Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Peter Hendy interview

 Dave Hill has an interview with Peter Hendy, head of TfL, here. He talks mainly about the state of the tube system, but I've transcribed what he has to say about cycling, and - guess what - I'm going to shine a bright LED headlight on it and put it under the Cycalogical Fisher-Price microscope.

"One of the questions for the future of London is how does it grow and where does it grow..the higher the density of living and working, the more useful it is to provide public transport, because public transport thrives on density. Equally, if you can develop the city in a different way, if people can live close to where they work and where they go to school...then you can expect to see more walking and cycling. The other big question is what the future of the car is in a post-carbon world...transport is a consequence of land use and can also drive it, as it did in the 1930's, I suspect in the next 2 decades it will be a consequence of how the city develops."

It's unarguable that density is an enabler for public transport. However, I don't believe it is true to say that people have to live close to where they work  to get more people cycling. TfL have it wrong. They think that distances longer than 5 miles are not cyclable. This is factually incorrect, because thousands of people commute distances far longer than that in London every day. When you cycle, you start to think of travel in terms of cycling. If cycling is your preferred mode of travel, 5 miles is not a big deal. Hendy clearly thinks of the world in terms of motorised travel, where short distances such as from home to the bus stop are walked, and longer distances are motorised. He can see cycling being used for journeys that are too long to walk but where there's no direct public transport, but he can't conceive of a world where people voluntarily cycle longer distances in preference to public transport. Anyone who cycles in London even in today's conditions knows that most journeys are quicker by cycle than by public transport. Hendy's view of the world is clouded by the smoke of motorised transport. He appears too ready to pigeonhole cycling as a 'niche' product, when in reality it has the potential to give many of the advantages of the car in terms of personal mobility and freedom, without the drawbacks of road danger, cost, energy consumption and congestion.

It is true to say that there are not many  longer cycle journeys being made today, but there are a couple of reasons for this. First, the cycle route network in London is rather poor and difficult to navigate. Cyclists will tend to stay within the area they know as a consequence. They will tend not to venture further afield because they don't want to find themselves on 4-lane roads getting dangerously overtaken by speeding scaffolding lorries. As a consequence, cyclists may tend not to stretch themselves to longer journeys, as they might if the infrastructure were reliable, safe, easy to use and attractive. The second reason is cycle routes in London tend to be very slow. They either follow busy roads where you are held up by congestion and traffic signals designed to regulate motor traffic flow, or they follow minor roads where the priority is always against the cyclist, forcing them to slow or stop for every junction. As a result, journeys take a lot longer and use more energy than if it were possible to cycle at a more constant speed.

Hendy says we may "see more cycling" as if this will happen without intervention. You won't "see more buses" if there are no roads and you won't "see more trains" if you have no railways. Developing the infrastructure to support cycling is as important as upgrading the Tube, but it doesn't sound like Hendy understands this.

Transport cannot follow the way the city develops. This is 20th century thinking. The city and the transport network need to be planned as a holistic entity that is correctly oriented for the coming era of scarce energy. Motorised travel of all sorts needs to diminish. Travel will likely be replaced by alternatives, such as telecommunications and different work models. As the price of manufactured goods tracks the price of energy and raw materials upwards, the economy will likely rebalance away from the current 'replace and throw away' model to a 'reuse, repair and upgrade' model. This will affect the way we do business, the way we shop, and the way we run our lives.

There's one really worrying thing about Peter Hendy's words. He is talking in terms of the long term as if it were simply a matter of extrapolating historical trends. He talks about a 'post-carbon world', but his vision is as familiar and unthreatening as an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine.

1 comment:

  1. I suspect that the 5 miles figure may have some (distant) evidence behind it -- it's probably extrapolated from Marchetti's Constant: the finding that people everywhere adjust their circumstances to prevent their commute growing above about forty minutes each way (and will adjust their transport mode to something slower only if doing so doesn't put them over the forty minutes).

    Forty minutes sounds about right for five miles of vehicular cycling through traffic-light saturated London roads, plus the obligatory shower at the end of it.

    (I've not looked into Marchetti's work, only remember it being cited in Lynn Sloman's Car Sick.)