London is stuck in an intellectual traffic jam. When it comes to moving millions of people around the metropolis each day with ease and in comfort, the Mayor has nothing to say.
In this year’s drab mayoral election neither act in the “Boris and Ken show” could summon up a vision of how to adapt London to the 21st century. Transport is one of the few powers that the Mayor has, yet we’ve seen only tinkering on the issue that matters to every passenger and pedestrian, cyclist and car driver.
That is why I am putting my name forward as a candidate for the Labour nomination for mayor. I have written about transport for 20 years and can see that towns and cities abroad are pulling ahead of London in how they organise their roads and railways.
Just look at Paris. There the mayor has just agreed to pedestrianise a large section of the riverfront; the architect Richard Rogers put forward a similar scheme for London in 1986 but it has gathered dust. Nearer home, Belfast has just redesigned its city centre to give priority to bikes and buses.
London needs visionary thinking. The key is weaning the city off its addiction to the car. That means targets to cut the number of cars coming into central London.
The current situation makes no sense. While the vast majority of people travel into Central London by public transport, bike or foot, cars get vast amounts of space and priority. So Parliament Square has become an ugly roundabout where Churchill’s statue is marooned, invisible to all but the most intrepid tourist. Traffic-choked Oxford Street is a park for empty buses and bad-tempered taxi drivers — no wonder shoppers are deserting it for Westfield and Bluewater. Hyde Park is a dual carriageway for motorists speeding between two roundabouts less than a mile apart. Meanwhile cyclists are squeezed on to perilous cycle lanes or told to “dismount” if there are roadworks.
All this could change. Parliament Square could be part-pedestrianised, an idea rejected by Boris Johnson. Oxford Street is another obvious candidate, while Park Lane could be turned back into a two way street, liberating the northbound lane to create a fantastic space for people.
On cycling we have had a series of initiatives such as London Cycling Network, LCN + (don’t ask) and now the Cycle Superhighways. Yet, even though in parts of the city cyclists form a majority of road users, there has been no sustained work to change road conditions for them. That will require a clear commitment to adopting the kinds of measures The Times has highlighted over the past few months.
This is not a matter of providing a few bikes for hire in central London or slapping down some strips of blue paint and calling them Cycle Superhighways. It requires being much more radical — doing everything from creating a high-class set of priority lanes for cyclists to making the roads safe enough for children and their parents to cycle to school. Only when we see old ladies cycling on London’s streets as they do in Copenhagen or Amsterdam, will we know that we have succeeded.
The Olympics have shown that we can limit car use. A large chunk of London’s road network was effectively taken out of commission, yet hardly anyone noticed. If I am elected mayor, I will use those plastic “games lanes” barriers to create space for cyclists, buses and pedestrians.
Once we set a target for reducing the number of cars coming into central London, every other policy will flow: pedestrianisation schemes, bus priority, 20mph zones, joined-up routes for cyclists, one-hour tickets for bus users, an extended but better targeted congestion charge zone.
Of course cars and vans must be accommodated but they are not the lifeblood of London’s economy. People on foot are. Motorists are always too worried about paying high prices for parking to do any casual shopping.
Outer London is different but much more can be done there too. We could introduce express bus services, orbital cycle routes and tram schemes, like Croydon’s, or cheaper trolleybuses.
Ever since the invention of the automobile, transport planners have failed to distinguish between mobility and accessibility. People travel because they want to reach things or places, whether it is shops, offices or simply to visit friends.
Yet huge amounts of effort and billions of pounds have been spent on increasing mobility, often at the expense of access, so people cannot walk to the shops because a thundering highway blocks their path. Thankfully, that was recognised before London was turned into Los Angeles with the three ring roads proposed by a Tory GLC in the late 1960s.
By making car travel easier rather than other forms of transport, the four-wheeled minority has benefited to the detriment of the many. Attempts to remedy this through, say, bus lanes, do not address the fundamental issue that every additional car on congested streets disadvantages the majority. We need to be more radical than that.
If we can reduce our addiction to the car, London could become a very different place, a truly liveable city.