Review of London 2022: Street transport’s year of road rage and regression

Review of London 2022: Street transport’s year of road rage and regression

Road rage has been a constant, draining feature of 2022, engulfing everything from the congestion charge, to the enlargement of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), to the regulation or otherwise of e-scooters. Massive quantities of heat have been produced but precious little light and, all the while, the two most important ways of getting around London’s streets – buses and walking – have been suffering.

For some years now, bus speeds and bus service provision in London have been falling, each tending to propel the other in a destructive downward spiral that can only be bad for the capital. The latest set of service cuts, though far less bad than Transport for London had advertised in the context of the miserable long-distance wrangle between City Hall and Boris Johnson and his henchmen over funding, continue this wrong direction of travel. A short-term bus action plan, published in March, was welcomed by London TravelWatch and the Campaign for Better Transport, but the need for sharp improvement is acute. It is hard to look ahead with high hopes.

TfL’s latest Travel in London report says, based on findings of the London Travel Demand Survey, that more walking is being done than before the pandemic (though less than during it), which is to be welcomed. That said, pedestrians have seen their pavement space increasingly invaded by vehicles. To the usual intruder cyclists can now be added e-scooterists, most of them riding illegally, and hire bicycles with motors, which are commonly dumped on footways. The carelessly abandoned Lime bike has been a signature nuisance of 2022.

Curbing the congestion and pollution caused by private motor vehicles on London’s roads is a pressing and, of course, perennially contentious issue. In February the congestion charge, having been increased in scope and level as a condition of emergency government funding during the pandemic, reverted to previous weekday hours though the price increase to a daily £15 remained, as did the charge’s weekend operating hours. In November, Sadiq Khan’s plan to enlarge the ULEZ to cover the whole of Greater London – having hugely expanded it to the North and South circular roads in October 2021 – got the go-ahead to be executed next August, despite some absurdly disingenuous claims about the scale of opposition to it.

The will to live can easily be lost when wrestling with the various reports and datasets seeking to describe and quantify the impacts of the new Low Traffic Neighbourhoods introduced with considerable hubris during the Covid period, though certain claims made by some of their more fervent champions do seem to lack internal logic. The bald assertion that their installation does not add to traffic and associated pollution elsewhere feels paradoxical, given that the very purpose of LTNs is to reduce through-traffic in residential streets, obliging drivers affected to find alternative routes for car journeys.

That said – and very importantly – the hope is that, over time, car drivers inconvenienced by LTNs will drive their cars less as a result, and perhaps choose to walk, use a bus or ride a bicycle instead. Tremendous tiffs have continued about whether or not that happy outcome is being achieved. A study by researchers at Imperial College, published in November, concluded that LTNs increase neither traffic levels nor pollution in surrounding streets. However, their focus was on just three LTNs in Islington and their findings have been vigorously challenged and debated.

John Stewart, chair of the trustees of the Campaign for Better Transport, has been a stern critic of LTNs, arguing that they are not the answer to road traffic problems and can shift those problems from prosperous neighbourhoods to poorer ones. Stewart too has come under challenge, but Big Media and politicians in favour of LTNs, including self-styled progressives, have barely engaged with a social equity argument that should not be glibly dismissed.

A similar blind spot is long established with cycling policy, which still entails significant sums of public money being spent on redesigning roads and, controversially, even pavements to facilitate the transport choices of a small group of mostly affluent Londoners, sometimes to others’ disadvantage.

The latest Travel in London report acknowledges that the capital’s cycling demographic continues to be dominated by white men from higher income households in the 25-44 age group (pages 103, 104). “Steady progress” is reported with the representation of women in London’s cycling population, and “some” among Asian and Arab Londoners, but no increase in that of black Londoners. As with other transport modes, a post-Covid “new normal” has yet to fully take shape, but, even so, despite evidence of a small overall increase in cycling, especially for leisure purposes at weekends (page 100), less than 4% of journeys in the capital are made by bicycle. Have scarce resources been used to most beneficial effect?

As ever, there are balances to strike and difficult decisions to be made about road space use and capacity. Tunnelling work on the new Silvertown road tunnel, linking the Greenwich Peninsula and Newham beneath the Thames, began in September. The Mayor and TfL have continued to insist that the scheme’s overall effect, given that both it and the nearby Blackwall Tunnel are to be tolled, will be less pollution and congestion in the area, not more. Critics have kept insisting otherwise, but there has never been any sign of the project being abandoned.

Time may tell, but consensus is a long way off. It may be still harder to find over introducing a comprehensive London-wide road user pricing scheme that would render the rather piecemeal collection of bespoke ones redundant and potentially produce a truly transformative change to the character and efficiency of London’s road network. Still, 2022 has seen the public sounded out about it and the debate about the issue has become a little more public. Perhaps it hasn’t been all rancour and regression after all.

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Categories: Analysis

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