to fail, and to implement new ones without doing anything to check that they are working.

More of that later.

at junctionsThe important o

Lorries – an apology

Here at At War With The Motorist we may have given the impression that there is a wasteful overuse of trucks in the UK, and especially in city centres, as we shift vast quantities of bottled watter and plastic spoons around the country.  We may also have joined those who have criticised authorities who blame pedestrians and cyclists for being hit by construction vehicles, rather than ensuring that construction vehicles and their drivers are properly equipped and trained.  Having found ourselves caught on Borough High Street on tuesday, however, we realise now that we were wrong, and that The Shard’s construction vehicles are actually not the enemy of pedestrians and cyclists, but are in fact the enemy of these poor Motorists, delayed for up to three minutes: