Category Archives: Transport

On the buses

As I grew intoxicated by the liberally applied Lynx of my literal bosom buddy for the bus journey to Victoria this morning I found myself wondering about the future of our bus network in London. As a result of sustained investment the buses in London are now widely used and generally provide a good and valuable service. Whilst it did not feel like it in the febrile sardine tin that is the 170 in rush hour, London as a whole is well served by its bus network. However, there is a risk that the current lack of forward planning for the buses means that olfactory assaults such as the one I suffered this morning become the norm for the London bus commute.  

The benefits of buses have already been widely noted. They reduce congestion and can thereby have environmental benefits. They are vital to the economic performance of the city and also are important in terms of social justice as they tend to serve more deprived areas more widely than other transport services.

Why then is the bus network so often overlooked in favour of more glamorous transport solutions? It is a vital component of any plan for transport in London and yet the Mayor does not appear to have any cogent plan for its development. Rather, Boris has spent £15.5 million and £6 million per annum on his cable car project. Although, in fairness, as empty, corporate sponsored vessels they do serve as an apt metaphor for so much of his tenure as Mayor.

Boris’ flagship move with the buses has been to introduce new routemasters at a cost of over £11 million. These buses also require a bus conductor to man them at a cost of £63,000 per annum per vehicle. To spend these sums of money and not increase the capacity of the bus network is absurd. To prioritise aesthetics over practical solutions is to place style over substance.

With an increasing population the pressures on the bus network are going to grow considerably. TfL predicts an increase of 7% in bus passenger journeys. If investment in the bus network is not carefully managed then we will find that the service will deteriorate from the current levels whereby the users of the service are largely satisfied. 

At present however subsidies are likely to be cut. This decrease in funding is likely to result in further increases in fares and examination of cost cutting measures. Fares have already risen by 57% on Boris’ watch. As the bus is generally used by those on lower incomes, with around two-thirds of all bus trips made by Londoners whose annual household income is less than £25,000 compared to one-third of all rail trips, then any fare increase predominantly falls on those least able to afford it.

Cost cutting measures could impact on the ‘concessionary’ age groups, namely school age children and adults over 65, and the availability of free travel to these groups. This would impact the important social role of buses. The intangible benefits of increasing the mobility of the elderly and the young should not be overlooked. The other obvious area in which cost cutting measures could be implemented is by maintain a downward pressure on staff costs. If this is not carefully managed it could result in problems with staff retention and impact on the quality of the service offered. 

The worry is that without a cohesive plan the ability of the bus network to meet more demand with less money is seriously damaged. This will have deleterious social and economic consequences. It is vital that the Mayor does not overlook the bus network and develops a policy that priorities expanding capacity of the bus network in the most cost efficient way. Grand gestures such as the new routemaster are a complete red herring. Sadly the signs are not promising. There are plans in place for river transport but none for the bus network. Boris’ commitment to showmanship rather than solutions could cost the capital dear.

Links:
http://londonist.com/2013/05/new-bus-for-london-cost-revealed.php

http://www.if.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/No_Entry_final_report_definitive.pdf

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-15035471

http://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/Bus%20Services%20in%20London%20Report%2C%20Transport%20Committee_0.pdf

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Battersea rat run

Wandsworth Council have decided to proceed with an experimental traffic order opening up the south side of Battersea High Street to through traffic. This trial has arisen due to a petition of 22 signatures from businesses at the end of the street.

It seems likely that opening up this part of the road to traffic will create a classic rat run situation, with traffic now being able to cut through from Vicarage Crescent to Battersea Park road. The council claims that they will be taking measures to prevent a rat run but without preventing egress from Battersea High Street at this end it is difficult to see what measures can be taken.

It is currently unclear when the trial will start and on what basis the success or otherwise of the initiative will be judged.

There are several problematic issues that arise from this decision and why I think the trial should not be extended.

Firstly, the basis on which the decision was taken appears to be flawed. The assumption that increasing traffic is the way to increase business for retail outlets is often taken reflexively. However, this assumption does not necessarily correspond to reality, especially in a densely populated urban area where half the populace do not own a car. Given that no economic case was given to the council before the decision it appears it is merely based on an assumption. I would contend that it is a flawed assumption.

The retail outlets at this end of the street include several restaurants and pizza delivery outlets, a few newsagent, a green grocer, a hairdresser and a bookmaker. These types of business are predominantly reliant on local, repeat custom. The notion that allowing motor traffic to this part of the street would increase business seems weak given the nature of the businesses involved.

It is worth relating that research conducted by London Councils has shown that the number of customers arriving by car is generally over-estimated. The research also showed that people arriving by public transport or by foot visit more frequently and spend more money than motorists in town centre shops.

It is highly likely given the characteristic of the local area that the majority of the custom would come from a relatively short distance and most likely come by foot or public transport. Increasing traffic on the road could actually deter this type of custom.

The idea that increased traffic would create extra business is also weakened due to the lack of parking in the area. Where exactly is the extra custom going to park their vehicles to use these shops? With the new residential developments in the area the pressure on parking space is only likely to grow.

There are other ways in which to improve customer flow and help the local business. It is disappointing that the most banal option available is the one which has been selected. The research indicates that a more attractive street with better facilities for pedestrians and cyclists would be most beneficial. Improving access from the Battersea Park Road end of the street for pedestrians could be beneficial. Alternatively making the area next to the current barrier more attractive could be beneficial.

Secondly, the decision seems to run counter to the council’s public health remit. The tacit encouragement of travelling by car contradicts the council’s supposed desire to increase activity such as walking and cycling.

Nitrogen dioxide levels are already over the desired average levels on Battersea Park Road. Increasing traffic in the area would appear likely to lead to further pollution. This would be damaging to local residents. Wandsworth had 148 deaths related to poor air quality in 2008. To risk a further deterioration in the local air quality could be regarded as irresponsible.

There is also the risk of an increase in accidents due to an increase in traffic. There are many vulnerable users of this road due to there being a primary school, nursing home, church and charity building on or just off the road. Thus there is a high concentration of our most vulnerable pedestrians in the area. It seems odd for the council to prioritise the motorist over them and to increase the likelihood of accidents involving these vulnerable users of local amenities.

Finally, the decision is also at odds with the general transport policy. The high street is part of the Wandsworth Cycle network and the council has installed several stations for the bike hire scheme in the immediate area.

It is unrealistic to expect more people to cycle whilst simultaneously encouraging more motor traffic in the area. Most people cite the fear of accidents as a reason for not cycling. The act of increasing traffic in the area is therefore going to make people less likely to use the route for cycling, especially the first time, irregular users that the hire scheme is purportedly looking to encourage.

The fact that the council is prepared to spend money from ever decreasing resources on this initiative is worrying. The general trend in London is to re-prioritise our infrastructure away from the car. For Wandsworth to take this decision, even if motivated by a desire to help local businesses, seems almost wilfully perverse. The creation of a rat run here will be harmful to local residents and endanger the many vulnerable users of the road. It is far from clear that there will be any economic benefit and indeed, the allowance of traffic at this part of the road could have a detrimental effect on local businesses as it becomes more difficult for pedestrians to access the shops.

Sources:
http://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/GLA%20air%20quality%20public%20health%20guide%20for%20LB%20Wandsworth.pdf

http://www.wandsworth.gov.uk/downloads/file/8380/uupdating_and_screening_assessment_2012

http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/news/current/pressdetail.htm?pk=1549

http://www.livingstreets.org.uk/make-a-change/library/the-pedestrian-pound-the-business-case-for-better-streets-and-places

http://www.wandsworth.gov.uk/census

Carnage on London’s streets

It has been a grim period on London’s roads with 5 cyclists being killed and a further 3 left fighting for their lives in the past 9 days.

Pressure must now be maintained on the Mayor of London to significantly upgrade cycling provision in the city. A strip of blue paint is woefully insufficient. It is not a mystery why these tragedies are occurring. The only mystery is why it is taking the Mayor and Transport for London so long to do anything about it.

The tragic accidents conform to a pattern in that they involve HGVs and cyclists and often occur at traffic lights and junctions. To allow our most vulnerable road users to share space with the largest, that often have limited ability to see what is around them, is asking for trouble. It is obvious that there is a real problem on the interaction of HGVs with other road users. It is not beyond the wit of man to design and implement an infrastructure that keeps these interactions to the bare minimum. 

The mayor’s guru for cycling, Andrew Gilligan, has said that there will be a review in 4 months and that implementation of this would take another 11 months. Hopefully we will see improvements in that time. However, given the failure of the Mayor to match word with deed in his past proclamations and promises about cycling it is vital that Londoners keep up the pressure on the department.

The facilities in the Netherland are widely admired and with good reason. It is worth noting that they did not just appear from the ether. They were the result of concerted pressure and protests from Dutch citizens pressing for adequate facilities to protect lives.  If we want to progress to similar facilities in London we must follow in these footsteps.

Cycling is a wonderful way to get around the city, with many benefits to the individual and society at large. The time has come for the city to provide the safe infrastructure for cycling that we need and deserve.