Charles Wright: unanimity and obstacles on the road to delivering Mayor’s transport strategy

by Charles Wright

There was an impressive sense of unanimity – as well as an impressive line-up of speakers, from Transport for London boss Mike Brown and new deputy mayor for transport Heidi Alexander to acclaimed postmodernist architect Sir Terry Farrell – at the Centre for London’s recent conference looking at the Mayor’s transport strategy.

Among London policy-makers, academics, developers even, there seems to be little opposition to the central principles of the Khan approach: a significant shift from private car to walking, cycling and public transport, to tackle congestion, improve air quality and unlock growth in new areas, summed up in Alexander’s vision of “places that work for people rather than spaces that work for cars”?

London has led the way on tackling transport problems, particularly through Ken Livingstone’s congestion charge – it’s hard now to remember how radical and contentious that scheme was, back in 2003. And Khan’s new strategy aiming for eight out of 10 trips to be on foot, by bike or by public transport by 2041 (up from 63 per cent today) is also “world-leading”, according to TfL commissioner Mike Brown.

But below the surface, and not only on the Central Line, pressure is beginning to build. Modal shift to the extent the strategy envisages, according to Brown, would need a “significant step-change in delivery”. And with the clock ticking on Khan’s first term, the Mayor faces plenty of barriers to progress.

Traffic congestion across London is on the rise, with big increases in private hire vehicles and all those vans delivering our online purchases, plus the impact of road works and road space given over to cyclists rather than cars. More congestion means buses become less reliable, leading to a downturn in bus passenger numbers.

Progress on new safe cycle routes has also slowed, according to the London Cycling Campaign, with just 14 kilometres of TfL cycle tracks completed since Khan came to power, significantly down on Boris Johnson’s record, with boroughs contributing another 15km, well below what’s needed for Khan to meet his pledge to triple the amount delivered by his predecessor.

Funding is a key issue. As the draft new London Plan points out, the capital requires “sustained investment…to ensure that alternatives to the car are accessible, affordable and appealing”. But London’s transport system, uniquely in the developed world, receives no direct government subsidy, while none of the £500 million currently raised in Vehicle Excise Duty from London-registered vehicles is reinvested in the capital. TfL is in the midst of another round of spending cuts.

And as Khan reminded the London Assembly last month, TfL controls just five per cent of London roads. Implementing the mayor’s strategy depends on the ability and willingness of the boroughs to comply.

Fractious relations between some of the boroughs and City Hall aren’t new, but the imbalance of power is starkly highlighted by Westminster Council’s ability to veto pedestrianisation plans for Oxford Street after two years of joint planning and consultation, a move backed by the council’s local Labour opposition.

As with housing, these growing political concerns at borough level, where transport proposals are always hotly contested, particularly where restricting car use is planned, suggest more work is needed at City Hall on winning hearts and minds, if we are to see significant progress towards the mayoral vision. Heidi Alexander is pledging to “supercharge” the delivery of new cycle routes, but is City Hall still over-wary of “moves that will upset residents, motorists and businesses”, as the London Cycling Campaign alleges?

Charles Wright is a former Labour councillor in Haringey. Read more by him here.

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