Category / Transport Policy

In favour of segregation March 30, 2013 at 2:34 pm


No, not other clearing post: this is about forms of transport.

Consider the data to the right about the composition of traffic at a central London junction in peak hours from Cyclists in the City. This seems to be a reasonably even balance until you consider the space occupied by each form of traffic vs. the number of people carried. Using reasonably estimates of bus and car occupancy, we can work out the impact, in terms of road space saved per person, of banning each form of trafffic.


The results of that are pretty unequivocal. If we need more space on the roads in central London, ban HGVs or cars or both. And boy, do we need more space. After a mild improvement in the early days of the congestion charge, traffic speeds are roughly the same as a chicken. We need to reduce traffic and, objectively, the best way to do this is to remove cars and lorries from the road.

Interestingly the Dutch have realised this. Amsterdam’s new traffic plan proposes segregated routes for bicycles (green lines), buses/trams (blue), and cars (red). The map illustrates the plan: in the yellow area, pedestrians have priority; over that area and much of the rest, different modes of transport are segregated, with motorists not being allowed near the centre. This is a much fairer, safer, and more environmentally friendly solution than shared roads.

Amsterdam Traffic Plan

Now London’s problem is bigger than Amsterdam’s (not just in congestion terms, bad though that is: air quality is a bigger issue here), so we will have to be more radical. Here’s what I suggest:

Amsterdam Traffic Plan

Responsibility and management in party conference season October 8, 2012 at 6:15 am

I’ve been writing a complicated piece of code over the weekend. It needs to read an excel spreadsheet, so I started in Visual Basic, a choice I am now regretting. The problem isn’t easy, there’s quite a bit of data, and the algorithm is naturally expressed in a way that’s quite inefficient to implement without pointers*. So… it has been a headache. I have some results now, which seem likely to be right, and I’ll spend quite a bit of tomorrow trying various pathological cases. Still, I might have messed up and if I am really unlucky someone else will spot this.


All of this gives me profound sympathy for the civil servants who messed up the analysis on the West Coast main line franchise analysis. It’s really easy to make an error in a complex spreadsheet. For me, there are two main points here. The first is best put by Not the treasury view:

Ministers had months in the run up to the franchise award in August, and two months since, to require DFT [Department for Transport] senior management to explain to them – not with pages of numbers, but with convincing analysis – why this view, now apparently vindicated, was wrong. No remotely competent Minister would accept the explanation “That’s what the model says” on an issue like this. So either they didn’t ask the right questions, or they were incapable of understanding that they were getting the wrong answers. Neither interpretation reflects well.

I guess it would be too much to expect a minister to behave honourably during his opponent’s party conference and a week before his own.

The second and more important point is that this farrago would not have happened without privatisation. Privatisation doesn’t work not just because it provides returns to shareholders when things go well and little risk when things go badly – but also because it is impossible to write a contract that adequately ties down what it means to run a railway well for fifteen years, and to evaluate bids on that contract accurately. Sure, you can have a go at writing a model which helps you to understand, if you are lucky, what the bidders are proposing. But what you can’t do is think of every contingency. If you want to model a railway, run one: the real thing is the only reliable model. So why not close the evaluating contracts department at the DFT, renationalise the railways, and put the resources you freed up to work actually running the darn things? It would be simpler than what they are trying to do at the moment.

*Yes, I know you can fake it with classes. Or with the Win API. No, that doesn’t help much.

A paean to the lost art of travelling in style August 23, 2012 at 6:43 am

My heart fell when I read that the government is to revisit the idea of introducing security scanners at railway stations. Let’s bring all the romance and convenience of airport security to the railways. After all, we got things so wrong in the past – look at how unappealing this is*

Travel in style

*I think I might have accidentally shaken too much snark over this post. Ah well…

Cycling in the city February 4, 2012 at 7:59 am

Boris' Cycle Highways

Picture credit: a sensible comment on Boris Johnson’s cycle policy from Andy.

Jonathan Hopkin gives us news of an unexpected but very welcome campaign from the Times to make London cycling safer. (The Guardian has been behind this for some time.)

I joined the London cycling campaign in 1993, and over that period more people have taken up cycling in the city and it has got somewhat safer. We are at a critical moment now, though. We have a nominally cycle friendly major who isn’t nearly as cycle friendly as he seems and a positively cycle hostile transport authority. We have hire bikes and cycle highways, not that either of these are an unequivocal good for the cyclist. Small measures, danger, and poor infrastructure aren’t going to help London get from current levels of cycling use (2% of journeys) to where we could and should be (the 20-30% typical of continental Europe).

The safety issue has to be addressed first. The most significant cause of cycling fatalities in London is lorries, specifically cyclists going past them on the left. My modest proposal therefore is to ban all private vehicles over 4 tonnes in London between 7am and 11pm.

Given that Transport for London cannot be trusted to design junctions which are not cyclist deathtraps, the mayor needs a cycling commissioner who has the power to over-rule TfL, and this person should actually be a cyclist.

The penalties for driving without due care and attention – a pretty standard charge against those few motorists who are prosecuted with anything at all when they hit a cyclist – are far too low. If I hit a cyclist with a baseball bat, I would be charged with at least common assault and could well go to jail for six months. If I cause the same injury with a car, I might well get away with a few points off my licence. This suggests to me that there is a strong case for dramatically increasing the penalties for motoring offenses.

Finally, cars blocking cycle paths are a major issue. The fines for this should be comparable to those for parking on a red route; that alone would persuade the boroughs to police it properly (if they were allowed to keep a share of the fine, anyway).

Bike beats plane – story of the week July 17, 2011 at 8:48 pm

From Slate:

It was a bad day for intra-metropolitan area commercial aviation. Jet Blue flight No. 405—the flight that was supposed to help Angelenos beat the chaos resulting from the closure of the 405 freeway—was bested not only by the @wolfpackhustle A team (elite cyclists who had pledged to follow traffic rules), but by @garyridesbikes, a late entrant promising to take only public transit and walk…

Yep, on a 40 mile journey across a city a bike is faster than a plane.

Peak air January 3, 2010 at 9:47 am

The first commercial transatlantic air services date from around 1940, so this service has been around for about seventy years. Based on a recent experience, I think that the peak for air travel was in the late 1990s and we are now on the downswing.

Ten years ago Concorde was still flying, Virgin Atlantic was trying very hard to impress with their new Upper Class, and BA had not yet turned into a travesty of its former self. Airports too were less soul destroying: the war on fluids only began with Richard Reed, and security was not then nearly as time consuming or invasive as it is today.

The time that air travel takes today is also another good indicator that we are past the peak. The timeline for my journey was roughly

  • 7.30am, leave my flat in East London
  • 9am, arrive Heathrow the recommended 3 hours before departure
  • Spend more than an hour queueing for checking in, queueing for security and queueing for extra security at the gate
  • 12pm, scheduled departure
  • 1pm, actual departure, due to delays in boarding thanks to extra security
  • 8pm, land in Boston
  • 8.30pm, clear US immigration and collect bag. Queue for taxi
  • 9pm, arrive at destination

14 hours to travel 3,300 miles equates to 235 miles an hour. That is roughly the same speed as the latest generation of TGVs. And at least you can work on a train. If transatlantic air travel in 2010 cannot go faster than a high speed train, then it is clearly in decline. The situation is unlikely to improve, especially given the amount of carbon airliners spew out. We are past peak air.

This cancer July 26, 2009 at 8:08 am

For once not the banks. Rather I am picking up an interesting article via Infectious Greed on properties of the Honda Accord through time. Who would have guessed that it was most economical in 1985? Or that it has increased in weight by nearly 50% since 1980?


There are too many cars, they use too many resources, and there are too few credible alternatives to them. The Accord’s trajectory is just a minor illustration of quite how screwed up we have allowed transport to become.

Just privatise them? July 5, 2009 at 7:20 am

Berlin TrainsKen’s right. Can we now, please, at least five years too late, renationalise the railways. After the National Express disaster, it is time to acknowledge that PFI is bollocks and that private franchisees for public infrastructure amounts to nothing more than a grant from the state to shareholders in the good times and socialised loss in the bad ones. Sorry to the crude language and bald assertions, but this waste of money by the ideologically challenged really annoys me.

Update. Felix Salmon has a fascinating piece on the costs of driving in cities here, and how sensible congestion charging combined with fare revisions can make everyone’s travel more efficient. While I am not convinced that fixed pricing is the right approach – letting investment bankers who can afford it drive while less highly waged workers are forced onto the subway – there are clearly some very interesting results in the work Felix describes. The right approach would be a variable tarif based on income, so that the congestion charge depends on how much grief you cause other people, how much carbon you emit, and how much you earn, but that is politically impossible.

Road deaths and other acceptable casualties May 11, 2009 at 3:54 pm

RiderAn article by David Mitchell from Sunday’s Observer is so full of sense, and so nicely written that I want to quote quite of lot of it. It concerns the pathetic whingeing of the car lobby that they are sometimes caught breaking the law and even *gasp* punished for it (although not very much).

Apparently, the criminals who break the speed limit don’t like the punishments they receive. Then again, the criminals who break the murder laws don’t particularly like the punishments they receive either, but they don’t form quite such a strident lobby…

The fact that many more people speed than murder does not make it any less a crime, even though it is a lesser crime. And the difference in the magnitude of the offences is reflected by the huge difference in their punishments. So that doesn’t excuse the grumbling letters to Top Gear magazine either…

Almost everyone knows when they’re speeding and almost everyone speeds. Maybe this massed recalcitrance means we should change the law, allow people to drive as fast as they like and accept a few thousand more road deaths? …

Some drivers seem to have a gut feeling that racing around attached to a big internal combustion engine, going wherever they want, as quickly as they deem convenient, is some of sort of natural right or ancient British liberty. Well it’s not. It may feel natural but so does smoking or an expensive boob job. It’s recent, unnatural and unhealthy and the world would probably be a better place if no one had ever done it. Soon they may have to stop.

Then in today’s paper, in a nice segue, we find:

Thousands of taxis, buses and council vehicles could be fitted with devices that prevent them from exceeding the speed limit.

Given that a driver’s willingness to obey the law seems in inverse proportion to the cost of their car, I would suggest phasing in speed limiters immediately on all cars selling for more than £20,000. Sports cars, the worst offenders, would have to have speed limiters fitted at their MOTs. I am sure that this would do more to reduce road deaths than any amount of traffic calming or improvements in crumple zones. Add in genuine enforcement of the Highway Code by real policeman on the road, and we would have a revolution in road safety.

The triumph of the system May 5, 2009 at 7:03 pm

Harlow TracksOver the last few days I have cycled over sixty miles (for pleasure – business is not going that badly). Somewhere around mile 50, it occurred to me just how amazing public transport is. I can get further in an hour by train than I can cycle comfortably in a day under my own steam, and it costs me much less than I can earn in an hour. Imagine what getting around would be like without the kind of multiplication of effort that railways provide – if we all had to provide our own private infrastructure. The state really did do some things well, and even now, in these denuded times, those advantages have not entirely disappeared.

Political Futures March 27, 2009 at 3:07 pm

I don’t always agree with Michael Meacher, but this letter in the Guardian is so good, and hits the tone which is lacking in both the government and the official opposition so well, that I am going to quote it nearly in full:

We urgently need … an alternative to the prevailing Tory-New Labour orthodoxy. I would propose three central strands. It should seek to restore a social democracy which has been ripped apart by greed and an out-of-control inequality epitomised by the banks’ bonus culture. We need a solidarity tax levied on the top 5% of incomes and on the so-called non-domiciled super-rich – who use Britain but don’t pay into it – with the proceeds hypothecated to end child and pensioner poverty.

We need to redraw the boundaries between the state and the market. The market fundamentalism of the last 30 years is well and truly busted. But ending privatisation, deregulation and PFI is not enough. We need a new perspective for the state, not – as now – passive facilitator and rescuer of last resort, but actively interventionist where the public interest requires it, and strong promoter of the key social values of accountability, equity and real equality of opportunity. A robust market has an essential role, but so does the state, not only in health and education (where private markets do not belong), but in energy (a key to national security), housing (neglect of which is the biggest repository of social misery), transport (for a fully co-ordinated system), and banking (to prevent another collapse and provide reliable housing for low-income households).

We need a state which is less an intrusive snooper and more the guardian of our civil liberties. And we need a major redistribution of power: away from a top-down state to disenfranchised citizens; away from top-down industrial relations to a fair and constructive role for trade unions: and away from a top-down politics to a much more genuinely participative system of governing.

Thank you, competition commission December 17, 2008 at 1:34 pm

AirportFrom the FT:

BAA, the airports operator, should be broken up and forced to sell three of its seven UK airports, Gatwick, Stansted and Edinburgh, the competition watchdog said on Wednesday.

God knows the lot of the blase international traveller is a hard one these days, so any smidgeon of comfort is welcome.

Why I support the BA/Iberia merger December 6, 2008 at 7:59 pm

Because then I will have one fewer dreadful, customer-unfriendly, delay-ridden airline to ignore when booking travel. The rational for loathing British Iberian is easy: it saves time.

Civilisation Crushed – A Tale of Two Buildings November 29, 2008 at 9:28 am

When the new Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras opened, it was to almost universal praise. See for instance here for the Guardian’s take or here for the BBC. As the latter puts it:

The brick and stonework was near-perfect. The soaring roof was “detailed delicately” … [it is a] World-beating roof

And yes, it is a lovely building, and yes, the roof is incredible, a soaring arch of glass that lifts the spirit. There’s only one problem. You can’t actually see it most of the time because the passenger is sunk in a tunnel of shops. Rather than let people enjoy the extraordinary Victorian space, the architect has ensured that what you actually experience is just another retail environment. It is a fantastic building ruined by an excrudescence of high street squalor.

Stansted is exactly the same. The building is one of Norman Foster’s finest. It could be a nice place to use, with clear views all the way from check in to the runways, again with a high roof that lets lots of light in. Instead it is a hell of closely packed shops and restaurants, Foster’s vision having been completely subordinated to the need to get as many square feet of selling in as possible. BAA are not unique in their ability to ruin the traveller’s day but they are one of the leading practitioners of this all-too-common art.

The Victorians realised something that seems to be lost today: that if you make grand public spaces that are a pleasure to use, then you add joy to peoples’ days. If you respect the general populace and provide a context that is fundamentally civil, then many of them, at least, will be civilised. But if you treat them as consumers whose only duty is to spend, then they will behave however they want. Is it too much to hope that one day St. Pancras or Stansted will push the shops into the background and let the building do its job?


What Pleasure It Is To Be A Real Keynesian Now October 19, 2008 at 5:27 pm

Finally the tide seems to be turning. Bernanke is talking about the need for central bankers to be mindful of asset price bubbles. Darling is reprioritising spending to produce a classic Keynesian stimulus. But isn’t it bizarre that we now have nationalised banks and privatised railways? If ever there was one industry that the state should control – must control – it is transport. (The revelation on Saturday that the reason Virgin trains are so crowded is nothing more than revenue optimisation only makes the case even more clear.) Now Alistair has (reluctantly and a little tardily) got the nationalisation bug, perhaps he could finally undo the evils of his predecessors and renationalise the tube and the railways. Let’s hear no more about internal markets in the health service or in education. Now is the time for the state to spend for the sake of us all.

Market gaps August 17, 2008 at 3:25 pm

Classical economics, curse its worm-infested body, teaches us that the market will generate innovations which meet demand. Leaving aside for a moment the obvious problem with this – that there is no account of how fast such creativity will happen – my recent travels have convinced me that there is a massive opportunity at the moment for operating companies to make more money from transport. I, and I am sure many others, would pay more for a ticket in a guaranteed child free carriage on a train or cabin on a plane. After all, if I took a tuba with me on my journey, and attempted to learn how to play for the entire trip, I would quickly be silenced. But the same volume of noise can easily be created by one child. First class is no guaranteed of peace as I found out on one memorable trip to New York: the front of a 747 is not the best location for a creche. So, please Mr. Planeman, Mr. Trainman, can I please pay more for a child free trip? I rather suspect the answer will be no, not because the scheme wouldn’t work, but because of the opprobrium some of the breeders would foist upon anyone who dared to suggest their dearest’s screams were unwelcome: Adam Smith is no match for the pram wielding classes.

Steam Train

BAA to be rent asunder? August 12, 2008 at 6:15 pm

Dual PropThe FT reports that UK Competition Commission is considering forcing BAA to give up at least one of its London airports. Given that this government will never agree to the right step – nationalising BAA – I suppose that is a start.

Update. So the competition commission is demanding that BAA sell not one but two London airports. Excellent. The Daily Mash puts it best:

SATAN, the Prince of Darkness, is to launch an appeal after he was ordered to sell Heathrow.

The Competition Commission ruling is a major setback to Beelzebub’s plan to expand his kingdom of the damned via the world’s third busiest airport. He said last night… “Our latest customer survey showed more than 90% would rather be roasted on a spit and have the flesh ripped from their bones by a horde of fire-breathing, shit-covered demons than endure another minute in one of Heathrow’s check-in queues.

Run rat run July 27, 2008 at 8:58 pm

Labour MPs are, of course, far more concerned for themselves than either the governance of the country or their party. Here’s just some of the utter nonsense, the self-serving anti democratic idiocy they and their leaders have been up to recently.

Now, I admit it, I cheered for Tony in 1997. I drank a lot of wine and ate pasta and stayed up until Portillo was gone. But now, please, can I have a Labour party back that is actually socialist, or at least has some vague aspirations other than leaving the rich alone, lining their own pockets, and trying to find some tiny chink of public life that has not yet been infected by Thatcherite free market dogma.

Heathrowics July 16, 2008 at 5:24 pm

I had to travel via Heathrow today, so I went on the airport website to check the state of the public transport links to Terminal 5. It said `Service not available.’ And you can’t fault a short and wholly accurate summary like that. Please, Gordo, would you nationalise BAA — or shall I just give up on flying?

Why I like $140 oil July 8, 2008 at 12:10 pm

A surprisingly not ill-informed and annoying article by George Monbiot (isn’t it nice when someone who is usually foolish says something sensible?) considers the good things about $140 oil. One of them is that it is stopping a lot of unsustainable fishing:

No east Asian government was prepared to conserve the stocks of tuna; now one-third of the tuna boats in Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea will stay in dock for the next few months because they can’t afford to sail. The unsustainable quotas set on the US Pacific seaboard won’t be met this year, because the price of oil is rising faster than the price of fish. The indefinite strike called by Spanish fishermen is the best news European fisheries have had for years. Beam trawlermen – who trash the seafloor and scoop up a massive bycatch of unwanted species – warn that their industry could collapse within a year. Hurray to that too.

Let me add to that. Hurray if the oil price ruins the road transport industry. We should be sending much more cargo by rail and river anyway. Hurray if it causes people to drive less and to buy smaller and less polluting cars. Not only should Gordon go ahead with higher vehicle duty on the most polluting cars, he should extend that idea to lorries, planes, and indeed every other source of pollution. The only way to realign the economy to the post carbon age is to get the incentives right. $140 oil helps, but $200 or $250 oil would be even better.

Update. The high oil price appears to be working in Washington. According to a Washington Metro press release:

Twenty of Metrorail’s top 25 highest weekday ridership days have occurred since April of this year.