For Boris and Ken the road is still king

The creation of a mayor for London was supposed to stimulate a new type of politician who would offer brave new ideas for the city. Unfortunately, the paucity of thinking on transport in the manifestos from the two main contenders suggests the experiment has failed.

Ken Livingstone went early on his Big Idea, reducing fares by seven per cent and not increasing them in 2013. His manifesto elaborates on this, promising to save average fare-payers £1,000 over the four-year term. There’s a rag-bag of other ideas, with a section on helping motorists and a promise to safeguard the Freedom Pass – also a Tory promise – but very little of substance.

As for Boris Johnson, his key manifesto pledges on transport are equally shallow: cutting Tube delays and extending the bike hire scheme. The first is not really in his power, as it greatly depends on the vagaries of a system whose 150th birthday is celebrated next year. As for bike hire, it’s a great scheme but only a minority of Londoners will use it. There is, too, the usual guff about improving river travel, a promise which I have seen numerous times over two decades but which will always be defeated by the sheer impracticalities of a river with more curves than an Alpine pass.

What both these hackneyed politicians lack is any vision of how radically to improve the environment of central London by using transport as the catalyst. This would involve a courageous decision to recognise that the individual motor car is an inappropriate mode of transport in a city like ours and so its use should be discouraged. Livingstone, to be fair, did seem to understand that in his first term, with his daring move to push through the congestion charge and later to extend it westwards. But his efforts ran out of steam; now, cravenly, he will not even reinstate the western zone and has given up his plan to impose a tax on “gas guzzlers”.

Boris, for his part, wants it all ways. He supports cycling, but refuses to accept that to do so in any coherent way requires both slowing down the traffic and reallocating road space. The result, tragically, has been two deaths on the Cycle Superhighway he created in east London.

Where’s the beef? Cities such as, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Bordeaux, Munich and even Paris have grasped the nettle, creating extensive facilities for cyclists and putting them at the heart of urban planning. They have strived to make their cities liveable as well as accessible. In the process they have sometimes had to make short- term unpopular decisions to bring about a long-term improvement. In London, it seems we have a pair of conservatives who cannot think beyond getting re-elected.

So, for the next four years, we will continue to have an Oxford Street that is a bus depot rather than an elegant pedestrianised boulevard, a Soho whose narrow streets are still clogged with cars, a Parliament Square where the central green cannot be reached safely by pedestrians and a majority of roads that remain a deterrent for many would-be cyclists. Unless the successors to the Boris-and-Ken show are braver , London will miss out on the transport-driven benefits that are now transforming Europe’s cities.

  • Henry, London living

    It’s getting ridiculous in Soho. You get vans absolutely gunning it up Great Windmill Street, honking their horns and barely slowing down at the junction onto Brewer Street. 

    Then you have cyclists coming from the other direction, ringing their bells – IT’S A ONE WAY STREET!!! Idiots. London just gets it wrong with transport doesn’t it.

  • Christian, I am VERY disappointed that you major on cycling and pedestrianisation, without looking at issues like managing buses more effectively in central London – what are the real alternatives to Oxford St – and getting more cohesion out London’s rail network, particularly in South London.
    For buses we have to look at whether there are real solutions to bus congestion on Oxford Street/  Some routes could be moved to Wigmore Street, but where else?  If this is a major issue then we need to look at individual bus routes, urban congestion and wheter TfL should restore the classic cross-city routes like the 73.  The Hammesmith to Stoke Newington route was split into two, becoming the 10 and 73 (both Routemasters with conductors), the 10 went OPO from Hammersmith to KX, but added the 390 (Routemaster) Marble Arch to Archway Station, then the 390 was extended to Notting Hill Gate to Archway with OPO buses.  The 73 survived to be one of the last RM routes to 2005 as Victoria to Tottenham Swan (Arriva Bus Garage) but the net result of this was THREE routes operating where one had operated to the early 90s, all along Oxford St!  What do you do?  Ideas Mr W?
    Then the railways.  South London train operators all have these half hourly trains that are difficult enough for me to fully understand, let alone some poor soul who does not know where you should change to get a convenient train onwards.  And those useless civil (?) servants at DafT are making it as difficult as possible to create a cohesive Overground network across London.
    Come on, you have the stongest transport voice in several of the Dailys.  Meet me for a pint / coffee and I will talk you through what I briefed Brian Paddick and Caroline Pidgeon on when they came to see the overcrowding on Gospel Oak – Barking line.  The improved Overground services are congested within a year.  Please promote investment in the rail network, which will benefit many more Londoners than cycle priority, which does need more work, but Mass-Transit comes first.  Bikes are not mass transit – sorry!  

  • John A

    Richard, bikes are not mass transit, fair enough.  But there appears to be a growing number of potential commuting cyclists that are restrained by the existing conditions. Have you watched any of Jan Gehl’s presentations?

  • Paul Holt

    CW has missed the target.   Are Livingstone and Johnson the best two candidates to run London?   Is there really no-one better?

  • A large part of the reason that so many in the UK (not just London) are welded to their cars is the snob view that any other mode is beneath them, that cycling and public transport are for the poor, for children etc.

    Somehow, difficult I realise, that attitude needs to be changed.

  • RapidAssistant

    What happened to the idea to pedestrianise Old Compton Street? 

  • Christian Wolmar

    It was closed off for a while, but apparently the council thought it encouraged rowdiness and cars were allowed back in, tho in practice very few use it.

  • Schrödinger’s Cat

    Surely building good quality cycle paths takes people off the trains and buses, thereby helping to relieve overcrowding if it’s done right, and for a fraction of the cost. I completely agree that the trains need cohesive investment – especially south of the river – but I’d have thought that the two go hand-in-hand. In fact, getting the two main candidates to prioritise anything other than increasing capacity for cars/vans/lorries/etc. would be a big step forward! (In an ideal world, they’d never have got rid of the trams, of course…) 

  • What about Livingstone’s idea for a tram along/monorail above Oxford Street four years ago? Surely we can do something about the air pollution from buses, like hybrid trolley-buses like many cities overseas have. Electric in the centre, combustion engine outside. I don’t expect hydrogen buses like the RV1 to take over London any time soon.

  • M Stock

    For any voters looking for inspiration take a look at the ‘Greenprint to 2020 – Young people’s vision of a sustainable future’ published last year by
    And my take on yesterday’s final Mayoral hustings is that Brian Paddick and Jenny Jones do have vision and Siobhan Benita should had more air time to develop her transport ideas.

  • David Reed

    Richard Pout is right. A major problem with Oxford street is “self inflicted” – through cross-London routes like the 73 were split into two overlapping sections, so that that now we have twice as many buses on several routes.They all just get in each other’s way. I have pointed this out to Christian in the past. In my view pedestrianisation will never happen but reinstating the cross London routes and removing the duplication would at least ameliorate the problem

  • Peter Van Der Mark

    Was in Utrecht, NL, not so long ago and saw the problem of how to stable several thousands of bikes close to the major transport hub that Utrecht CS is. Don’t know whether that is something that should be encouraged anywhere near the London Termini, parking bikes is something that the station operator will have to address if it must not get offensive to other users. Same problem in many other cities in NL and Flanders, incidentally. Bike for city traffic is fine for those who choose to use it, can’t see it will become big in UK cities except Oxford and Cambridge.

    On the other side, traffic problems with bikes are created by shortsightedness and lack of knowledge about alternatives within the circles of local politicians. Hence the danger of articulated buses and large freight vehicles, they should not be able to come anywhere near the bicyclists. In Utrecht saw double-articulated buses on well-segregated bus lanes coexisting peacefully with bikes on bike-lanes. It means managing the problems with vigour, not trying to keep all parties liking you.

    Whatever is said about London, traffic management in Bristol is many times more ridiculous and dangerous to all users. Bristol traffic solutions (like that awful roundabout in Hemel Hampstead, incidentally) should be kept for posterity as examples of how absolutely not to do it. Come and have a look.

  • Mitch Bee

    These buses are absolutely horrid. Claustraphobic interiors, extremely hot inside (good for winter only), and does not one thing the current generation Wright/Alexander Dennis/Scania/Volvo buses can do at half (or more) of the cost this vanity project for Boris Johnson can offer and do it Better! Just shows when a Tory dabbles in public transport and knows absolutely nothing about it except dewy eyed nostalgia for a bus type that should’ve been gone by 1980 this is the result it’s not what is needed and not what London council tax payers should be paying for. Does NB4L make my so called high frequency services run better? – no I sometimes wait 20-25 minutes for two buses that should operate 8-10 min and 12-15 min frequencies because London Buses stitch up contracts with particular operators. Does it make Countdown more reliable? – no way so maybe if Mr Johnson actually knew something about improving bus provision he’d do things which made it more reliable and improved what we have no rather than a vanity project we don’t need. Personally I don’t care what type of bus it is as long as it’s reliable, runs on time and clean. Final comment the ONLY reason Johnson withdrew bendies was due to his pet middle/upper class cycling chums who think anything/everything (including pedestrians) are in their way of achieving a record time akin to the Tour de France got wiped out when riding within inches of them. If they had some manners not many would’ve done. But these cyclists have absolutely no manners especially to pedestrians. BTW I don’t own/drive a car!