London isn’t Amsterdam. It’s a dynamic world city with a population of millions, many of whom rely on an efficient road system to live their lives and earn their living. It’s time for a serious debate about the future of the road network in the capital, even if it leads to tears in the mini-Holland paradise of Walthamstow. We owe it to the Romans.
We should first acknowledge the sheer tenacity of the London Cycling Campaign in capturing the commanding heights of Transport for London and the London Labour Party. They have successfully recruited the transport debate into part of the culture wars (“two wheels good, four wheels bad”) and ensured that discussion of traffic reduction and air quality centres entirely on the use of private cars. But thankfully times are changing.
Within Labour, which I’ve been a member of for many years, there are welcome signs that the grip of the men in lycra is loosening. Peter Mason, the new leader of Ealing, and Sarah Merrill, the lead member for transport in Greenwich, are more willing to listen to all views in the traffic debate. Leonie Cooper, London Assembly Member for Merton & Wandsworth and leader of Wandsworth Council Labour group, has acknowledged the problems caused by the introduction without prior consultation of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in Wandsworth.
If the debate is moving on, what should we be talking about? Here’s my five-point plan to transform the debate on traffic in London over the next five years.
One. We need to switch the focus away from arranging a quiet life for those who live in residential side roads and towards reducing congestion on TfL’s network of Red Routes. These account for less than five per cent of road space but they carry over 30 per cent of London’s road traffic. Many of them are residential streets too, and often those where poorer Londoners live.
Just like the NHS, these roads are currently operating at full or above capacity. Also just like the NHS, increases in traffic levels can cause chaos and ultimately gridlock, with huge implications for the reliability of London’s bus services. Pro-LTN campaigners insist those schemes have few if any ill-effects on the reliability of emergency services, but some local experience suggests otherwise. Greenwich Council has initiated an immediate review of the West Greenwich LTN based on emerging evidence of delays in response times.
If TfL has a plan to reduce congestion in the next five years they are keeping it a secret. It might help if they re-convened the Roads Task Force, which has not met since 2016, with a specific Red Routes remit. London’s local authorities too have responsibilities. Too often, they play pass the parcel with TfL where Red Route residents are concerned and adopt a similarly laissez-faire attitude to the residents of main roads they control.
One of the worst impacts of the craze for LTNs during the Covid pandemic was how, unintentionally or by design, a significant number of them seemed to divert traffic from the roads of the rich to those of the less affluent. You don’t have to be a latter-day Charles Booth to notice the similar social profiles of people who live within the Dulwich Village, Lee Green and West Greenwich LTNs.
Two. A related reason for concentrating on Red Routes is that, despite some welcome improvements, we still have a serious problem with air quality on these roads. A recent report by Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants as part of the Breathe London Pilot Project found that, on average, Red Routes have 57 per cent more NO2 and 35 per cent more PM25 pollutants than the average London road.
A report by Centric Lab and the Environmental Defense Fund Europe notes that, “Recent schemes to address rising traffic levels have often been targeted on already less congested roads. This cannot be the only intervention, as it doesn’t solve the air pollution equitability problem and in some circumstances has put more of a health burden on residents living on Red Routes.”
Hundreds of thousands of Londoners live on these Red Routes, millions use them daily and a third of primary schools are located close to them. The need to improve the situation is made more urgent by the forthcoming Environment Bill being likely to lead to legally enforceable air quality limits for roads such as the South Circular. Why and how to respond to such legal limits should be occupying all the waking hours of TfL’s management.
Three. We need to reduce our dependency on petrol and diesel fuel. TfL should be congratulated for its progress with cleaning up its fleet so far, including starting to introduce hydrogen buses. But London also needs the rapid adoption of electric cars and work vans. Currently, the infrastructure to support electric vehicles is woeful. We should put pressure on the government to help transform this situation.
The coming extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone will certainly help improve air quality, though sadly it will exclude those who live beyond the North and South Circular boundaries. London’s boroughs – especially those that will be cut in half by the extension – and Sadiq Khan should campaign to extend the ULEZ to the edge of Greater London or even the M25, with appropriate scrappage schemes to support those who need to upgrade their vehicles.
Four. We need to urgently restore confidence in public transport. The government’s mean-spirited TfL budget reductions and micro-management have lowered confidence in it as much as the pandemic. We need a world-beating public transport system – think Hong Kong or Singapore – that reassures in terms of frequency, safety and cost.
At the same time, if we want to reduce the number of privately-owned cars and the amount of driving, we need to recognise that most people will still need to use a car some of the time. As such, we should be much more explicit about recognising the contribution of car clubs and private hire to the public transport network. The radical plans by Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo to exclude car traffic from the centre of Paris by 2022 specifically exempt taxis. This may indicate that it is time for a grown-up talk between TfL and representatives of London’s black cab trade in particular.
Five. Freight is the literal elephant in the room for any debate about traffic and one on which the London Cycling Campaign is remarkably silent. For the hundreds of thousands who live on the main residential roads, heavy freight in particular is the bane of our lives in terms of air and noise pollution and creates big road safety problems too. It is without doubt one of those issues in the “hard to solve” box. But rapid changes in IT and logistics mean we could soon ask why, for example, the major supermarket chains and companies like Amazon need to have their own road distribution systems.
Conclusions. The effects of Covid are almost certain to change the lives of Londoners fundamentally, so let’s have a fuller discussion about congestion and air quality. More road-pricing is surely coming. Of course, it will be unpopular with some, but so was the concept of paying to park outside your house. Rapid advances in satellite technology (thank you Elon Musk and Richard Branson) mean real-time monitoring of road use is not far away. More sophisticated road pricing will provide a new opportunity to change which London roads drivers travel on and when. Let’s start talking about things like that instead how best to improve the lot of the prosperous of Dulwich Village
Paul Wheeler is still a long standing member of the Labour Party and the founder member (in fact the only member) of London Cyclists With a Conscience (#therealLCC). Follow Paul on Twitter.
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