London is booming but needs a transport rethink

London is a booming city and it’s going to get better. Successive governments have been accused of channelling railway investment into the capital and there’s no doubt that this is the case.

Just look at how the railway scene in London will change by the end of the decade. The expanded Thameslink will allow up to 20 trains (24 theoretically) per hour through the capital, linking a whole host of new destinations south and north of the river. Then on the east-west axis, there will be Crossrail, a new railway being built to the highest standards of any in the country with emblematic stations. Between them, these two lines will create the equivalent of the much lauded RER network in Paris, with, at its heart, Farringdon station which will become the only one in Britain with trains heading in all four points of the compass as well as benefitting from a frequent Underground service just one stop from King’s Cross.

Together with the continued refurbishment of the Tube system and the wonderful expanded London Overground routes, London will have the kind of rail service that many other cities can only dream about. But it’s not enough and this is where the lack of vision and strategy of the current mayor, Boris Johnson, is letting down Londoners. First, on the rail front, there are no concrete plans – or even a blueprint – for any expansion. Crossrail 2, the old Hackney – Chelsea route, is being promoted by business interests but with very little support from Transport for London. The Mayor, rightly, is pushing for more suburban lines to be taken out of the wasteful franchising system and be given to Transport for London as part of a further expansion of the London Overground network but that seems to be the extent of his railway policy. Moreover, that lack of vision extends into other aspects of transport and this is letting down all those who live or work in the capital.

Cities are changing and Boris Johnson, rooted in old fashioned Mr Toad Tory policies, does not understand that. Essentially, looking at it from a historic point of view, the age where private cars dominate the urban landscape is coming to an end. For around 50 years after the invention of the internal combustion engine, cars were allowed free rein into cities that actually were not built to accommodate them. So buildings were demolished, historic streets widened, car parks created and so on. But then city planners realised that this was not working, and instead starting imposing restrictions on cars. We got traffic wardens, parking meters, controlled parking zones, restrictions on deliveries and bus lanes. Parts of central London such as the headquarters of Swinging London, Carnaby Street and Leicester Square were pedestrianised, and no longer did new office blocks have to provide car parking. It was realised that allowing cars unrestricted access to the centre of the city was not the way to bring about economic success.

Quite the opposite. It  was realised that encouraging cars into city centres merely created congestion and gridlock, and it was people travelling in on trains and buses who did the shopping and spent the money. Public transport was seen as the key and investment in the Underground began to flow once again after a 20 year post war hiatus. To some extent Ken Livingstone understood this. He introduced the congestion charge zone and greatly improved bus services, making the network reliable enough for people to be able to get to work confidently using the bus.

But then he rather ran out of steam. He introduced a great scheme to improve Trafalgar Square in the face of much fuss from taxi drivers and opposition politicians, and it has greatly improved one of London’s key tourist sites. But after that, nothing much has changed and sadly we now have a mayor who blusters and talks the talk, but actually has no understanding of how to make London a more liveable city. Boris Johnson scrapped plans to give Parliament Square the same treatment as Trafalgar Square, leaving another tourist hot spot to remain as a roundabout for fast moving cars with an inaccessible central square that houses a wonderfully evocative statue of Winston Churchill. Oxford Street remains a red barrier with up to 300 buses per hour, and a shameful accident record. Yet study after study has shown that pedestrianisation leads to commercial success for local retailers. No one shops from inside their car.

And all this boils down to one simple policy. The number of cars coming into central London must be further reduced. Everything flows from that simple concept. There are a whole host of measures which can be used to discourage car use and encourage alternatives: reducing fares, creating more cycle and bus lanes, getting rid of gyratory systems that have become speedways, expanding the congestion charge zone and making it more sophisticated, creating a universal 20 mph limit, pedestrianisation (especially of Oxford Street) and much more. My particular favourite is to rip up the northbound lane of Park Lane, hewn out of Hyde Park in the 1960s, and give the space back to the Royal Park.

Other cities across the world have realised the importance of this strategy. Copenhagen has led the way with a long term strategy of reducing car use and boosting cycling to levels where it will be the dominant mode in the city centre. Paris is closing off a busy Seine embankment road to accommodate cycling and walking. Even in New York, there have been massive changes, with a network of excellent cycle lanes being quickly established and Times Square being pedestrianised, resulting in the renaissance of what had been a rather dingy area. The same trend of squeezing out private car use and improving public transport, as well as facilities for cycling and walking, can be seen in cities as far afield as Bogota and Buenos Aires.

But not in London where we have a mayor who refuses to do anything that may affect ‘traffic flow’ or take away space from cars. So we have cycling superhighways that are little more than advertisements for  Barclays Bank, with no understanding that they need to be continuous and safe, and money spent on the crazy ‘dangleway’ across the river which is great as a tourist attraction but serves little transport purpose.

All this must change. As the veteran transport commentator Adam Raphael wrote in Transport Times recently, ‘the simple truth which the mayor refuses to admit is that you cannot civilise London without restraining traffic’. That must be the task of the next mayor who will benefit from the superb new train services that will undoubtedly bring yet more people into the centre of the capital who will want to get to their destinations by walking, cycling and taking buses, not driving.


  • Timbs

    Shame you published this just before Boris announced really serious, funded, improvements for cycling!

  • RicP

    Encouraging cycling is important but trains and buses are a higher priority. It is a pity both Ken and Boris have shied away from Trams when Croydon’s Tramlink, now it is run properly, is a roaring success. Get it up the A23 and prioritise Tram movement over car movement at junctions through Streatham. At least as far as Brixton!

    I lived in Hanwell when Pete Hendy introduced the 607 Express bus route on an absolute shoestring, using ‘recycled’ single deckers, a mix of ex 128 route Leyland Lynxs and sound refurbished Nationals. A success and quite rightly a pointer to a Tram route. But TfL’s heavy handed aproach to the good people of West Ealing got a scheme which I argued in favour of, along with a link through Hayes to Heathrow, at the T5 Inquiry, was killed off. Bad mistake!

    Alas incidentally. only Heathrow Connect, opposed by BAA at the Inquiry, at least emerged, even though the 30 minute frequency is woefully inadequate. Heathrow needs that extra rail link from the Staines line, but NOT another runway, as an aside.

  • Greg Tingey

    One mistake – PLEASE DO NOT try to improve everyone else’s lot by deliberatetly crapping on the motorists.
    20 mph zones off main roads are a very good idea, since you shouldn’t be travelling that fast there, anyway.
    But 20 mph on bus-routes (NOT “hail-&-ride sections) is hopeless. We;ve got one here, & do the buses observe it? Nah. Also it’s quite easy for a cyclist to exceed 20 mph on a level or gentle downhill, isn’t it?
    The trick is to improve the public transport,so that people want to use it.
    I speak as a cyclist, car-driver, pedestrian & rail user … I use what is most appropriate at any time – which means I do NOT take my car in, towards central London,unless I have no other alternative (Even though, as a LWB Land-Rover it is cc-exempt & the “ideal town car” – because no-one else will tangle with it!)

  • Tony Olsson

    One way to get a lot of traffic out of central London would be to close Victoria Coach station and build road/rail hubs both sides of London on Crossrail. The eastern one would handle all the continental coaches, and western one could deal mainly with internal coach services.

  • christianwolmar

    Gosh, that is a clever idea – but where??

  • Tony Olsson

    On the principle that coaches entering and leaving London would use the M25 to avoid entering the built up area, and that Crossrail will pass under or over the M25 at West Drayton and Brentwood, these would be the sensible places to locate the rail/road hubs. A case can also be made for Belvedere, but it will require road access from the M25, but, more importantly, continental coaches will be able to avoid the Dartford tunnel and bridge.
    Incidently, I did propose this idea in Buses 690 of September 2012, which elicited a response from Transport for London, which said it would consider the idea. It attracted two letters to the magazine which were published in issue 691. One didn’t think it was a good idea; the other was written by a member of the “Rip up the rails and turn them into roads” party. “Sod the traffic jams …” was his attitude, “… at least you are sitting in a comfortable reserved seat”.