Wednesday, March 16, 2011

London Congestion and Cycling

The London Assembly Transport Committee is investigating congestion and held a meeting to discuss the same on 9th March. I've listened to the webcast, and having recovered from the experience, I'll be reporting the proceedings with a bit of my own spin. The meeting covered many topics and I'm going to cover each topic in a separate post. First up, appropriately enough for a cycling blog, is cycling.

Does cycling have the potential to have any effect on congestion levels? Stephen Glaister of the RAC Foundation told the meeting that the ability of cycling to replace car trips is limited. Converting 20% of trips under 3km would increase modal share 2% to 5% but only reduce traffic by 3%. However, Garrett Emmerson (of TfL) pointed out that an insignificant 3% is actually a very significant 60% of the forecast motor traffic growth in the next 20 yrs. Quite right mate.

James Cleverly (Tory AM) made the not-so-terribly-clever suggestion that cars should be encouraged to use bus lanes outside peak hours. Cleverly, as a cyclist, should know that bus lanes are used by cyclists. He should also know that outside peak hours there is no need to allow cars in bus lanes, because there isn't a congestion problem. If there were a congestion problem, then the buses will need the bus lane. Ergo, allowing cars in a bus lane won't achieve anything, other than further suppressing cycling.

Cyclalogical's view is this. If you could replace 20% of car journeys under 3km with cycle journeys, that would be a massive change. 3km is a relatively short distance by bike, so once you have that many people cycling short distances they are likely to cycle longer distances as well. So Glaister's 3% could easily be more. However, no-one addressed the problem of how to get cycling modal share up.Perhaps it will happen gradually, on the challenging (=crap) infrastructure London currently enjoys. Increased congestion, higher petrol prices and higher public transport fares would all act in favour of cycling. However, mode shift would be a lot more likely to happen if London invested in better infrastructure that gave potential cyclists a good level of confidence. Given the cost of delay and congestion in London is estimated at between £2bn and £4bn annually, cycling investment would have a good payback in this respect, along with the other benefits of reduced healthcare costs, fewer sick days, reduced CO2 emissions and other pollutants, and a better, more attractive street environment.

Another point that didn't get made at the meeting was this. Measures that aim to increase usable road capacity, such as traffic-light re-timing and road building, tend to attract more traffic, so you quickly end up where you started in terms of congestion levels. Therefore, measures that concentrate on demand management and mode switching are much more likely to succeed in reducing congestion.

It was clear listening to the debate that London really is two cities. The inner boroughs, which are well-served by public transport and which are less car-dependent, and outer boroughs (like Merton), where journeys are often complex and difficult to achieve by public transport. So there's a paradox: why is cycling modal share so dismally low in some outer London boroughs, where it's the most practical alternative to the car? It's pretty difficult to avoid the conclusion that cycling is simply too scary for many people. That's the answer that comes back in survey after survey. Stephen Glaister told the Committee that it's too expensive to provide public transport alternatives to car trips in outer London, which means, in the absence of the personal jet-pack or teleportation, cycling is the only alternative to the car for a lot of outer London trips. Or it should be, and it could be. And if it was, more of Londoners' wages could be spent on local goods and services, and less would go to Colonel Gaddafi and his ilk as a result of our oil dependency.


  1. Asking Glaister about road congestion is like asking a fox for comments about the security of a chicken coop. He is with the RAC Foundation (Royal AUTOMOBILE Club, that is) which is that perfect oxymoron, a "motoring charity". See his Guardian articles - spend on raods not rail, scrap High Speed 2 and spend the money on buying everyone a low carbon car instead.

    At least Edmund King, at the more honestly named Automobile Association, shows more vision - he was the only one to have mentioned cycling in BoJo's recent press realeast on congestion.

    Changing 20% of car journeys <3km to cycle strikes me as pathetically unambitious. About 25% of all car journeys fall into this range so changing 20% of them is only about 5-6% of all journeys. Nationally, two thirds of all car journeys are <5 miles, and in London that is 2/3rd <5km - an ideal distance to cycle.

    All this is reminiscent of the TfL "response" to comments on Blackfriars Bridge - full of non-sequiturs, assertions masquerading as explanations etc. It is also clear that they have made their decision and aren't going to change it, so the upcoming "consultation" on the bridge is just a sham.

  2. We have some good RAC coverage on Bristol Traffic:
    . Like Paul M says, they represent their customers. Less people driving == less people paying for breakdown insurance. Notice how the AA or RAC never include or complain about breakdown costs when they go on about the cost of motoring? They don't want you to notice it.

    The suburbs were designed for cars, not for walking, and a lot of towns still put in too much support for it. That's why people drive: its easier to drive to the shops than anything else.