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Moving London in the right direction

4 March 2013

Millions of Londoners and commuters are totally dependent on the city’s transport system coping with ever-greater demand. Christian Wolmar takes a look at the policies required to keep London on the move.

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London is a booming city and it’s going to get better. Successive governments have been accused of channelling railway investment into the capital and there’s no doubt that this is the case.

Just look at how the railway scene in London will change by the end of the decade. The expanded Thameslink will allow up to 20 trains (24 theoretically) per hour through the capital, linking a whole host of new destinations south and north of the river. Then on the east-west axis, there will be Crossrail, a new railway being built to the highest standards of any in the country, with emblematic stations.

Between them, these two lines will create the equivalent of the much lauded RER network in Paris, with, at its heart, Farringdon station which will become the only one in Britain with trains heading in all four points of the compass as well as benefiting from a frequent Underground service just one stop from King’s Cross.

Together with the continued refurbishment of the Tube system and the wonderful expanded London Overground routes, London will have the kind of rail service that many other cities can only dream about. But it’s not enough and this is where the lack of vision and strategy of the current Mayor, Boris Johnson, is letting down Londoners. First, on the rail front, there are no concrete plans – or even a blueprint – for any expansion. Crossrail 2, the old Hackney-Chelsea route, is being promoted by business interests, but with very little support from Transport for London. The Mayor, rightly, is however pushing for more suburban lines to be taken out of the wasteful franchising system and be given to Transport for London as part of a further expansion of the London Overground network, but that seems to be the extent of his railway policy. Moreover, that lack of vision extends into other aspects of transport and this is letting down all those who live or work in the capital.

Cities are changing and Boris Johnson, rooted in old fashioned ‘Mr Toad’ Tory policies, does not understand that. Essentially, looking at it from a historic point of view, the age where private cars dominate the urban landscape is coming to an end. For around 50 years after the invention of the internal combustion engine, cars were allowed free rein into cities that actually were not built to accommodate them. So buildings were demolished, historic streets widened, car parks created and so on. But then city planners realised that this wasn’t working, and instead started imposing restrictions on cars. We got traffic wardens, parking meters, controlled parking zones, restrictions on deliveries and bus lanes. Parts of central London such as the heart of Swinging London – Carnaby Street and Leicester Square – were pedestrianised, and no longer did new office blocks have to provide car parking. It was realised that allowing cars unrestricted access to the centre of the city was not the way to bring about economic success.

Quite the opposite. It was realised that encouraging cars into city centres merely created congestion and gridlock, and it was people travelling in on trains and buses who did the shopping and spent the money. Public transport was seen as the key and investment in the Underground began to flow once again after a 20 year post war hiatus. To some extent Ken Livingstone understood this. He introduced the congestion charge zone and greatly improved bus services, making the network reliable enough for people to be able to get to work confidently using the bus.

But then he rather ran out of steam. He introduced a great scheme to improve Trafalgar Square in the face of much fuss from taxi drivers and opposition politicians, and it has greatly improved one of London’s key tourist sites. But after that, nothing much changed and sadly we now have a Mayor who blusters and talks the talk, but actually has no understanding of how to make London a more liveable city. Boris Johnson scrapped plans to give Parliament Square the same treatment as Trafalgar Square, leaving another tourist hot spot to remain as a roundabout for fast moving cars. The wonderfully evocative statue of Winston Churchill is left marooned in the inaccessible central square. Oxford Street remains a red barrier with up to 300 buses per hour and a shameful accident record. Yet study after study has shown that pedestrianisation leads to commercial success for local retailers. No one shops from inside their car.

And all this boils down to one simple policy. The number of cars coming into central London must be further reduced. Everything flows from that simple concept. There are a whole host of measures which can be used to discourage car use and encourage alternatives: reducing fares, creating more cycle and bus lanes, getting rid of gyratory systems that have become speedways, expanding the congestion charge zone and making it more sophisticated, creating a universal 20 mph limit, pedestrianisation (especially of Oxford Street) and much more. My particular favourite is to rip up the northbound lane of Park Lane, hewn out of Hyde Park in the 1960s, and give the space back to the Royal Park.

Other cities across the world have realised the importance of this strategy. Copenhagen has led the way with a long term strategy of reducing car use and boosting cycling to levels where it will become the dominant mode in the city centre. Paris is closing off a busy Seine embankment road to accommodate cycling and walking. Even in New York there have been massive changes, with a network of excellent cycle lanes being quickly established and Times Square being pedestrianised, resulting in the renaissance of what had been a rather dingy area. The same trend of squeezing out private car use and improving public transport, as well as facilities for cycling and walking, can be seen in cities as far afield as Bogota and Buenos Aires.

But not in London where we have a Mayor who refuses to do anything that may affect ‘traffic flow’ or take away space from cars. So we have cycling superhighways that are little more than advertisements for Barclays Bank, with no understanding that they need to be continuous and safe, and money spent on the crazy ‘dangleway’ across the river which is great as a tourist attraction but serves little transport purpose.

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All this must change. As the veteran transport commentator Adam Raphael wrote in Transport Times recently, ‘the simple truth which the Mayor refuses to admit is that you cannot civilise London without restraining traffic’. That must be the task of the next Mayor who will benefit from the superb new train services that will undoubtedly bring yet more people into the centre of the capital who will want to get to their destinations by walking, cycling and taking buses, not driving.

Christian Wolmar, who is seeking to be the Labour candidate for London Mayor in the 2016 election would welcome invitations to come to speak at branch meetings and can be contacted through his website, www.wolmarforlondon.co.uk.

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