By putting my name forward for the Labour nomination for the next London mayoral election, I am seeking to shift the discussion on transport away from the narrow concerns that have dominated previous campaigns.
We need a vision for London
At the last two mayoral elections, neither Boris nor Ken – (I hope to be Wolmar in this campaign rather than Christian to avoid confusion) – set out anything that could remotely approximate to a vision. Both their manifestos were a ragbag of vague ideas designed to appease various interest groups, rather than an attempt to set out what a 21st century city should look like. The 2008 hustings focussed on whether bendy buses were suitable for London streets, while this year the main source of debate was over fares – an important issue but not one that should have dominated the debate.
Let’s instead, begin to look at what is wrong with central London. There is no doubt that London is a very successful city, but it could do so much better. By introducing the congestion charge, Ken Livingstone started what should have been a coherent process of gradually shifting the focus away from a policy that had the needs of motorists at the heart of transport policy towards a recognition that there was a need to restrict the movement of cars. He also greatly improved bus services and supported investment in the Tube and London Overground. Trafalgar Square was part pedestrianised but then Livingstone somewhat lost his nerve and failed to press home the advantage he gained from these changes.
Boris, on the other hand, has been a muddle. He proclaims his support for cyclists but actually in many respects has made life more difficult for them by insisting that nothing should be done that might affect the ‘smooth flow of traffic’. The bike hire scheme is a nice innovation and is a useful way of introducing people to the joys of cycling but it is not a substitute for the type of provision for cyclists seen in many European cities. For all Boris’s supposed pro-cycling policies, very little will change over the next four years to attract more of them or to make existing ones safer. His cycle superhighways are a dangerous mirage, encouraging cyclists on to main roads while doing nothing to protect them.
The problem with both mayors is that they did not have a vision of what the city should look like in the future. The current situation in central London makes no sense. While the vast majority of people travel there by public transport or by walking or cycling, cars are allocated vast amounts of space and given priority. So Parliament Square is an ugly roundabout where Churchill’s statue is marooned, invisible to all but the most intrepid tourist. Oxford Street is a park for empty buses and bad-tempered taxi drivers while part of London’s most famous park is a dual carriageway for motorists speeding between two roundabouts barely a mile apart. Meanwhile cyclists, who are forming an ever greater proportion of traffic, are squeezed onto perilous cycle lanes or, worse, told to ‘dismount’ if there are roadworks.
What I would do in Central London
The vision must start with a target to reduce the number of cars coming into central London. From that, every other policy will flow. Pedestrianisation schemes, bus priority, 20 mph zones, permeable routes for cyclists, one hour tickets for bus users, an extended, but better targeted, congestion charge zone and many more ideas.
For outer London, the needs are different. The needs of through traffic have often been allowed to determine transport priorities leading to the creation of gyratories encouraging drivers to think that every town centre should have its own traffic reduction policy. Tram systems, like the highly successful Croydon Tramlink, have a big role to play and so do much improved bus services. Contrary to the views of the pro-car lobby, it is quite possible to provide effective bus services in suburban areas, as the Swiss have shown. In the meantime, though, short term measures such as blocking off streets, creating space for new market stalls, and implementing supportive policies for local independent retailers would be a positive step forward.
There are lots of good reasons to limit car and lorry use in central areas. Motor vehicles take up an inordinate amount of space, they emit fumes that cause disease and death, the vibrations they cause damage buildings, they pose a danger to vulnerable road users and they do not encourage economic activity. Many cars in central London are simply going through it as the quickest way.
This vision will be dismissed by some as being rooted in anti-car philosophy. That is not the case. Indeed, by encouraging the reduction of unnecessary car journeys, some roads may become less congested and easier for drivers. It is, rather, about putting the car in its rightful place in the hierarchy of transport. Research has shown repeatedly that environments which encourage pedestrians and public transport users are good for business. The notion of a drive-in culture has, fortunately, not taken off in the UK. The RBS in Trafalgar Square was briefly Britain’s first drive-in bank and its failure emphasises precisely why in London the car should not be king. London must be reclaimed as a city for people, not vehicles. The idea that restricting car use is an attack on freedom is, quite simply, nonsense.
All this takes long term planning with a clear vision in mind. Take the oft-quoted notion of getting more people cycling. It is not a matter of providing a few bikes for hire in central London or even slapping down a few strips of Barclays blue paint and calling them Cycle Superhighways. Instead, it requires a holistic approach that ranges from enabling children and their parents to cycle to school, through to creating a high class set of priority lanes for cyclists. 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. Within a generation, transport experts will be visiting us to see how we did it, rather than Amsterdam or Copenhagen.
Why I’m standing…
Over the next year or so, I will be discussing these ideas both within the party and with outside experts. By the end of the process, with their help and using my knowledge from two decades of writing about transport matters, I will develop a clear blueprint of change for both central and outer London, shifting the emphasis of transport policy away from accommodating the car and towards making the city far better able to embrace people walking, cycling and using public transport.
I am not a politician – though by making this move I will become one – and I hope that by throwing my hat in the ring, I will attract others from outside the Westminster Village to try their luck. The mayoralty was created precisely with the idea that it would attract informed outsiders rather than the usual suspects. Let’s hope that can now change.