The London mayoral candidates play safe on transport

If truth be told, the London mayor’s job is nearly all about transport. It is the one area where the mayor has direct control over a huge budget, and where policy decisions can make a real and immediate difference to Londoners’ lives. So there has been much anticipation over what ideas the two main mayoral candidates would come up with on transport and whether either would be brave and try something totally new.

As if to emphasise the importance of the issue, the Labour’s Sadiq Khan and the Tories’ Zac Goldsmith decided to make it difficult for the journalists by announcing their plans simultaneously. Sadiq reiterated many of his previous ideas, such as his Tube fares freeze and the one hour bus hopper ticket which Zac (there is an odd tradition of calling candidates by their first name in these contests) focussed on the £1.9bn ‘black hole’ in London’s finances that would be left by a fares freeze.

In truth, there is much in common between their two transport manifestos, much more than either would admit. Both support  expanding the network through Crossrail2, protecting the Freedom Pass (those pensioner votes are all important), supporting cycling, ensuring the introduction of the Night Tube, reducing the number of strikes on the Underground improving air quality, opposing Heathrow expansion and much else. It does not leave much for major debate.

Zac has picked up on the odd Boris obsessions such as clamping down on cycle rickshaws (does anyone really care that much) but overall there is little detail. For example, if the implication of his financial policy is that he will increase fares, by how much?

At his launch, Sadiq did focus on an area that has had insufficient attention, the fact that Transport for London is a ‘flabby’ organisation paying ridiculously high wages – 450 staff earn more than 100k – with much duplication and which so far has managed to avoid any austerity measures. This, he argues, will part pay for the fares freeze. While Zac has argued this will result in the collapse of the investment programme, Sadiq responds that Mike Brown, the Transport Commissioner, has agreed his plans are deliverable.

It is a shame that the transport debate is focussed on narrow financial issues. The trouble is both candidates are playing very safe and are worried about hostages to fortune which in the febrile air of London politics is quite understandable, if disappointing. Neither manifesto highlights what could have been an emblematic policy, the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street, something both candidates have said they support.

Nor is there much mention of the congestion zone, the one way that serious money could be raised, and neither seem to be considering a workplace parking levy, a measure that has been successful in raising money to help pay for a tram system in Nottingham. The congestion charge could be increased in price – as belatedly has been supported by Boris – or extended

While both candidates say warm things about cycling, Zac has actually been critical of pro cycling organisations and is wary of committing himself to parts of the cycle network begun by Boris. That is a mistake. As someone who is highly critical of what Boris has done in London, I can offer nothing but the strongest praise for the new cycle superhighways which are, as someone mentioned to me recently, ‘world class’ cycling infrastructure and took a lot of courage to push through in the face of opposition from interests as wide ranging as Canary Wharf and taxi drivers. They will revolutionise cycling in the capital attracting thousands more onto their bikes and therefore the new mayor must build on what has been started, by turning London into the most cycling-friendly megacity in the world. The new mayor has to embrace that policy.

What is lacking from this debate is any real attempt to address the long term role of the transport system in London. The congestion charge is a key weapon in this, enabling the mayor to reduce traffic at the same time as raising funds. Overall, unless there is a concerted attempt to cut the number of cars driving in London, there will be gridlock. Any attempt to build their way out of the problem is bound to fail, as has been demonstrated already and yet there is little in either manifesto addressing this.

There is, therefore, little for Londoners to get excited about in these manifestos. The question is, will the winning candidate have a few things up his sleeve which he has been holding back on?

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