Monday, May 14, 2012

Congestion - An Appeal

Last week I had the rare misfortune to have to drive a car through London in the middle of the day. The journey between Shepherds Bush and Putney must have taken about an hour, for a distance of about 4 miles. It would have been quicker walking, although with the amount of clutch-pumping I was doing, driving was pretty good exercise. What was causing the congestion? No evidence of accidents or roadworks, and it was the middle of the day rather than rush hour. This I guess is a typical experience for anyone who makes that journey on a regular basis.

No doubt if you are knowledgeable about the local roads you can find a circuitous route to avoid some of the delay,  making the adjoining residential roads noisier, more polluted and more dangerous for pedestrians, children and cyclists. The council have taken some measures to thwart such rat-running, with one-way streets and the like, but with limited effect.

This situation is exactly the kind of thing that Boris Johnson needs to get to grips with in his new term of office. Congestion is a significant cost to the economy: the hour I wasted was an hour of productive work lost, and there were no doubt plumbers, couriers, taxi drivers, computer repair people, goods vehicles, personal trainers, carpet fitters, salespeople, antique dealers, etc., etc., the whole Yellow Pages of professions and businesses, all caught up in the same queue and all losing an hour's work. Scale that up London-wide over a year and you have a massive productivity problem that is holding the London economy back.

What to do about it? Unfortunately Boris has no answers. Conservative ideology seemingly prohibits regulations restricting the right to drive, and he's set his face against road pricing as well. Boris is an incorrigible optimist who seems to think that problems solve themselves, through the magic of freedom of choice and free enterprise.

One answer would be to build more roads. This is impossible in London, because there is no spare space. People don't tolerate elevated motorways any longer. Tunneling is a possibility, but is eye-wateringly expensive - far too expensive in the age of austerity, especially if there is no road-pricing to pay for it. And of course there is the fundamental problem that more roads brings more traffic, which simply moves the congestion problem to somewhere else, where you haven't built a tunnel yet.

Part of the congestion problem  is that people don't see a realistic alternative to driving. Buses aren't much of an alternative if they're caught up in the same congestion as the cars. For most people, cycling isn't an alternative because even residential roads are perceived as too dangerous for cycling - mainly because they're full of the rat-running traffic I referred to earlier trying to avoid the congestion hotspots. So people are driving distances of less than a mile in some cases, distances that are  cyclable by anyone of average fitness. We know at least 50% of London car journeys could easily be cycled - we also know the main reason people don't cycle is fear of traffic, although 30-40% of people would like to cycle. In simple terms, there is no good reason why London can't be like Amsterdam.

There really is very little point in Boris's investments in cycling - the bike hire scheme, the "superhighways" - because they don't get people out of their cars. That is because these investments don't address the reason why people drive rather than cycle in the first place - safety. Bike hire is for the amusement of tourists, and for a small band of brave commuters avoiding the escalating cost of tube travel. But according to TfL, very few people have switched from cars to hire bikes. The Superhighways are almost entirely superficial - they look nice in parts, but all around the blue paint there are dangerous junctions and an encyclopedia of safety problems that have been ignored by TfL because solving them might cost money and/or disrupt the flow of motor traffic. That's the flow of people in motor vehicles who in a significant number of cases would rather be cycling, but don't because the superhighways aren't safe.

My appeal to Boris is this: stop treating cycling as some sort of expensive, taxpayer-funded play scheme. Cycling is not a game, it is a transport mode, and one that is well-adapted to the age of austerity by virtue of its low infrastructure and low end-user costs. This is a city that desperately needs a bold strategy to relieve it of congestion. Make cycling in London safe and that will stand as a worthy legacy, with lower transport costs, better public health and an improved environment. Do nothing and London will fall further behind its European competitors, who already have more efficient transport systems in which cycling is an increasingly integrated and important part.


  1. Isn't it weird how Boris wants to build a massive 4 runway airport in the Thames estuary, justifying it by claiming he doesn't want London to miss out on being a transport hub (not to mention draw a sh!t-ton of extra CO2, but when has that concerned him?) to it's European competitors but he'll happily sit back whilst our cycling infrastructure is somewhere in the dark ages?

    This coming from a supposed "keen" cyclist!
    I class myself as a keen cyclist, I can also harp on about how great it is and how it's a much quicker way to get around town whilst avoiding the ever increasing fares on public transport. I can try and get my friends and colleagues on their bikes but they'll invariably refuse as they say it's too dangerous.
    The difference between me and Boris though is that he's in a position where he could actually make a HUGE difference. He chooses not to, which I find incredibly sad.

  2. Boris IS a keen cyclist – that is a fact which I don’t think can be disputed. It is not like “Dave” who put on a show at the advice of his strategy guru Steve Hilton, to make him look more blokeish before the last election – we all know that he really prefers to ride met police horses. Boris has a reputation among his colleagues and staff for cycling to meetings a fair proportion of the time. He is also by all accounts not a particularly fast cyclist, but he is evidently a fairly fearless one!

    But in a way that is the point. There are two factors which explain his attitude to cycle infrastructure. One is his libertarian right-wing tory outlook, which says that everyone should have freedom of choice to travel as they wish – bike, car, bus, train or foot. I don’t know whether conservative politicians just don’t see, or wilfully ignore the fact that freedom is not indivisible, “choice” is often not a choice at all – a lion has the choice to eat a wildebeest, but a wildebeest doesn’t really have the choice of not being eaten by a lion. A school can choose pupils but pupils and their parents don’t really have a choice of schools. A motorist can choose whether to bully or intimidate a cyclist or pedestrian, but the cyclist doesn’t have a choice about being intimidated apart from not cycling.

    The other is a much more widespread malaise, shared by people of all political persuasions and none, and notably expressed in some cycling organisations’ approach to cycle infrastructure, which to be cynical can be summed up in the words from the old Peter Sellers film “I’m all right, Jack”. It is quite simply that many, though not all, current cyclists have overcome any fear they may have experienced in the beginning, and may well take a rational view that cycling is not really all that dangerous, compared with base-jumping or potholing or even horse-riding, so have got comfortable with conditions as they are. If you are comfortable with the status quo, you wouldn’t particularly want to change it, indeed you might fear that change in case it constrains your own choices, eg a cycle path leading to banning from the road.

    That general inertia/complacency, selfishness, even, needs to be overcome or circumvented to make the point that not everyone thinks that way, and those who don’t could have a material impact on our street scene by converting to cycling instead of driving.

    But we can’t confine this argument to cycling. Pedestrians have also been badly affected by Boris policies on smoothing traffic flow, and bus passengers may be affected as well. Secondary impacts, for example refusing to close off rat-runs, impose lower speed limits, prosecute offenders, etc because that might reduce traffic smoothness, affect other categories of people: residents; children, for whom personal freedom of movement is represented by the bicycle; parents who would like their children to be able to play outside on the streets, etc. Cycling bodies need to build broader alliances into a more general tame-the-streets movement. The Dutch built their campaign around the “Stop de kindermoort” movement, which I am sure was more to do with taming the car in general, than with cycling in particular. We need to build more of a sense of outrage about the damage done by some of us as motorists to all of us (including those some) as non-motorists. Perhaps even the Daily Mail could subscribe to that notion.

  3. day time car congestion is almost entirely due to traffic light phasing… bizarre given the stress on "smoothing the flow" if you're on a bike you will find massive sections of empty road until a jam of cars come speeding past to wait at the next red light, filter through and repeat to next red light… anyway shepards bush to putney is bad at the best of times, it is awful now because of the hammersmith flyover being closed off