Thursday, April 15, 2010

West End Roadworks

A recent stroll around the West End was eerily quiet. I had previously thought the number of press reports about record numbers of roadworks were the usual road-lobby grumblings, but my little circuit from Trafalgar Square to Piccadilly Circus revealed quite a lot of streets closed...

Here's Piccadilly Circus itself:
This isn't actually closed. What they're doing is the first phase of making the area more pedestrian-friendly. You can see where the old kerb-line is by the railings, and where the new kerb line will be where the temporary barriers are. Needless to say, there are no cycle facilities planned that I've heard.

Here's Whitcombe Street looking south from Swiss Court:
and again, further north, looking south from Gerrard Street:
 And here's Charing Cross Road, looking north from Leicester Square station. Single alternate line of traffic in operation:

What's interesting is that the roads seem a lot quieter with the roadworks. From a cyclist's point of view, road conditions generally seem to improve because of roadworks, because they tend to slow traffic speeds on roads that approach roadworks, and the throttling effect of road closures creates quieter roads elsewhere.
What's also interesting is that London still functions despite the effects of these roadworks. Which rather puts the lie to the idea that there's not enough roadspace in London for decent cycle routes.

Business and road organizations bandy around figures that purport to be "the cost of congestion to business" or "the cost of roadworks",but these figures are meaningless. They are comparing the notional cost of a unit of transport now with what it would be under a different, set of conditions, but they don't tell us what those conditions are. And they don't talk about how much it would cost to get the infrastructure to that second set of conditions or who would pay.
On the 'cost of congestion', we know from experience that if you attempt to reduce congestion by freeing up roadspace (or creating more roadspace), this simply attracts more traffic volumes, creating more congestion. So you have to look at how else the congestion problem might be solved. A free-marketeer might suggest a congestion charge, because this creates a market for roadspace. But that puts extra costs on businesses, and means that some businesses will be priced off the roads.
On the 'cost of roadworks', you cannot compare with a scenario where there are no roadworks, because that cannot exist (at least, not with the road and utilities networks that exist today). Roads need to be dug up for a variety of reasons. You might as well accept that the capacity of the roads network is in fact less than you would predict from the total area under tarmac. It's bad science to assume a 100% efficient system in the face of evidence to the contrary. Of course, that's not to say that roadworks couldn't be scheduled more effectively, but that appears to be a problem that is a lot harder to solve than politicians like Boris Johnson like to think. On that topic, you'll notice in each of my photos above, there are men in fluorescent jackets, which is at odds with the picture that some like to portray of deserted roadworks where no actual work gets done.

What would be a lot more useful, instead of the roads lobby complaining about the fact that the world is not as perfect as we'd like, would be to try to improve the efficiency of road use. Every day, there are thousands of vans, trucks and cars running around empty, taking up valuable roadspace and burning fuel. If the 'load factor' of transport could be improved by even a few percent, that would reduce congestion significantly. With the mobile technologies available today, I don't see any reason why that can't happen, and indeed it already does to an extent, with courier companies.
Also, cycles are a lot more efficient at using roadspace, and can use quiet residential routes without causing problems of congestion, danger, noise and pollution. A lot of journeys could be displaced from cars to cycles, with consequent reductions in congestion, but only with investment to make cycle routes safer. But of course the whingeing road lobby like to pretend that cycles are a problem rather than part of the solution, and pretend instead that a magical kingdom exists where unlimited traffic can flow freely and the streets are paved with gold.

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