The Times: How I would end London’s addiction to the car

London is stuck in an intellectual traffic jam. When it comes to the business of how to move millions of people around the metropolis each day with ease and in comfort, the Mayor has nothing to say. In this year’s drab mayoral election, neither act in the ‘Boris and Ken show’ could summon up a vision of how to adapt London to the 21stcentury. Transport is one of the few powers that the Mayor has, yet we’ve seen only tinkering on the issue that matters to every passenger, pedestrian, cyclist and car driver.

That is why I am putting my name forward as a candidate for the Labour nomination for mayor. I have written about transport for 20 years and can see that towns and cities abroad are pulling ahead of London in terms of how they organise their roads and railways.

Just look at Paris. There the mayor has just agreed to pedestrianise a large section of the riverfront; the architect Richard Rogers put forward a similar scheme for London in 1986 but it has just gathered dust. Nearer home, Belfast has just redesigned its city centre to give priority to bikes and buses.

London needs an injection of visionary thinking. The key is weaning the city off its addiction to the car. That means targets to cut the number of cars coming into central London

The current situation in Central London makes no sense. While the vast majority of people travel into Central London by public transport, on foot or cycling, cars get vast amounts of space and priority. So Parliament Square has become an ugly roundabout where Churchill’s statue is marooned, invisible to all but the most intrepid tourist. Traffic-choked Oxford Street is a park for empty buses and bad-tempered taxi drivers, a minefield for cyclists and pedestrians; no wonder shoppers are deserting it for the soulless shopping cathedrals of Westfield and Bluewater. London’s most famous, Hyde Park is a dual carriageway for motorists speeding between two roundabouts less than a mile apart. Meanwhile cyclists are squeezed on to perilous cycle lanes or, worse, told to “dismount” if there are roadworks.

All this could change. Parliament Square could be part-pedestrianised, an idea rejected by Boris Johnson. Oxford Street is another obvious candidate for pedestrianisation, while Park Lane could be turned back into a two way street, liberating the northbound lane to create a fantastic green space for people.

On cycling we have had a series of initiatives such as London Cycling Network, LCN + (don’t ask) and now the Cycle Superhighways. Yet, even though in some parts of the city cyclists make up the majority of road users, there has been no sustained work to change road conditions for them. That will require a clear commitment to adopting the kinds of measures The Times campaign has highlighted over the past few months.

This is not a matter of providing a few bikes for hire in central London or slapping down strips of Barclays blue paint and calling them Cycle Superhighways. It requires being much more radical — doing everything from creating a high-class set of priority lanes for cyclists to making the roads safe enough for children and their parents to cycle to school. The idea is not necessarily to get a few more cyclists on the road tomorrow but, rather, to ensure that there is such a radical step change in the provision of both education and facilities that London will never be the same again. Only when we see old ladies cycling on London’s streets, as they do in Copenhagen or Amsterdam, will we know that we have succeeded.

The Olympics have shown that we can limit car use. A large chunk of London’s road network was effectively taken out of commission, and hardly anyone noticed. If I am elected mayor, I will use those plastic triangular “games lanes”  barriers to adapt the road network in the same way as happened for the Games lanes to create space for cyclists, buses and pedestrians, rather than Olympic officials.

Once we set a target for reducing the number of cars coming into central London, every other policy will flow: pedestrianisation schemes, bus priority, 20mph zones, joined-up routes for cyclists, one-hour tickets for bus users, possibly an extended but better targeted congestion charge zone and many more ideas.

Commercially, all this makes sense. Of course cars and vans have to be accommodated but they are not the lifeblood of London’s economy. People on foot are. Motorists are always too worried about paying high prices for parking to do any casual shopping.

Outer London is different but much can be done there too. We could introduce express bus services, orbital cycle routes and tram schemes, just like Croydon’s, or the cheaper alternative, trolleybuses.

Ever since the invention of the automobile, transport planners have failed to distinguish between mobility and accessibility. People do not move around for the sake of it — rather, they travel because they want to reach things or places, whether it is shops, offices or simply to visit friends and relatives.

Yet, huge amounts of effort and billions of pounds have been
spent on increasing mobility, often at the expense of access, so that for instance people cannot walk to the shops because there is a thundering highway blocking their path. Thankfully, that was recognised before London was turned into Los Angeles with the three ring roads proposed by a Tory GLC in the late 1960s.

By making car travel easier rather than other forms of transport than supporting other modes, the four-wheeled minority has benefited at the expense of the many. Attempts to remedy this through, say, bus lanes, do not address the fundamental issue that every additional car on congested streets disadvantages the majority. It is time to recognise that and tailor transport policies around this simple but radical notion

Nearly twenty years ago, I wrote a pamphlet on transport policy which ended with the words, ‘achieve the achievable and the unachievable may happen’. I still believe that. If we can reduce our addiction to the car, London could become a very different place, a truly liveable city.



  1. Andrew Heenan says:

    No date?

    I like the idea of express buses; the short-lived X43 was a marvellous route, except that they put on single-entrance double deckers, so those being the days before Oyster, whatever it gained on zipping through the traffic it lost most of it wasting time at bus stops; it also should have been routed direct from Highbury, taking the 271 route from there to the city, rather serve the already well served Angel.

    Similar routes could cut significant time from traditional routes in many parts of London, providing a more flexible alternative to the tube for outer London residents.

    The Overground should be further expanded as each rail franchise comes up for renewal.

    London needs radical thinking; much as I admired Mr Livingstone’s transport policies, he too often allowed himself to be diverted to gimmicks.

    Mr Johnston has lived off those initiatives, managing to claim credit for most of the schemes already started before him, adding only a few limited bicycle ideas.

    I wish you well on your campaign, but be sure to widen your brief from your ‘home territory.

  2. Neil Gilchrist says:

    Reducing the amount of public realm dedicated to cars is an easy and cheap way to improve London.

  3. Howard Risby says:

    London’s transport network is arguably the single biggest headache which the capital faces. To have a candidate who actually truly understands the issues involved would blow a few myths and pet theories clean out of the water. I hope that the ‘two cities divided by the river’ problem existing to the east of London is something you’ll have some practical suggestions for solving.

    Crossrail will undoubtedly have a major impact (it should have done years ago!) and should noticably reduce perennial overcrowding on the tube The re-vamped Overgroud and Thameslink routes will help, but further east, with the centre of gravity shifting as a result of first the Docklands regeneration and now the Olympic legacy, innovative thinking is demonstrably needed. Could a radical proposal such as BML2 now find its way into the debate to address not just local transport requirements, but relieve overcrowded rail paths into the capital from East Anglia, Kent and Sussex plus giving the inter-airport links necessary to make best use of existing runway capacity in the south-east?

    Solutions to the tidal forces of rush hour road traffic and the attendant problems these cause – such as environmental and health issues – is something which has eluded planners for decades. Some blue-sky thinking is clearly needed, and your ideas could be just the starting point required to get a sensible and long overdue sustainable transport policy for our largest city. I eagerly anticipate a lively transport debate.

  4. Andy says:

    An electric tram system in the style of Dublin’s LUAS, with high quality cycle parking in the outer london stops and barclays cycle hire stations at the inner london stops could make a significant difference to areas not well-served by the underground.

  5. Nic says:

    let’s start by banning stupid fantasy car adds, like the current Citroen DS4 add “feel the drive” how is dring a car, on today’s rammed roads, anything like the images on the add – pure fantasy! A car a means of transport not some thrill seekers, status symbol makers, dream machine.

  6. Andrew Bowden says:

    I went to Amsterdam recently. It was a revelation compared to London. Although I’m not convinced by cyclists texting whilst they cycle which I saw once or twice!

    We could have an amazing city. But we have to cut back on the cars.

  7. Richard G says:

    I suspect and would put forward that several issues in Lorry & Van traffic levels are tied up with the way consummerism in the UK operates with such as couriers firms for urgent deliveries and Just in Time (J.IT.) deliveries to retail & manufacturing to reduce stock levels and thus try to reduce need for working capital. Transport Statistics show that only around 60% of road vehicle carrying capacity is used & 25% of journeys are run fully empty. Presumably in the need for delivery flexibility and to meet the client stock control plans.
    This together with marketing of consumable items that require ever longer & more complex transport paths, must surely be considered in any scheme to improve matters

  8. Richard lewis says:

    Hi Christian
    I admire your focus on sustainable transport: as a transport and urban planner myself, what you say is exactly what I think–and you have helped me build my own thoughts too, so thank you. You are right to talk of the need to create cities for people–and if I were you, I’d base it on the Copenhagen model and the ideas of Jan Gehl.

    I write transport and planning policy for the London Borough of Newham and have recently run a successful 2012 Games travel plan, including a bus service and 23 new pool bikes be introduced. My policy writing reflects the need for urban design, regeneration, planning, health, road danger reduction and transport to be better-integrated, to create a “whole-place” approach that considers every aspect of the public realm and the buildings that frame it. Previously, I managed to persuade Brent Council to adopt Robert Davis’ Road Danger Reduction Charter and stimulated investment of £2m in pedestrian and cycle permeability projects and a streets for people scheme in the borough.

    The problem, I have found, with simply talking about sustainable transport, is that you immediately become labelled a ‘car-hater’ and as a person wanting a ‘war on the motorist’. Such accusations bedevil those of us who believe that sustainable accessibility (rather than mobility for its own sake) is simply part of good management of the transport resource, representing good value for investment. I find myself avoiding talking about cars at all, simply hoping that the stupid four-wheeled spacewasters will just disappear (oops, I’ve revealed myself to be a car-hater!).

    A far more powerful, and I believe farther-reaching approach would be to talk first and foremost of cities in urban-design terms, to describe the sorts of sociable places that people immediately warm to, create a compelling vision, and then (perhaps, though I’m unsure) explain that in order to make the space for these places, amongst other things we need to centre urban planning on facilitating and encouraging more cycling and indeed walking, as well as better quality public transport that carries bikes, people and goods. Something on these lines should appear on your front page and in the initial pop-out box, and it needs to be a theme throughout. We need positive imagery to show people enjoying great places on foot and cycle–and we need to build ideas of enabling children to travel independently and to feel and be safe on our streets and in our parks.

    One of the most powerful images I ever encountered on the subject was a simple line drawing by a colleague showing and active and vibrant street and the same street with blank frontages and fences. The latter was a proposal by Poole borough council, yet members overwhelmingly “voted” for the vibrant street–which became the bedrock for consultant Terence O’Rourke plc’s urban masterplan for Poole. There’s a lot of ignorance about the impact of transport environments and car-led planning on the quality of places, which can be addressed through simple visual techniques like this and simple messages that explain to those with less “visual talent” how place-making can by served by and shape sustainable accessibility.

    Jan Gehl, with over 40 years’ experience, would be an amazing advisor for you and he would add a new and refreshing dimension to your existing transport knowledge and experience, that also links well with your previous work at Shelter. I can’t think of anyone better on your side. At the very least, you should buy his books (available from RIBA bookshop).

    Meanwhile, I heartily recommend that you visit Copenhagen. In the work I have done for LCC (my designs were the basis for the visuals shown during the Go-Dutch campaign) I have learned much from the world’s most liveable city (2009). Even Jeremy Clarkson raved about the city last time he went. Talk to the wonderful former Mayor of central Copenhagen, Ritt Bjerregaard, who has wholeheartedly embraced the liveable, low carbon city concept and spoken of an ambition that 50% of journeys to work in the city should be cycled.

    BTW, you’ve got my vote!

    Best wishes, and good luck