Saturday, 14 August 2010

I have moved!

This blog has moved to a new location here:

Please head on over there - all posts and comments have been migrated.

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Sunday, 8 August 2010

Must Try Harder - Oona's Transport Policies

Any candidate for London Mayor will not deserve to be elected without a coherent and comprehensive vision for London's transport system. The current Mayoralty's policies have been hijacked by special interests and lack ambition. So any alternative candidate will need a compelling plan to get London moving in the right direction again. Oona King's policies, whilst having some positive ideas, are too timid and derivative to set that direction.

If there is one area where the current Mayoralty's limitations are most obvious, it's transport. It is true that Boris has been seen at many a transport scheme opening, that he's managed to fit in alongside other important engagements. The trouble is these have mostly been started by his predecessor. When you look at what he's specifically done himself the cupboard is pretty bare. Many of the manifesto promises he's fulfilled (WEZ removal, bikes in bus lanes) provided payback to special interest groups that supported him during the election. His "cycling revolution" is certainly costing a great deal but whether the benefits are as large is unclear at this stage. Any incoming alternative to Boris in 2012 will need to get things back on track pretty quickly and with limited money. Its with this context that we should judge the ideas that Oona King has put forth in her transport proposals.

Dave Hill has a good piece on some of the specifics and there's now a PDF on Oona's site with more details. I want to pick up on a few items because I think they show both a timidity in its approach and a tendency to re-cycle superficially attractive, but ultimately flawed policies.

Congestion Charge confusion

It took Oona a while to come round to the view that re-instating the WEZ was a good idea. In the early part of her campaign she prevaricated and I'm not sure that's an approach likely to gain her much support in the Labour select-orate. Whilst the change to something more positive is very welcome, a commitment to use the income to lower bus fares displays an alarming naivety of the financial situation that TfL is in. True enough any and all additional income would be good and very welcome. She is right on the money when she says that the current cash being squandered on Boris's new Routemaster and bendy replacement are a scandal. But the latest leaked warning from Peter Hendy should have alarm bells ringing. The best that the £55M to £70M that the WEZ would likely bring in will do over the long term is reduce the level of increase required, not deliver a cut.

Of course she could have proposed an increase in the level of the congestion charge or increased its geographic scope. That potentially might have increased the funds available, but on this the document is silent. This might be because its unpopular with certain groups in the 'burbs she's assiduously courting. Whatever the reason its a missed opportunity.

A tube line along the river

Superficially, the river looks like a useful adjunct to the land based forms of travel we have and its not that much of a surprise that Oona has landed on it. Everyone likes the idea of tootling down the river as opposed to be on a cramped, hot train underground train. It was of course the subject of a report by that well-known right wing think-tank Policy Exchange. There were a number of the Mayor's contributing to the report, so it makes you wonder why we've not seen any great moves to implement any of the recommendations if they are so good.

This is an idea that has been kicked around for a long time. I can't do a better job of articulating why its flawed than the Political Animal has done in this comments underneath a puff piece for the report. Given the article itself written by Andrew Gilligan (one of the authors of the report) you might want to judge the main body in that context.

If I look at where the "Thames Tube" service really fails for me, its in two areas discussed. Firstly we would need to significantly increase the subsidy to allow for a viable service. In times of surplus this might be possible, under current pressures that means something else is going to be cut. In effect someone, somewhere is going to lose their bus service to allow another set of customers to take the boat. That's not a good trade off to me. Secondly you might make that trade-off if you could show that the areas that would be served by a boat service were undeserved. That's not the case along the river with many areas already well served by a combination of the Jubilee Line, DLR and National Rail. River transport can work and this is not to say that the current Thames Clipper service isn't valuable but if this is the major plank of your transport policy shows a skewed sense of priority.

School buses - not again surely?

Not a new idea and both the Lib Dems and Conservatives on the London Assembly have proposed this before I believe. Oona makes the claim that providing more buses will reduce congestion associated with the school run. I see no evidence for this.

For a start most schools are already served by existing bus routes (possibly with a short walk) - why do we need more? More importantly, the argument fails to address the fact that according to TfL's figures 80% of the pupils live within 2km of their school. For these children the options that parents should be being encouraged to consider are cycling and walking not additional buses on the road.

For the remaining 20%, will an additional bus make all the difference? I doubt it. Looking at the local primary here in NW10, the parents that choose to drive make every attempt to get as close to the school entrance as they can possibly manage. I sometime think they would be most comfortable if there was an airport style airbridge that could connect to their car door so that their kids would not need to touch the pavement before entering school property, causing traffic chaos in the process. Its inconceivable that this group of parents would be happy to deposit them on a bus miles away.

Its shame that the big ticket items are ill-thought through because on cycling she's probably closer to what needs to happen then Boris or even Ken. Encouraging commuting by cycling with better workplace facilities might have a real impact on participation and would likely be much more cost effective a measure than the current cycle hire scheme.

Overall the document is disappointing and I haven't even mentioned Oona's ill-advised foray into the area of the Freedom Pass. For something that the Mayor doesn't control or pay for, its seems illogical (and poor judgement) for her to have become embroiled in an argument as to whether it should be means-tested or not.

For someone so adamant about being 'new' and 'different' this transport policy represents a real missed opportunity.

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Sunday, 1 August 2010

Hooray for Oyster!

It's easy to forget what an innovation Oyster was and in many ways still is. As well bringing convenience to everyone who use London's transport system, it has undoubtedly increased the use of public transport. Whilst the rollout to National Rail is imperfect and has added complexity, the experience of other cities shows London has much to be proud of.

I have just returned from a trip to San Francisco and as usual in cities that I visit I made use of the local public transport system where I can as opposed to taxi or hire cars. SF is just rolling out an Oyster-like smart card that allows travel on a number of public transport systems in and around the city. That card is called Clipper. Looking how the card is being rolled out there were a number of interesting questions that came to mind, not least why uptake of the card has been so low.

After an examination of the history of the system though its probably not surprising at all however. Clipper is just getting to the stage of being a mainstream payment method in the area, with period tickets soon to transition to plastic. You might expect this if Clipper (or Translink as it used to be called) were a new development. In fact it was introduced as a pilot as early as 2002. That's only a few months before Oyster was introduced to the public which now accounts for over 80% of transactions on London's public transport network. Clipper still only accounts for 600,000 transactions a month - a fraction of the total number of journeys completed.

As an outsider it seems to me that the reason for the low take-up shouldn't be a mystery. Surprisingly you can't buy the card at most public transport stations in the city as they don't have ticket offices. I bought mine at the stunning Ferry Building which does have a staffed office. A look at the map of selling locations looks sparse compared to Oyster. This will inevitably inhibit take-up. The other thing that's very surprising is the lack of publicity within any of the stations and on the trains/trams themselves. Go into any station on the TfL network and you'll find posters extoling the virtues of Oyster and how you can add value to it, and that's many years after launch.
All of this detracts from the fact that SF has a pretty decent public transport network which would benefit from a unified ticketing system. The city itself has a good tram network, supplemented by a very extensive bus service - and of course there's the city's famous Cable Cars (pictured). Further out there is BART and Caltrain which offer service to many suburban locations. Using the trams it was striking how few people were using Clipper. On a journey from Ocean Beach into the city I saw just one person use the card. But it might be unfair to blame the authorities in SF for this. It does seem to be a difficult problem for many cities to solve. Sydney is going through a similar exercise and is also making heavy weather of it. In fact TCard has probably had even more problems than Clipper.

All this underlines what a real success story Oyster is. It is certainly true that the rollout to National Rail took far too long and wasn't helped by Boris's unwillingness to play hardball with the train operating companies. And the limited availability on river services is a gap. But bar a few isolated incidents however, the rollout to the main modes of transport was smooth and timely. It's been a great advert for TfL's ability to deliver and we should celebrate that.

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Friday, 30 July 2010

The Economics of Cycle Hire

Boris is about to launch his signature (and very expensive) cycle hire scheme. To assess what benefits this might produce I have asked TfL for some help with additional information. They seem to be taking longer than would normally be expected. I can't help but speculate why they are taking quite so long.

Its been a big few weeks for Boris's cycle policy. His trial cycle superhighways are now live (to mixed reviews) and on July 30th the Cycle Hire scheme goes live. If you've seen my previous posts you'll see I am sceptical that the large amount of cash being spent on the scheme represents the best value for money. Indeed on the surface I can't see any evidence that this is the case and it seems to me Cycle Hire is neat way for Boris to look like he is helping cycling whilst not enraging his core constituency of private motorists.

One way to establish the viability of the scheme would be to look at the business case for the project. This should clearly articulate the benefits, weigh them against the costs and determine whether the project is indeed worthwhile. It might (if you have the data) also help you compare it against other options that might be better (or worse) value for money. So I asked TfL for it and also any research that they held that looked at whether Cycle Hire was likely to encourage a greater degree of modal shift compared to other possible options like cycle lanes and other priority measure. Naively I thought this was a simple request. After all you either have the business case or you don't surely? As for the other stuff it seems a fairly standard piece of research that you would have to hand to support the decision process in progressing Cycle Hire versus other measures.

I was quite surprised therefore that the request was still outstanding after 28 days and, after some prodding, TfL suggested they needed a further 10 working days to produce even a partial response. Now I am sure that there is a perfectly innocent explanation for the delay (although I wasn't provided with one) but it does seem odd that its taking quite such a while. Perhaps they lost my intial request - who knows?

On a completely separate note I am sure Boris will be in full ribbon cutting mode on the 30th - from the two plus years he's been in office its clearly what he likes doing best. Its a shame therefore that before that we're not able to assess whether this really is the best use of £100M plus of taxpayers money.
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Sunday, 18 July 2010

The Hidden Danger in Ending PPP on the Tube

The acquisition of Tube Lines by Transport for London effectively ended the PPP experiment on the Tube. There are potentially many advantages to the end of the deal, but has it left the Tube more exposed now to cutbacks on desperately needed upgrades.

PPP is dead. That's the headline from TfL's purchase of Tube Lines completed at the end of last month. PPP's had a pretty ill-starred existence and many people will be happy to see the back of it. In many ways its demise has been a long time coming. Metronet, the biggest of the PPP contractors, managed to survive over 4 years before falling into administration. The most visible evidence of their failure was in their station upgrade programme that was significantly behind schedule and even further over budget. They never even got to many of the big ticket items they were charged with upgrading, like the re-signalling of the sub-surface lines and they left the Victoria line half done.

Tube Lines looked to be making a better go of it until recently. Station upgrades were being completed on time and within budget and the Jubilee Line upgrade was broadly on track. But then things started going wrong. Quality issues on the new signalling system for the Jubilee line pushed the date out past the point required in the PPP contract, opening up Tube Lines to paying significant liquidated damages. The TfL board minutes show a project going from bad, to worse, to pretty disastrous. At the same time the problems on the Jubilee line were pushing out upgrade work on the Northern line. This combined with a poor outcome from the PPP Arbiter's Periodic Review meant the end wasn't entirely unexpected. TfL's offer to buy the company was probably a blessed relief in some respects for Tube Lines shareholders.

So is the removal of PPP wholly good news? Well there plenty of it in there. TfL thinks its made significant reductions in back office costs as a result of combining Metronet into London Underground. Alone this has saved £570M up to 2017/18. They also have greater flexibility in how they spend and when they do it. No doubt there are similar savings to be made when Tube Lines are

Amongst the good news there's a danger though I think. Under PPP there was a legal and contractual commitment on the part of Tube Lines to complete the work to upgrade the tube, and a corresponding requirement on Government to pay for it. That's gone now. Now was that anyway a cast iron guarantee, well no. A change in the law (with maybe a compensation payment) and anything can happen. But at the very least there was a framework in place to ensure the work happened. Now the only thing standing between the Tube and cuts at the behest of the Conservative-led coalition is ... Boris Johnson. Still sitting comfortably?

The Tube is the prime target for cost-cutting as Crossrail is mostly funded from other sources, as London Reconnections shows here there is little scope to cut the Central Government contribution much of which has already been spent.

On the whole most people will be glad to see the back of PPP. As a Labour supporter its difficult to see it as one of our finest moments. But there could be some pain in store as well as a result of its passing. More reason than ever to have someone in City Hall that can advocate the case for London and why doing nothing on the Tube is not an option.
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Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Time's running out, Oona

Ken Livingstone needed a strong challenger with a coherent vision in the race for Labour Mayoral nomination. Whilst Oona King has many positive qualities she's so far failed to articulate a clear vision for London and time's running out fast. If she's to stand a chance at getting the nomination (or my vote for that matter) she needs to quickly fill in the significant gaps in her policy positions and steer clear of recent personalised attacks.

Unfortunately I am going to miss the Labour Mayoral hustings in Brent at the end of this month due to a prior committment. That's a pity as I had been looking forward to seeing more of Oona King and what she might deliver for London if elected. I am far from certain that Ken is necessarily the best choice for Labour, indeed I would have been pleased to see Alan Johnson join the race. Sadly that wasn't to be. So, given I might now not see either her or Ken in the flesh I am going to have to make my mind up on who to vote from other sources. The appearance of both candidates on the Politics Show this week was one such opportunity and I'm not sure some of the content reflected that well on Oona.

The last Mayoral election was, of course, marked by a highly partisan campaign by the Evening Standard against Ken Livingstone. The central allegation that Ken had indulged in cronyism now looks ever more ironic given who was in charge of the Evening Standard at the time and subsequent events. Its unfortunate then that Oona chose one of the few opportunities members like me may have to get a sense of her approach to re-heat those Standard allegations one more time by banging on about Ken's supposed cronyism. If that was the end of you could possibly pass it off as an aberration but from @MayorWatch in the world of Twitter I understand she also circulated a briefing note at MQT containing other elements of the Standard campaign.

What's surprising is that I think this is highly unlikely to help her cause in any case. You would have to have been living under a rock for the past 3 years not to know the ins and outs of the Lee Japser story. Anybody who is tending towards supporting Ken this time round will certainly have taken that into account by now. In my view the only outcome from the strategy will be the convince wavering voters outside of the party that Labour is divided, at war with itself in London and unworthy of support.

A more profitable approach would be to concentrate on new policy ideas. These have left me underwhelmed to say the least. On housing I can't see any great difference between her and Ken. She is for example suggesting that we revert back to the standard that new developments must contain 50% affordable housing, something he first implemented. And whilst nobody would disagree that knife crime is an extremely serious problem in London, the challenge for the Mayor is that they have control over relatively few of the levers that might exert a significant influence on it. There is a real danger of over promising and then failing to deliver, something Boris is struggling with right now.

By contrast the Mayor has extensive powers over both transport and planning and I can see precious little that might give an insight into what she would do in these areas. Transport policy in particular affects the lives of most Londoners every day and is an area where, more than most, the current administration's lack of a coherent approach is most evident. I don't believe any candidate will deserve to be elected without a vision for how Londoners will get about the city now and into the next decade.

Finally, I like 'new' and 'fresh' as much as the next person but nothing in politics has intrinsic value simply because its 'new'. The 'new' thing has to be in some way demonstrably better than the 'old' thing its replacing. So simply talking about how 'new' you are won't cut it. And by the way neither will:

@Oona_King: Popped into Ministry of Sound this afternoon for a quick meeting. If you want a raver vote Labour!

because actually I don't want a raver as Mayor of London. I'd quite like some who can convince me they can manage a multi-billion pound organisation and put London back in the place it deserves to be, as the greatest city on the world. There still time to do that but don't wait, its running out fast
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Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Bus Lane Trial Should End Now

Boris' scheme to put motorbikes into bus lanes was always ill-conceived. Today's data from the first trial period shows its downright dangerous for many road users. He should swallow his pride and scrap the extension of the trial now before more people get hurt unnecessarily.

Remember this? At the time Boris's rather grumpy remarks were ascribed to the fact that he'd been held up by protesters in Trafalgar Square. With hindsight might there have been an additional cause for his displeasure? Namely that bikers behaviour in bus lanes had come perilously close to scuppering one of the few manifesto promises he's managed to keep. As it is TfL have had to 'fess up today that putting powered two-wheelers into bus lanes has increased accidents by a considerable margin. You'd think that ought to be enough to have the trial scrapped. Not a bit of it. No-one outdoes the current Mayor on stubbornness and he's not about to change his ways now. Through TfL Boris announced an extension of the trial claiming:
...the initial trial has shown some positive results

From the data presented, I fail to see what these could possibly be. There are two main areas for concern. TfL commissioned detailed research from the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) to determine if safety, amongst other things, had been affected by the change. This report compared sites where motorbikes were allowed in bus lanes with areas where they were not. The results for motorbike safety are pretty clear. For cyclists the conclusions leave something to be desired in my view.

Firstly, collisions of motorcycles with other road users have increased. The report produced concludes clearly that there is statistically significant increase in collisions involving motorbikes where they have been allowed access to bus lanes compared to where they have not been.

Secondly, collisions involving cyclists have also increased (again by a statistically significant margin) in those bus lanes where motorbikes have been allowed. Unfortunately, however here the report gets a bit hazy. It suggests that an analysis of the particular mode of collisions indicates that the presence of motorbikes is not the cause of the increase, and that an increase in cycle flow will "partially" explain the increase. There are a number of problems with this analysis as far as I can see. The report itself identifies that this analysis depends on a subjective assessment by a traffic officer of the cause of a particular collision. You have therefore introduced opinion into your (up-to-now) strictly factual analysis of collision data. It also relies on the the traffic officer giving the cyclist a fair-go. I would not impune the professionalism of our police in London, but I am not sure they always understand the difficulties that cyclists have navigating the city.
Perhaps more substantially the report presents no firm conclusion as to why the accident rate did increase beyond a partial explanation. To my mind that should indicate that you know there's an increase but you don't know why. Consider this for example, the reports suggests most collisions involving cyclist were as a results of poor observation (i.e. I didn't see the bike, car etc.). Is it possible that a general increase in traffic in bus lanes with bikes zipping past you at 30MPH has made situational awareness a more difficult task for cyclists. Intuitively, as a cyclist myself I think it has. Has it made it more likely I will have an accident with something other than a motorbike? I have no way of knowing and importantly neither do the authors of the report. The assertion therefore that the increase is not connected with the presence of motorbikes is flawed in my view. There's either a real impact on cyclists from motorbikes by a mechanism that has not been considered, or alternatively there's a significant confounding variable that makes comparisons between the test and control sites unreliable generally.

Either of these changes in road safety should have meant the trial wasn't extended. Why? Well imagine if Boris' had introduced the initial trial run as follows:

I am going to allow motorbikes into bus lanes. I am aware that this will impact their safety and will produce more road accidents and injuries. In addition there will be more collisions involving cyclists, some of whom will also be injured. I will pretend I understand why, by some mechanism not fully explained, collisions with cyclists increase and insist it is nothing to do with the motorbikes. In reality I will be clueless.

Gentlemen, please start your engines!

Sadly that is exactly what he effectively said to us today. It would have been nice for him to be interviewed perhaps on why he thinks the extension is a good idea. Sadly he doesn't seem to be around:

@mayoroflondon: By the spectator zone at the Cape Town Waterfront

Nice life isn't it?

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