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.