Friday, 29 May 2009

Boris Wants You To Look The Other Way

The House of Commons Transport Select Committee published its report into the disruption caused to London's transport system by the heavy snowfalls in February this year. Predictably its been fairly critical of Boris's role in managing the impact of the incident. You'll remember his appearance in front of the committee - its the occasion he threatened to flounce out of the meeting when the questioning got a bit too tough. So perhaps just as predictably its not a surprise that Boris has pronounced himself not too impressed with their conclusions. Calling the report
"partisan and wholly opportunistic"

the BBC also reports his spokesman saying:
"With the benefit of hindsight it is even clearer to the Mayor that putting buses on icy roads, which could not be cleared, would have been irresponsible, dangerous and potentially lethal. The Mayor is pleased that today we are arguing over a select committee report, rather than giving evidence at an inquest into why Londoners have been injured unnecessarily on the icy roads."

Whilst the first comment can be dismissed as politics as usual, the second is a piece of deliberate misdirection that would make Derren Brown proud.

Having read the report, in particular, the sections that relate to the Mayor, at no time is there any suggestion that safety should have been compromised. Unless I've missed it in the small print, the suggestion that Boris should have been out on the streets of London in the early hours of the February 2nd with a cattle prod herding unwilling transport operatives into their vehicles, does not exist. Its simply a way of changing the subject from his failings. Indeed the report says:
"The Committee does not, as the Mayor seemed to imply, consider that more meetings before the snow fell would have been a panacea for the problems London faced on 1 and 2 February. Nor do we suggest that operational decisions after snow falls should be overruled by the Mayor." [My Italics]

What certainly is in the report is a very valid criticism that London lacked visible leadership over those two days and that Boris seems unconcerned by this. Regardless of whether the ultimate decision would still have been different with his participation, the evidence is that he should have engaged. Its the equivalent of a CEO of large business letting his direct reports flounder with no strategic direction, whilst the shareholders (us) look on in dismay as company goes down the pan.

Is this likely to change? Not any time soon seemingly. The other theme of the report is Boris extreme sensitivity to any level of scrutiny. There's a bit of a pattern here: no press conferences, the Keith Vaz incident and now his antics in front of the committee. Its apparant he's just not a good listener.

We deserved better, more visible leadership - its concerning Boris doesn't see that. Maybe he doesn't believe he can do it, which ought to be a warning for us all. If he wants a few useful hints and tips I can recommend a good book.
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Monday, 25 May 2009

Cycle-highways - just more paint on the road?

As you might have seen Boris Johnson, our cycling mayor, had a near-miss over the weekend. Along with Kulveer Ranger (his Transport Director), Peter Hendy (TfL Commissioner) and Lord Adonis (Transport Minister) he was on a scouting mission around London for routes for his 'cycle highways' policy. Looking at video of the incident, it looks truly horrendous and exactly the sort of accident that could easily have given rise to serious injuries, if not worse. So we should be grateful that nobody was hurt. I can certainly sympathise - as a daily cyclist from North into Central London I can attest that whilst potentially serious incidents aren't common they are still too frequent for comfort.

From a policy point of view this should highlight something that most of us already know. Cyclists are particularly vulnerable road users and need additional protection. Whilst we as a group have to take more responsibility for our own safety, by not running red lights for example, there will always be a fundamental conflict between heavy traffic comprised of large vehicles and cyclists. The previous Mayor explicitly recognised this in his transport planning which gave priority not only to cyclists but to other groups such as pedestrians. Boris has chosen to eschew this in favour of what he considers a more 'fair and balanced' approach that refuses to value any one group over another. Kulveer Ranger was particularly strident in rejecting the previous approach when he appeared in front of the London Assembly last year. Yet it is precisely because the relationship between cycles and motorised traffic is so unequal that a 'level playing field' will always favour cars and lorries.

The idea for a series of priority routes for cycles that the Mayor was researching is a pretty good one, but like all policies its the execution that will determine success or failure. Boris has shown himself to be particularly loathed to implement any policy that inconveniences motorised traffic. Witness his decision on motorbikes in bus lanes, implemented despite the strong objections of cyclists and the abolition of the Western Extension of the Congestion Charge zone. He's also not been averse to having TfL meddle in local traffic schemes where he feels they are not sufficiently favourable to car traffic. Boris is very keen to talk about his cycle hire scheme and its not hard to see why. Its bolsters his cycling credentials without actually having to take any of the more difficult but tricky decisions that may not be popular with other road users but would substantially increase cycling. As others have pointed out a lack of cycles may not be the primary reason why people are not venturing out on the roads. What the scheme's unlikely to do is change people's perception of the risk of cycling or indeed the objective risks of doing so. Conversely cycle highways have the potential to make a real impact but not if the difficult decisions around cycle priority are dodged.

London has the opportunity to become a real cycling city. But we'll come up short unless there's a recognition from politicians that from time-to-time the requirements of cyclists will directly conflict with those of motorised traffic and fudge is not a valid option. How Boris handles the implementation of his new cycle highways will determine whether they are a step change in how cyclists are treated in London or just more paint on the road.
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Hello - and welcome to the blog. The posts here mostly about the things I care about, (London) politics, cycling and life in North London. Occasionally you might see one about IT Product Management which is what I do between the hours of 9-5 daily. Of course if you did see one of those then view expressed there would naturally be my own and not those of my employer.

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