Perhaps it was inevitable that Boris Johnson would mark his first 100 days as Mayor today by issuing a list of his achievements. Never mind that it is impossible to have much of an impact on a huge city like London in such a short period, making his list of 15 achievements look a little thin. More important, there isn’t much about transport, the key area over which the Mayor has power. That reflects not just the time it takes to change transport policy, but also a real dilemma over how to keep London moving. Last week’s report on the congestion charge highlighted some of the problems – and the way that transport policy does not fit easily into any Left-Right divide.
On the face of it, the c-charge is a success: it is reducing the number of cars entering central London during business hours. Compared with 2003, when the charge was introduced, 70,000 fewer cars are entering the central zone during the day, a reduction of just over a fifth. Even the more controversial western extension, created last year, has benefitted, with a 14 per cent decrease in cars.
So far, so good. But the problem is that congestion in the central zone — as measured by average delay to car journeys — is the same as when the charge was introduced. The massive amount of work being carried out by the utilities, especially Thames Water, means that London is peppered with roadworks. But the end result is that the congestion as experienced by drivers is the same as before the charge.
It makes working out a coherent policy on the congestion charge rather difficult. Instinctively, Johnson would probably have liked to do away with it altogether. His predecessor as mayoral candidate, Steve Norris, opposed its introduction. And Kulveer Ranger, Johnson’s transport policy adviser, has stirred up a hornet’s nest in transport circles with his first appearance before the London Assembly’s transport committee, where he distanced himself from the long-accepted consensus that there is a hierarchy of road users which prioritises cyclists and walkers, followed by bus passengers, with car users at the bottom. Ranger told the committee that “no mode of transport should be seen above any other”. This seems to undermine the policy, accepted as axiomatic by virtually all transport planners and implemented by Transport for London, of encouraging people out of their cars.
Changing the policy would have widespread implications. One of the other reasons why congestion in the central zone is the same as five years ago is that some of the road space freed up by the reduction in cars has been reallocated to bus and cycle lanes. Ranger is implicitly suggesting that some of that space should be taken back. He told the committee: “Those people who need to travel by car get a fair crack of the whip, as do cyclists, bus users and Underground users.” He sees this policy as a way of distinguishing Johnson’s administration from that of his predecessor: “The Mayor feels that the difference between this administration and the previous one is that we aren’t going to pander to one group or another.”
So far Johnson has confined himself to saying he wants to reassess the case for the western extension and is consulting on that change. But he knows that abolishing the whole charge is a non-starter, because encouraging those 70,000 cars back into central Londonwould result in more gridlock.
Johnson is thus increasingly looking like Ken Lite, with much the same policies as those of his predecessor. Sure, there is a slightly softer edge: he has abolished Ken’s pledge to fleece “gas guzzlers” with at £25 congestion charge. But the Mayor will face enormous problems if he tries to steer transport policy away from the accepted consensus that private cars should be tolerated but not encouraged in busy urban centres. There is a good reason why the cyclist-buses-cars hierarchy has become universally accepted by transport planners. Unless people are persuaded to get out of their cars, cities quickly become gridlocked. You only have to look at the pictures of traffic jams into London in the 1960s, when it was thought that everyone could simply drive into the capital and there were few parking restrictions, to see that Ranger’s ideas are unworkable.
Ranger’s pronouncements are part of a wider ideological battle going on within City Hall. Johnson is by instinct an old-fashioned one-nation Tory who recognises the need for policies to support the less well-off — who tend to take buses — and realises that transport policy has a role to play in this regard. However, some of the advisers parachuted in by Conservative Central Office would like to see the Johnson incumbency used to create a model Tory authority, leaner and more clearly Conservative.
The big fight will be over money. Johnson has appointed Tim Parker, a venture capital boss with a reputation as a “slash and burn” cost cutter, to be his first deputy mayor and, crucially, chairman of Transport for London. Already, not surprisingly, there are signs that the Tory Mayor will find it more difficult to extract funds from a cash-strapped Labour government.
So Parker is likely to look for savings – and the obvious place would be buses, whose subsidy under Livingstone grew from virtually nothing to £600 million annually. Again, this would be politically difficult since Livingstone did bring about a genuine, albeit expensive, improvement in the service. Buses are most vital to Londoners in the outer suburbs, whose only alternative is infrequent rail services. These are precisely the voters who put Boris in City Hall, and would not view kindly a return to the bad old days when walking, even for pensioners, was quicker than waiting for a bus.
If Johnson wants to achieve his manifesto aim of improving transport for Londoners, then he would do well to steer clear of these ideological moves, even if that means he may find his policies are not as clearly distinguishable from those of his predecessor as he would like. Londoners would be relieved, too. Reverting to the instinctive Tory position of supporting the private car at the expense of public transport will do nothing to help keep London moving – or, indeed, his own chances of re-election in 2012.