Driving London to despair?

Congestion charging will do nothing for motorists - or for pedestrians and commuters. So what is it about?

Austin Williams

Topics Politics

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Mayor of London Ken Livingstone is setting a precedent: his transport policy will ensure ‘restraint-based parking standards’ and will encourage ‘alternatives to private cars through appropriate changes in the allocation of road space’ (1). In short, London will have more bus lanes and congestion charging.

From 2003, Livingstone plans to charge motorists £5 per day to enter a circle drawn around London – running from Kings Cross in the north to Fenchurch Street in the east, from Elephant and Castle in the south to Victoria Station in the west. And if you break through the invisible cordon without paying, you’ll be fined £80, reduced to £40 for prompt payment.

The hope is that this will reduce traffic flows in the city centre by 15 percent, and create a better environment – better for pedestrians, better for public transport users, and better for motorists who ‘unavoidably’ have to drive through the city centre.

But is London more congested now than in the past? Behind all the hype about the ‘gridlocked city’, Chris Morrey of Transport for London’s statistical database says that ‘traffic flow indicators in the city centre have been as flat as a pancake over the past 10 years’. In 1991, there were ‘23,600 car and taxis in the centre per day, compared to 24,600 in 2001’.

Yet the mayor’s report tries to paint a bleak picture of all-enveloping congestion. Projections by the Greater London Authority (GLA) claim that the population will be ‘8.1million in 2016, an increase of around 700,000 people in 15 years’, as a result of natural growth. But London’s population is currently about 600,000 lower than it was in 1961, so even the GLA’s worst-case scenario will only bring the population up to 1960s’ levels by 2016.

The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions’ predictions for 2016 are 500,000 lower than the GLA’s. Obviously, these figures do not take account of the demographic shifts and increased car and home ownership since the 1960s, but they are still instructive (2), as there are signs in recent trends that traffic growth is levelling out (3).

The London Research Centre (now part of Transport for London) calculates that outside peak periods during the day, out of 322,937 overall car movements in Greater London there was a total of 11 more cars leaving than entering (4). The River Thames Screenline traffic survey indicates a net influx of 31,757 cars coming into London in the morning peak, and a net outflow of 21,920 cars leaving in the evening peak. And the number of cars travelling into London at peak hours is as it was in 1961 (5).

If congestion is worse, maybe this has more to do with matters separate from cars themselves – like poor road networks, increased road constriction, static road growth and traffic regulation.

So just how bad is congestion in London?

The average time for short radial journeys between central and inner London was 40 minutes by car, 46 minutes by rail and 62 minutes by bus (including the time taken to walk to and from stations or bus stops, waiting and changing services). The fastest journeys were by bicycle, taking an average of 35 minutes. For journeys entirely within central London, the average time was 29 minutes by car, compared with 32 minutes by rail and 40 minutes by bus. Again, the fastest journeys were by bicycle, which took an average of 18 minutes (6).

Unfortunately, the statistics don’t take into account the time it takes to shower and change after cycling to work – a factor often not taken into account by cyclists themselves. In this respect, the car is still arguably the most pleasant way to travel.

In general, congestion is self-regulating. The reason people travel into London by car is because, in their opinion, it is more convenient. If it became inconvenient, they might well switch to bus or train. And of course, this has been the underhand strategy of the Road Traffic Reduction Act, the Transport Act, and other pieces of legislation – to engineer inconvenience to the motorist to get him to change his ways. Congestion charging is just the latest in a long line.

Livingstone aims to raise £200million from congestion charging – though it was recently revealed that London Transport spent £76.7million on consultants on public-private partnerships over the past three years. With an army of consultants, technical experts and private contractors lining up for a slice of the traffic monitoring action, the pressure for more revenue from parking levies can only increase.

No doubt it’s true that traffic networks need a radical overhaul, and that without cars in central London all other modes of transport would flow more freely. But this is looking at the problem of London’s transport networks in a negative way.

Hardly anybody demands more road infrastructure – because most people accept the argument of the 1992 Standing Advisory Committee for Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA) that more roads would inevitably result in more cars using them. Leaving aside the old-fashioned view that this was the very reason to build roads in the first place, the acceptance of the SACTRA position means conceding that we cannot build ourselves out of congestion. If the ‘natural’ limits of road space are given, then any relief to traffic density can only be achieved by reducing pressure at source – that is, by using the roads less.

The debate on congestion charges revolves around Livingstone’s stated desire for equity. Given that 85 percent of London’s commuters use public transport, why should they be held up by motorists? But it is stretching logic to the extremes to blame the parlous state of the London Underground on motorists. Recently deposed London Regional Transport chairman Bob Kiley – the man most able to see the big picture of London’s transport problem – recognised that the Underground was blighted by fractious management, chronic under-investment and short-termism. Maybe because it exceeded his brief, even Kiley failed to see that these are the same problems facing the road network.

So with 15 percent fewer motorists, Transport for London projects an increased capacity of 18 percent shared between London’s national rail line and Underground system over the next 15 years. Alongside this, Livingstone’s strategy aims for an increase of 40 percent in bus capacity across London by 2011 (7). Whether these projections are correct remains to be seen.

Whether commuters will be adequately catered for…well, that is not actually part of the pledge.

Austin Williams is director of the Transport Research Group, technical editor of the Architects’ Journal, and motoring correspondent at the Daily Telegraph. He is a contributor to Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Carchitecture: When the Car and the City Collide, August/Birkhauser, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-proposals: Transport by Austin Williams

(1) Towards the London Plan: Initial proposals for the Mayor’s Spatial Development Strategy, May 2001. Click here to download a copy of this document in .pdf format

(2) Towards the London Plan: Initial proposals for the Mayor’s Spatial Development Strategy, May 2001. Click here to download a copy of this document in .pdf format

(3) Road Traffic Statistics DETR, 1999

(4) Transport Statistics for London 2000, Transport for London, 2000

(5) River Thames Screenline Counts, DETR, 1998

(6) Journey Times Survey 1999 – Inner and Central London, DETR

(7) Mayor’s Transport Strategy (July 2001)

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Topics Politics


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