Sunday, 7 August 2016

A daily obstacle course, a problem denied - and why I think it's vital to tackle congestion

One of the many old habits I’ve resumed since returning to London is to buy my lunch from a branch of Eat cafe very close to my office in Southwark, on the south bank of the River Thames. I head up the stairs from my first-floor desk, leave the building by the second-floor entrance on Southwark Bridge, then cross the road before descending again to reach the cafe, on the riverside walkway.

But a key aspect of the experience has unmistakeably changed in the four years I’ve been away in New York. The challenge used to be to dodge cars and trucks speeding across the bridge towards the City of London, the financial district. The task most days now is to pick a way between the long line of vehicles backed up across the bridge.

Traffic on Southwark Bridge: a barrier between me and
my lunchtime pie
The Southwark Bridge hold-ups are only one manifestation of a gradual worsening of traffic congestion across London in recent years. The problem has grown despite the gradual decline in traffic levels as a result of the Central London congestion charge and the general absurdity of bringing a private car into London. Average motor traffic speeds in London in the first quarter this year were down 3.9 per cent on a year before, according to Transport for London statistics, despite a 1.1 per cent decrease in the volume of traffic on major roads.

I first noticed the change on July 7, the day I returned from New York. It took me and my family a good two hours from Heathrow Airport to reach our temporary accommodation in Stepney. Forced to take a taxi by the challenges of moving five suitcases and a bicycle, we sat in nose-to-tail traffic for nearly the entire journey.

Yet I have the feeling I’m relatively rare among London cyclists in thinking that this congestion is a serious problem, which cyclists have at least as much a stake as others in having tackled. Most comments from cyclists about the issue on Twitter dismiss the problem as a reflection of motor traffic’s fundamental inefficiency. There has been particular anger over a flawed report by David Begg, a transport economist whom I’ve known for 20 years, that linked the delays facing bus passengers partly to the building of London’s segregated cycle superhighways on some roads.

Yes, the mode on the left wastes road space and, yes,
the mode to the right takes up less road space than some
critics contend. But it's still worth pondering how scenes like
this look to people stuck in traffic jams.

But, having cycled the past four years in New York, I worry about how present conditions might influence policy, particularly as Sadiq Khan takes over from Boris Johnson, champion of the superhighways, as mayor. I’ve lived, after all, through the long backlash that followed the departure from office of Janette Sadik-Khan, New York’s former pro-cycling transport commissioner, at the end of 2013. For most of the time I was in New York, few new cycling facilities were built and those that were constructed were insultingly inadequate. Those already in place were allowed to decay or become useless through non-enforcement of rules over parking or yielding to cyclists.

As long as cyclists downplay or ignore the seriousness of London’s current congestion problems, the debate about how to tackle the problems will be left to others. The ultimate risk is that London’s authorities follow the lead of Ed Koch, New York’s mayor from 1977 to 1989. In 1980, concerned about high fuel prices, Koch installed high-quality protected bike lanes along many of Manhattan’s busiest avenues. Stung by criticism of their effect on congestion and modest use levels, he then went on to rip the lanes out again within weeks. His volte face was so complete that he even sought to have cyclists banned from midtown Manhattan altogether.

I should stress, of course, that none of my concerns means I’m accepting the simplistic account of London’s congestion problem that attributes a significant role to the reallocation of road space to the cycle superhighways. Transport planners have known for many years that the number of lanes on a road has far less effect on its capacity than might be supposed. A large amount of congestion comes from motorists’ unnecessary lane-changing, which elimination of a traffic lane can actually reduce. It’s also clear - as David Begg tells me he now accepts - that the figure of 25 per cent for the reduction in road space is a ridiculous exaggeration.
The north-south Cycle Superhighway in Waterloo:
no mistaking the success

It’s also unmistakeable that the segregated superhighways are proving hugely popular as a commuting route. This past Thursday, when we moved back into our house in Brixton, I cycled in the morning rush south down the north-south cycle superhighway. I was astonished at the vast numbers of cyclists heading the other way, north into central London. Pelotons of 30 to 40 riders powered past me in clumps formed by the timing of the traffic lights. Much of the time, there must have been at least as many people using the narrow cycle track as using the far wider road for motor traffic. That striking result has been achieved only a few months after the cycle paths’ opening and before the two main cycle tracks have been extended as far as is eventually intended.

It is clear, meanwhile, to anyone observing with an open mind that there have been far more dramatic changes on London’s roads than the handing over of a single lane on a small number of roads to cyclists. For example, the traffic that I dodge as I go to buy my lunchtime pie is currently made up far more than in previous years of heavy dumper trucks going to and from the huge numbers of development sites dotted across the City. The rise of Uber has produced a surge in the numbers of private-hire vehicles on the roads, which Transport for London has very little capacity to restrain.

In the past week, I’ve cycled on multiple bits of road whose capacity was restricted for one reason or another. But they included road narrowings for work on both Crossrail, the project to build an east-west rail line right across central London, and the extension of London Underground’s Northern Line to Battersea. Both of the rail projects are generating significant construction traffic and forcing the narrowing of roads in a number of places.
Cyclists by the new route over Vauxhall
Bridge: all modes are contending with
restricted road space.

Nevertheless, I keep returning to the feeling I had as I sat in that taxi from the airport on July 7 as I sat in stalled traffic. It was hard as I looked at nearly-empty, mid-morning cycle superhighways not to yearn for my taxi driver to turn onto the invitingly open stretch of tarmac to shorten our interminable journey. If I thought that as someone who would later the same day be cycling along the same routes, it’s hardly surprising if people with less stake in encouraging cycling feel frustrated at the current situation. If that feeling is not to end up leading to the abandonment of the superhighway programme, it is vital that something is done to tackle the on-street congestion.

That, David Begg tells me, is the essential argument he was seeking to put across in his report in June on the impact of congestion on bus passengers. While much of the commentary around the report focused on the erroneous 25 per cent figure and some loose phrasing that Prof Begg tells me he also now regrets, it’s hard to escape the report’s central argument. Boris Johnson encouraged changes to the use of London’s streets that were bound to make streets more congested without having the courage to make anti-congestion measures like the congestion charge more effective. The former mayor instead did a great deal to exacerbate the congestion crisis by removing the congestion charge in Kensington and Chelsea. He also replaced high-capacity, articulated buses with the lower-capacity New Bus for London.
Another day, another set of people failed by roads policy

If cyclists are not to suffer the consequences of Boris Johnson’s policy failures, it is vital that cycle campaigners start to recognise the nature of the competition under way for scarce road space. People who start cycling, after all, are mostly switching to riding from underground, rail or bus so are not self-evidently reducing the burden on the road network.

Cycle campaigners consequently have to start noisily pointing out that the present crisis’s causes extend far beyond the installation of cycle lanes. It's also vital to start advocating for measures to manage other modes' use of that limited space. There’s a powerful case, for example, for charging lorries far more for entering central London in peak hours, for encouraging the shift of far more short-distance deliveries by bicycle, rather than van and for installing new, better-protected bus lanes to ensure buses don’t sit trapped in traffic created by demand for Uber and Amazon Prime. It’s absurd that neither taxis nor minicabs currently pay the congestion charge when they enter central London and it’s imperative that they start to do so.

These are all sensible policy measures that I’d support even if I weren’t a cyclist. As a person interested in transport policy and determined in particular that bus passengers should get a better deal, I’m convinced on principle that it’s critical to come up with solutions to pointless, wasteful congestion.
The Great Bus Wall of Fleet St: proof of failing policies
But an experience on Friday underlined to me how it’s also in cyclists’ selfish interests to deal with congestion. Coming back from a meeting on High Holborn, I rode my way through the quiet urban oasis of Lincoln’s Inn Fields and out onto Fleet St, seeking to make my way to the east-west cycle superhighway. I was greeted, however, with a scene of chaos, a nearly immobile wall of buses crowded onto the historic street, edging forward at well below walking pace.

I was in the fortunate position that I could edge my way through cracks between vehicles the few hundred metres I needed to go, find an alley leading down to the Thames and escape to the generously-proportioned, fast-to-travel-on superhighway. I am conscious, however, that the passengers on the buses - a vital form of transport used disproportionately by the poor - lacked that option. They remained stranded as I slipped away. No-one who has London’s interests at heart can think such a situation should be allowed to persist.