Outgoing TfL chief Leon Daniels deserves better than a chorus of abuse

by Dave Hill

News that Leon Daniels, Transport for London’s managing director for surface transport, is to step down before the end of this year has been greeted with responses ranging from the warmly appreciative to the staggeringly vile.

His boss, TfL commissioner Mike Brown, praised him for achievements in a role he has held since 2011, longer than any predecessor, including laying the foundations for improved street conditions for cyclists and pedestrians and “building a bus service that is the envy of all world cities”. Daniels had intended to retire in 2015, but stayed on at Brown’s request. His previous boss, Sir Peter Hendy, also one of those predecessors, says he has done “a fabulous job”.

But from the other end of the spectrum has come unrestrained, unspeakable vitriol. When BBC London transport correspondent Tom Edwards tweeted the news yesterday, a response thread quickly grew, filled with idiotic and vicious allegations, many of them actionable.

Daniels has been putting up with this kind of muck day in, day out, for years. He has, in particular, become a hate figure for some of London’s black cab drivers, who think he could and should have stopped the rise of Uber – a phenomenon whose ramifications he is, in fact, extremely conscious of.

Once, at a transport gathering, Daniels gave me sight of some choice examples of hostile messages cabbies had sent him, in one case including a photograph of where he supposedly lived. That type of thing has been a poor advertisement for a trade boasting that its drivers are more fit and proper persons for the task of conveying people round the city than those of their resented rivals. It’s also been one of the starker manifestations of the rise of a more general London road rage in recent years.

To Daniels has fallen the often thankless task of trying to keep some of London’s biggest and busiest roads from succumbing to gridlock and its vital bus service being ground down. His responsibilities have extended far beyond the 5% of London roads that carry 30% of its traffic, encompassing every part of the capital’s transport networks that isn’t the Underground, including the Overground service, the Dockland Light Railway, river services and the trams. But it’s congestion that has provided his most fraught and complex challenge.

The underlying story here is that of London itself for the past 25 years and more – a story of economic and population growth that has brought with it the sorts of problem that flow from that type of success. In Central London, the gains won by congestion charging have been paralleled by the road space implications of other types of beneficial change, such as bus priority lanes and pedestrianisation. In recent times, disruption caused by large construction projects, including of cycle lanes, has been the biggest contributor to holds ups and squeezes on road space. The impact of a rise in the number of private hire vehicles and delivery vans has been a factor too.

TfL’s more rational critics think it cumbersome and conservative. But even they would not dispute that balancing, regulating and reconciling a metamorphosing array of elements in the road transport equation to generate the best results for London and Londoners requires depth of knowledge, personal resilience, mindfulness of institutional checks and balances and substantial diplomatic skills, not least because, of course, TfL bosses have their own boss to keep happy – whoever happens to be the London Mayor. Daniels deserves far better than a chorus of abuse.

Having previously worked in transport’s private sector for 27 years before joining TfL, Daniels has seen persons of high calibre and low pass through his own organisation and, of course, through City Hall during his time in one of London’s most important public sector roles. Some of his experiences under Boris Johnson were highly enlightening and there’s a very funny story of an early encounter with Sadiq Khan. If he ever writes his autobiography it could be a rather interesting read.

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