When Westminster Council first proposed their scheme to charge for night-time parking, this blog commented that they were doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. They were hiding their fiscal acquisitiveness under a fig-leaf of concern for congestion - and bear in mind they opposed the original London congestion charge.
Westminster has now backed away from the proposal, following a storm of opposition. This shows both the best and the worst sides of democracy: on the one hand, the ability of people to influence politicians even in safe constituencies, and on the other hand, the failure to get to grips with problems whereever the solution threatens vested interests. In China, they can do this kind of thing.
Westminster now say "a commission will be set up to look at new ways of tackling congestion". There have been people suggesting that congestion isn't a problem in Westminster at night. Well, I was there at 10:30PM on Friday, and there was gridlock in Chandos Place and traffic backed up all along the Strand.
It's pretty clear that trying to tackle congestion by limiting supply is going to be politically problematic: that's why all political parties (with the notable exception of the Greens) are shy of even discussing road-pricing. That's partly because the media won't allow a sensible debate: they always reduce the issue to the lowest common denominator, the short-term effect on the individual motorist, and ignore the fact that the current situation is hardly ideal for anyone.
What Westminster have done wrong is their proposal looked like the persecution of ordinary people to subsidize the council tax of Westminster residents. Poorly-paid night workers who couldn't afford to live in Westminster, paying a huge stealth tax. That was the narrative, anyway. And the West End would supposedly have become a ghost-town at night, theatres and restaurants empty because people couldn't afford the parking charges. So poor workers, rich business people and middle-income customers were united.
However, none of this changes the fact that while cars may bring people and business into central London, but they also damage business and make the city a much less attractive place. There are many London cafes and restaurants with tables outside. Those tables aren't a very attractive proposition if you're breathing in diesel fumes, shouting to make yourself heard over the traffic noise, and getting bumped from time to time by pedestrians who are squeezed onto a narrow strip of pavement. The pavement has to be narrow so the cars have enough space to park while allowing free traffic flow.
Meanwhile, we have London's most under-used asset: the bike hire scheme. It costs £15M/year to run, but only brings in less than £3M. Most people don't use the scheme because they don't think cycling is safe in London. But here's something a little surprising: only 15% of those who actually use the scheme think it's safe, according to a leaked TfL internal document. It seems that people like the concept, they like the idea of a fun, healthy, fast way of getting around. They report niggles to do with poor software and unavailability of bikes and docks, but the main downside is the lack of safety and the fact that "London is not a cycling city" (only 21% of cycle hire scheme members think it is, nearly 4 years into a Cycling Revolution). That's because it's a motoring city - or it would be if the roads system wasn't so manifestly unsuitable for motoring: it's a city that aspires to be a motoring city, but will never make it.
If Westminster want to develop a credible plan for tacking congestion, they first need to acknowledge the problems that traffic brings to the area. They need to focus on the positive things that less traffic would bring to the city; on the benefits for business, employment and quality of life. Or the increased transport choice for the vast majority who don't drive in the centre of the capital: faster buses, unhindered by congestion, and cycle hire being a realistic choice for those without nerves of steel. B But such concepts are anathema to the Tories, who don't like the idea of any restraints on motoring, from bus lanes to speed cameras. They are ideologically wedded to the motor car and they don't like the idea of cycling becoming more of a problem than it already is.