London’s unhappy status as a city with some of the worst road traffic congestion in the world is now the new mayor’s to try to change. It is a problem that substantially arises from London’s lusty economic and population growth, which generate more pressure on road space, which means more and more people spending more and more time sitting in jams. This is bad for business, bad for air quality and bad for people’s tempers too. No wonder there’s so much rage on the capital’s roads these days.
The most recent Transport for London (TfL) performance report on the roads it controls, which covers the third quarter of 2015/16, records a “significant slowdown in the rate of traffic growth in London” but also “a significant deterioration in London-wide traffic speeds”, quantified as a 7.7% reduction compared with the same period of the previous year.
The report cites “rising construction activity” as a major cause of this. It gives examples: redevelopment schemes such as Lewisham Gateway and Nine Elms; the Elephant and Castle and Stockwell Cross junction transformations; road improvement schemes in Harlesden, Aldgate and Shepherd’s Bush; the installation of three of Boris Johnson’s cycle superhighways. Such endeavours lead to clogged, narrowed and blocked roads with obvious implications, as the same amount of traffic seeks to pass through a reduced amount of space.
Increases in the numbers of private hire vehicles (PHVs) and delivery vans have contributed too. TfL said in January that the number of PHV drivers has increased from 59,000 in 2009/10 to more than 95,000, that the number of PHVs circulating in the Central London congestion charge zone has increased by over 50% in the last two years, and that one in ten vehicles entering the zone is now a PHV. A study published last month found that the growing e-commerce market is also increasing gridlock, with a numbers of light goods delivery vehicles in the centre of London soaring.
In the longer term, installing dedicated cycling infrastructure may help alleviate congestion if it nurtures a significant enough “modal shift” away from private cars and taxis. Surface transport chief Leon Daniels said on Tuesday that the number of cyclists using the routes where superhighways have been installed has risen by an average of 60% compared with before they were put in, which looks like a good sign.
However, taking road space road away from other forms of road transport can, as TfL recognizes, also have some opposite effects (though these are small compared with other causes). Daniels stressed that less than 3% of central London roads, many of which are very narrow, have segregated lanes, but acknowledged: “On certain sections of the cycle superhighways, for example along the Embankment, one lane out of four has been reallocated to create segregated cycle routes”. Unless the squeezed road-users choose to travel by other means, more congestion may result. (See footnote for more on this issue).
Sadiq Khan’s election manifesto pledges better co-ordination of utility company maintenance works, a joint effort with boroughs and freight companies to reduce the number of lorries on the roads, especially at the busiest times, support for car clubs and to prioritise delivering new Thames crossings in the east of the city. But he has no plans to expand congestion charging and has promised to maintain the charge itself at its current level. He has also has promised to continue the cycle superhighway programme, including by investing in new routes, though the construction of these might not be as disruptive as under Johnson.
It’s no secret that senior TfL figures and others thought the previous mayor’s schemes were railroaded through, with avoidable unwanted consequences. TfL commissioner Mike Brown seemed to allude to this recently, when he spoke of the need for “a combination of ensuring that we continue with the programme of developing segregated cycleways, with the caveat that we need to obviously reflect, and learn from some of the experiences during the construction of what we’ve seen before and some of the impacts during construction on London’s wider road network”.
Khan has chosen his transport deputy well, which will help. As she showed in her assured confirmation hearing last week, former London Assembly member and transport committee chair Val Shawcross is an advocate of “active transport” - essentially cycling and walking - and she has a strong record of supporting London’s bus service, the bedrock of its public transport network and in serious need of tender loving care.
To her falls the subtle task of improving conditions for cyclists, pedestrians and bus passengers - desirable goals which can sometimes come into conflict with each other - as part of a larger mission to get London’s roads working more efficiently. She begins at a time when passions about how best to achieve that are running high. She will need all of her experience and skill.
Read all of Transport for London’s streets performance reports here.
Footnote: A statistic in a report by transport expert Professor David Begg on the problems caused for London buses by congestion has prompted sharp exchanges on social media. These demonstrate how intemperate and, at times, surreal opinions about London roads can be. Cycling activists have disputed the 25% figure used by Begg. The following passage refers to Boris Johnson:
He exacerbated the [congestion] problem by removing the western extension of the congestion zone and by reducing road capacity in central London by 25% on key routes through the introduction of cycle superhighways without taking action to curtail traffic in central London. Both decisions were taken against the advice of TfL.
Some of the wilder interpretations of the 25% figure drew a statement from TfL’s managing director for surface transport Leon Daniels. I’ve quoted from it above and now quote it in full:
We have not reduced the total capacity of Central London’s roads by 25%. On certain sections of the cycle superhighways, for example along Embankment, one lane out of four has been reallocated to create segregated cycle routes but this is not typical across the network. The new safer cycling routes can often mean more people getting from A to B as cycling is a very efficient use of road space.
Early cycle counts show that there has been an average 60 per cent increase in cyclists using the new routes when compared to before they were built, and at its busiest cyclists make up 70 per cent of all traffic on Blackfriars Bridge on the North South Cycle Superhighway. Currently, less than three per cent of central London roads have segregated cycle lanes.
It is claimed by some that Daniels’s “one lane out of four” is not a confirmation of Begg’s 25%. Good luck, Val.
The transportation project was very complex. There were many technological factors that the system developers needed to decide: what type of camera technology to use, the image store component that collected images and converted them into license numbers, the telecommunication links between the cameras and the image store, the customer service infrastructure, where to situate the cameras, and upon an extensive network of retail outlets, kiosks, and gas stations where people could pay the toll. They also had to deal with a tight implementation timetable, there was no preexisting model to follow, and they were under a new transit authority. Not typically considered an aspect of technology, but certainly important to the success of the project were the hundred year old, convoluted streets. To handle the complexity, the project was outsourced to a team with the expertise to handle the complexity. An elaborate approach was taken to determine the expertise of the consultants by having the two finalists draw