I would like to take Boris Johnson seriously. I would like to think that behind the buffoonery and the TV shots of him falling into swamps there was a coherent set of thoughts that would gradually improve the transport situation for Londoners.
But after more than a year of the Boris show, it is really impossible to discern anything like a coherent narrative. Instead there are a bunch of disparate policies which transport commissioner Peter Hendy embarrasses himself by trying to justify. So we have had the scrapping of the Western extension of the congestion charge scheme, the abandonment of a host of major light rail projects, the rejection of the part pedestrianisation plans for Parliament Square (which the Tamils seem to have brought about through their demonstrations anyway) and the ending of work on the London Cycle Network.
Boris, too, rather came unstuck in the recent Tube strike highlighting his naivety. Pressed on why he had not begun talks with the RMT over a no strike deal, a manifesto commitment, he said he would not talk to a union while they were in dispute. And guess what, the notoriously militant RMT has been in dispute with some bit or other of TfL ever since he was elected. Nor, though, has he talked to ASLEF, which is not in dispute. This is playground politics. It is just an excuse for not reaching a no strike deal, which was never deliverable anyway. What’s in it for the unions, after all?
Sure, there have been a few good initiatives, such as the development of the cycle hire scheme in central London and the expanded target for removing guardrails on London’s roads, a particularly infuriating restriction for pedestrians as part of Boris’s commitment to reduce clutter. But even here there are issues. The cycle hire scheme promises to be extremely expensive, and without concomitant measures to improve conditions for cyclists in central London, it may be an expensive flop. Allowing fast motorcycles into bus lanes is jus the sort of thing cyclists do not want. Just because the number of cyclists in London has increased greatly in recent years does not mean there are a host more ready to jump on their bikes. Indeed, the opposite may be the case.
As for guardrails, there has been little action so far as the highway engineers are worried about risk assessments. Steve Norris, now a TfL board member, has pressed for an overall assessment to cover all eventualities, but the issue may get bogged down in technicalities and legalities. (As an aside, I have been writing to TfL to remove some frankly dangerous bits of guard rail which pose a danger to motorists as well as cyclists and pedestrians, near where I live in Holloway for two years with no result.)
However, it is the bendy bus fiasco that really shows up Boris as little more than a standard issue Tory playing narrow political games. The replacement of the first three bendy bus routes – two routes linking London stations, the 507 and the 521, and the 38 which serves Hackney from Victoria is underway but there really is no coherent case for this policy. Over the past few months, I have had various conversations with senior TfL and London Tory figures, and none have managed to provide any proper evidence for a change that is set to be expensive as well as adding to congestion and bus timings.
They mention fare evasion (unproven and could be dealt with by increasing number of inspectors); danger to cyclists (no accident statistics); unpopularity (not backed up by any balanced evidence); and their inflexibility (sure, on a few narrow streets they are not a good idea but that would be best dealt with by route changes).
I am no great fan of bendy buses which are not objects of great beauty. But, my god, they do their job efficiently. I travel frequently on the 29 up and down Camden Road and they operate far faster, with much greater loadings, than the old double deckers that served the route. On London’s major arteries, they are an enormous boon and there is no evidence that they are unpopular. There is no doubt, however, that scrapping them will make my local bus journey slower.
I suppose it is the attention given to the bendy bus issue which irritates me most. London has no shortage of tranport problems and bendy buses are nowhere near the top of the list. The issue highlights the fact that Boris has no clear idea of where he is going. The Johnson victory in the mayoral election was supposed to give some pointers to what we might expect from a Tory transport secretary if the party won the next election. Unfortunately, if what has happened in London so far is a pointer, then our expectations must remain rather modest.