Archive for July, 2011

Blackfriars: Critical Mass 6pm Friday

July 27, 2011

Transport for London have announced that they are gong to ignore the unanimous vote of the democratically elected London Assembly demanding a review of Blackfriars, and start building overnight from Friday.

Cyclists in the City is calling for Critical Mass to loop on Blackfriars this Friday. The London Cycle Campaign has also said that Critical Mass is the vehicle for cyclists to make themselves heard.

No one really needs any more persuading that what TfL is doing is regressive, but I felt compelled to address TfL’s main justification for not providing for cyclists:

Usage by cyclists through this junction [Blackfriars] is predominantly for travelling to and from work and is therefore concentrated during traditional ‘rush hour’ periods

This is true: but it’s true of traffic in general. That’s why it’s the rush hour. Look at 24 hour bike and car flows northbound in 2010:

Are they making the same arguments about cars not being important because they peak at rush hour?

The other point is for three years now, during rush hour bicycles have outnumbered all other modes of travel.

Blackfriars Bridge, north, 7-10am 1988-2010.

As we can see, bikes are also the only mode whose share is increasing. Even if we do nothing, the problems cyclists face at this junction are going to get worse, not better. Actively designing cycling out of this junction is outrageous.

If the campaign on Blackfriars fails, TfL will probably try to impose the same engineering style on all the Thames bridges, and, by extension, all other major road junctions in London under their control.

Come Friday night, I know where I’ll be…

Update 29/7/11: the London Cycle Campaign are calling for people to meet tonight at at the south end of Blackfriars Bridge, for a slow ride to Waterloo to join Critical Mass. Be at this ride first if you possibly can.

Transport for London declares war on the London Assembly. Has Boris Johnson lost control?

July 26, 2011

Last week, the London Assembly passed a unanimous motion against Transport for London’s controversial Blackfriars Bridge plans, which marginalise pedestrians and cyclists in an attempt to cram more motor traffic through the heaving junction.

Conservative Andrew Boff called the plans “too dangerous” and Liberal Democrat Caroline Pidgeon demanded that the Mayor “use the facts”.

The Green Party’s Jenny Jones, who submitted the motion, said it was time for a “fresh think” about Blackfriars Bridge.

The motion, passed with support from all parties, called on Mayor Boris Johnson to “revisit” the plans for the bridge, particularly due to the dangerous junction designs at either end.

Executive power             

Transport for London’s strategy for dealing with scrutiny seems to be to rush things through and hope no one notices.

In 2004, after cyclist Vicki McCreery was killed by a bus on Blackfriars Bridge, they scrapped the cycle lane overnight.

Faced with allowing the Mayor time to asses their plans at Blackfriars, TfL announced on Monday that they will begin work on the junction this Friday – and will work through the night to finish by 5am the following Monday.

The London Assembly may be our democratically elected representatives – but they have no direct power over TfL, whose strategic direction comes from the Mayor.

What are the facts?

Here are some facts to which Lib Dem AM Caroline Pidegon may have been refering:

  1. Transport for London are proposing to add a new traffic lane at the north of end of the bridge, remove a pedestrian crossing and increase the speed limit.
  2. Cyclists make up the enormous majority of traffic over the bridge during peak times, and the number of cyclists is still going up while cars are in decline.

Blackfriars Bridge Northbound Traffic by Mode 2010 - Source: TfL Screenline Counts

Has Boris lost it?

The Mayor of London has responsibility for appointing three functional bodies:

  1. Metropolitan Police Authority
  2. Transport for London Board
  3. London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority

On his third Police Commissioner in as many years, Boris is facing criticism from all directions about his direction of the Met.

Police first: transport next?

The stain of the Met’s activities already has the public suspicious that Boris is either incompetent or iniquitous.

Blackfriars is just the latest in a string of events at Transport for London which suggest that they Mayor can’t quite grasp this brief, either. TfL are currently blocking plans for regeneration at Elephant and Castle because it would “interfere with traffic flow too greatly”. They are also systemically taking time away from pedestrians at London’s busiest crossings, including at Holborn and Oxford Circus.

This latest Blackfriars blunder comes straight off the back of the news that, despite claiming poverty to justify hiking fares last year, TfL’s budget shows a £1.3 billion underspend

Crisis of control

The private motor car is simply not the way that most people get around Central London. The position of Londoners at Blackfriars is clear. Far more people will use the bridge each day as pedestrians and cyclists than they will as drivers.

All London’s political parties, including Boris’s own Conservatives, understand this. They have all explicitly stated they are against TfL’s proposed Blackfriars redesign.

That TfL is still designing streets for cars and not people makes them look increasingly out of touch and out of control. The question now is: is Boris out of his depth?

Justice: City of London style

July 20, 2011

In February 2011, I was stopped by a police officer in the City of London for cycling through a red traffic light. It was the reason that I started this blog. I stated to that officer at the time, and I maintain, that I did not commit this offence and so since then I have been embroiled in the process of appealing it in court.

The Court

After one adjournment from an original court day in May, I received last month a Summons to City of London Magistrates Court for this morning at 10am.

I sat in the court room for 4 hours. During this time, I watched three cases. All of them were people who already had between 6 and 9 points on their driving licenses, and who had subsequently committed a variety of motoring offences. They were:

  1. A man with 9 points on his license, including various speeding convictions, who was caught driving at 48mph through a red traffic light in a 30mph zone.
  2. A man with 9 points on his license, including speeding and driving while using a handheld mobile phone in May 2011, who was caught driving at 30mph in a 20mph zone.
  3. A man with 6 points on his license for driving without insurance who was facing charges after having been caught driving while using a handheld mobile phone, at which point it transpired that he was not insured.

All three pled guilty. In normal course, they would all lose their licenses. However, they all claimed that it would cause “exceptional hardship” if they were to do so.

The magistrate told driver one that he did not accept the exceptional hardship claim, however due to his early guilty plea he would only face a driving ban of six months. Driver two was given three points (bringing him to a total of 12), but his exceptional hardship claim was accepted – he was given no driving ban.

Sadly, I was not around to see the verdict for driver three, as while the magistrate was deciding (4 hours after my arrival at the court), I was told that my case would be adjourned again and I would have to come back in November.

This is half the story.

The Street

After leaving the court, I cycled down Queen Victoria Street towards Blackfriars Bridge:

At this narrow point, I decided to “take the lane”, as I’ve been overtaken by buses here before and it’s a little close for comfort.

A black cab driver behind me became very angry, aggressively revving and trying to squeeze past. At the end of this section (about 15 seconds after the beginning of it), he leaned out his window as he overtook me and said, “Who do you think you are? I’ll slit your fucking throat.”

There was a police car stopped at the next set of traffic lights. I knocked on their window, reported what the taxi driver had said, and one of the two officers within asked both me and the driver to pull over.

The Police

One officer spoke to me and one to the driver. The one who spoke to me (CP 241) was very friendly, said she understood my concerns but also that it’s understandable that taxi drivers get frustrated being on the road all day.

Her colleague, PC Jeffreys (CP 267), spoke to the taxi driver then came over and said that I had been cycling in the middle of the road and this was why the taxi driver had become so aggressive. He said that the taxi driver had admitted that he had sworn at me, but not the threat to kill.

PC Jeffreys then told me that I should not have been cycling in the middle of the road and that both parties were in his view in the wrong. He said that in future if I felt intimidated by a taxi driver behind me, the correct action would be to pull over to the side of the road, dismount my bicycle and wait until I no longer felt at risk.

I could not understand why on earth we were talking about where I had been cycling, when it was clearly not illegal, whereas I had just been the victim of a verbal assault and threat. I said so.

I then tried to take a photograph of the taxi driver using my mobile phone, so there would be no possibility of the man denying that he was driving should I wish to take the issue forward with either to police or the Public Carriage Office. PC Jeffreys physically prevented me from doing this by grabbing my arm and pushing me back to the kerb.


Honestly at this point, I lost the will to continue. I’d just taken holiday from work to sit in a court room watching drivers who clearly should have been disqualified for a long time managing to avoid it, then to be told that these cases were more important than mine so come back in November, then immediately upon leaving been aggressively bullied by a taxi driver, and then been told by the police that it was my fault.

On the plus side, the London Assembly agreed today to review a 20mph limit on Blackfriars Bridge. Great, right? Speeding is incredibly harmful. (Source: Amy Aeron-Thomas’s Street Talk). (Update: having read this while less frazzled, they’ve actally agreed to “ask the Mayor to instruct TfL” to do a review. So it may not even happen.)

I’d like to pretend to care about the London Assembly vote, but I just can’t. We already have a report saying 20mph on London’s bridges would be safer. Even if the review says it is unambiguously advantageous to move to a 20mph limit (it won’t), and if somehow the London Assembly manages to on this basis pressurise the Mayor into actually implementing such a limit (doubtful), it will make basically no difference.

Unlike Tower Bridge, the road layout at Blackfriars lends itself to driving much faster than 20mph, which people will do. Enforcement of the limit will be rare, and as I saw today, consequences in those cases where it is enforced minimal. We need to stop devoting our energy to tinkering around the edges like this and start campaigning for proper infrastructure – yes segregated cycle lanes, but this as part of a package of properly designed streets, not huge urban motorways.

A framework for marginalising cycling and walking: TfL Network Operating Strategy response

July 13, 2011

The deadline for responses to Transport for London’s consultation Draft Network Operating Strategy is Friday. This is the document which sets out London Streets’ overall approach to the management and operation of the road network in London… as well as providing a framework through which to prioritise capital investment and ‘business as usual’ operational expenditure decision-making across the road network.

At the moment the strategy is all about cars, vans and HGVs, so it really is important that we get as many responses as possible from people interested in making London’s streets cleaner, more sustainable, more pleasant and less dangerous.

I just realised that I hadn’t actually sent a response yet, so have just bashed out some of my main objections. This is what I’ve written – feel free to use it/expand on it/dismiss it as communism:

1. Smoothing Traffic Flow

Response to: Measuring the performance of the road network (pages 14-24)

The majority of people on London’s streets – myself included – are not usually in cars, vans or HGVs. They are pedestrians, people on buses and people on bikes.

And yet “journey time reliability” is your “key indicator” for measuring the success of the road network. Which:

a)      Only measures the journey times of cars and goods vehicles – not people on buses, pedestrians or cyclists.

b)      Ignores other factors are important such as air quality, road danger reduction, and how pleasant streets are as places.

It has been pointed out to me that the strategy is able to focus on motor vehicles by systemically undercounting pedestrians in your Foreward. You talk about “journey stages” for cars, motorcycle and bus users but “trips” of pedestrians. As you know, this means anyone walking to a train station or bus stop will not be counted as a pedestrian but as a bus/train user. If you were to include all these people, pedestrian numbers alone would vastly eclipse the number of motor vehicles. The strategy needs to reflect this.

2. Repressing walking

Response to: Maximising the efficient and reliable operation of the road network (pages 25 – 37)

In this section, pedestrians are viewed mainly as a traffic hindrance. We see this in:

a)      SCOOT – the system to electronically optimise traffic signal timings – does not even measure its effect on pedestrians. London Assembly Members have noted this is inadequate in their report, The Future of Road Congestion in London (p9).

b)      Signal timing reviews which are designed to improve road traffic journey times with “no dis-benefit” to pedestrians. TfL should actively encourage people to be pedestrians – this is the only way to manage London’s congestion and air quality issues.

c)      Pedestrian Countdown takes time away from pedestrians at some of the busiest crossings in London, like Oxford Circus and Kingsway. TRL’s research shows that pedestrian walking speeds increase, particularly in the over 60s. Additionally, while evidence on conflicts is not conclusive, it suggests that they increase.

c)       Signal removals naturally need to be decided on a case-by-case basis, but the city-wide implementation is underpinned by the principle that the way forward is to remove restrictions on drivers. This will simply increase the number of drivers.

It concerns me that you are aware these measures will increase car usage and are still in favour of them. Indeed on page 32 you use a 12% increase in traffic at an Ealing junction as evidence that signal removals are a success. This is perverse. If TfL are serious about achieving a modal shift towards sustainable transport (as you claim to be in this document), you need to be making driving less attractive relative to cycling, walking and public transport (which usually includes walking). The measures in this chapter will achieve the converse.

3.       Motorcycles in bus lanes

I sincerely hope that now that LB Ealing have banned motorcycles from bus lanes, following an increase in collisions during the pilot, that TfL will follow suit.

Personally, as a driver I find being undertaken at speed by motorcycles quite disconcerting, and when on my bicycle I find being overtaken with inches to spare quite chilling. The latter is particularly important. At TfL you say you want more people cycling: the more frightening you make the experience, the fewer people will do it.

This point is so important and this response is so very dry that I’m even boring myself slightly, so I’ll do you a graph.

I don’t mean to insult you with this analysis but I am honestly in awe of the cognitive shift required to claim in a single document that you promote cycling, and also that you are rolling out a scheme which will make it more terrifying.

I think cyclists talk about fear in a general sense but perhaps not personally – potentially an effect of the dominance of the macho 25-44 year old male commuter cyclist. So let me make this clear: measures like this are scary and make me want to not cycle in London anymore.

4.       Managing demand and achieving modal shift

I appreciate the fact that this chapter is in here, but am extremely disappointed with the contents. You say that it is not in the scope of the Operating Strategy to focus on “strategic measures” for increasing cycling and walking, as you will be focusing on “more locally targeted measures”.

a)      This is inconsistent with the rest of the document – even the examples I have mentioned in this response are enough to demonstrate this. Also, neglecting strategic measures seems bizarre for a strategy.

b)      You do not actually go on to recommend a single measure (local, strategic or otherwise) which aims to increase cycling or walking. The rest of the chapter is just about managing the worst areas of traffic on your road network.

I am also dismayed that you see an increase in motor vehicle traffic volumes and speeds only as positive outcomes (p32 and p17, respectively).

Failure to take cycling and walking seriously

Let me say, there are some good ideas in the strategy – particularly in the managing planned interventions chapter.

On the whole, however, I think the strategy will actually be rather harmful. The following areas are outlined (p10) as being within the remit of TfL’s Network Operating Strategy:

  1. An increase in walking and cycling – can you honestly point to one measure in here that will do this, or even that aims to do this? I can’t, and I think I’ve listed a few which will discourage people from opting to walk or cycle.
  2. Reducing road casualties  – There’s nothing on this. Everything about collisions is about how to reduce the traffic disruption which arises after a serious incident occurs.
  3. Improving road user satisfaction for pedestrians and cyclists – I have no idea how you expect to do this if you plan to increase motor traffic volumes and speeds.

It is clear when reading the strategy that you recognise the way to address road traffic problems is through infrastructure (pages 14-37 are entirely about this). But every approach to infrastructure mentioned either ignores cyclists and pedestrians or is actively hostile towards us (including Pedestrian Countdown).

If this strategy is meant to be the framework for prioritising capital investment, you are guaranteeing that pedestrians and cyclists will get none. Please address this in the next draft.

I hope you find this feedback helpful. I would be very grateful if you could confirm receipt of this response, and let me know what the next stage is of this process.

Many thanks.

Artificial road-user hierarchy imposed by a Conservative mayor: a closer analysis of Pedestrian Countdown

July 11, 2011

Transport for London’s Pedestrian Countdown at Traffic Signals [PCaTS] trial is one of the more visible parts of Boris Johnson’s agenda to smooth London’s traffic flow. TfL has claimed that Londoners are in favour of countdown timers for pedestrians, but has faced criticism for using the rollout as a pretext for cutting pedestrian time at busy crossings like Oxford Circus.

Green Party Assembly Member Jenny Jones has argued that “less agile Londoners and people with children, should not be expected to sprint across the road,” and that in fact TfL should be allocating more time to pedestrians.

Very Important Pedestrian (VIP) day - a traffic-free day on Oxford Street and Regent Street

Oxford Street when closed to traffic - the demand is there

The Pedestrian Countdown “package”

The Pedestrian Countdown trial actually masks a raft of changes which make walking a slightly less appealing choice than driving.

When TfL tells us how much pedestrians like the new signals, they don’t talk of the timers themselves, but of “Pedestrian Countdown technology” or in technical documents, “the PCaTS package”.

The reason for this is buried on page 73 of over 300 pages of unpublished technical appendices to this report produced for TfL:

The Green Man time was reduced on all sites with PCaTS, and the Countdown time provided was longer than the Blackout time in the ‘Before’ surveys.

The change in available crossing time was a limitation of the study. Any observed changes in behaviour will be a result of both the change to the signal timings and the introduction of PCaTS, that is, the effects are confounded.

TfL rolled out a number of changes to pedestrian crossings at once and then asked people what they thought of them – it is extremely difficult to discern which changes people are reacting to when they respond to the Pedestrian Countdown package.

What did the study actually do?

The following is a summary of the changes to crossing times made by TfL.

Pedestrian phases



Green man




Pedestrian red


Total pedestrian time


Road traffic phases




To clarify:

– “Pedestrian red” is the grace period at the end of the pedestrian phase where the red man appears but road traffic signals are still red.

– “Blackout” is the period for pedestrians after the green man where there is no green or red man showing, and is the phase wholly replaced with Countdown.

Why are we being told pedestrians are given more time to cross?

Despite the above, it is argued in the report on Pedestrian Countdown by Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) that the crossing time for pedestrians is increased (e.g. p73). This defines “available crossing time” as “the sum of the Green Man time and the Blackout time.”

This seems just another attempt to steal time from pedestrians. The red period at the end of pedestrian crossing time, prior to a road traffic green signal, is still part of pedestrians’ time. Road traffic is legally not allowed to advance, whereas pedestrians face no such restrictions. People routinely finish crossing the road during this stage, particularly those who move less quickly. Cutting this time is cutting pedestrian time.

The following graph, composed with data extracted from TRL’s appendices, shows the average change in time across all trial sites:

Pedestrian time decreases

(“After” here is the “After 1” trial, immediately after PcATS is installed. The appendices do not contain the figures for the tweaked “After 2” trial, three months later, though we are told the green time is the same.)

What about road traffic time?

On average across all sites and across both the “After 1” and “After 2” stages of the trial, this time which did belong to pedestrians is reallocated to green for road traffic:

Pedestrians' lost time gives cars more green and less red

How does this affect Jenny Jones’ pensioners?

When countdown was rolled out, Jenny Jones voiced her concerns that,

Pensioners in London are not necessarily fitter than ones in Birmingham or Manchester. The mayor will have a tricky job speeding up the flow of traffic while protecting these vulnerable road users.

The package of measures above seems to have two notable effects in this regard:

1. More people begin to cross the road and then dash back to the kerb. (p89)

2. Walking speeds go up – interestingly, particularly in people over 60. (pp103-4)

TfL says,

At all trial sites, fewer people felt rushed when crossing the road with Pedestrian Countdown, compared to without.


  1. This is a measure of questionnaire responses, rather than time taken to cross the road.
  2. This is not true of mobility impaired people (Appendix 1, pp30 – 34).

What about all the positive responses mentioned by TfL?

It seems likely that there is some good in the Pedestrian Countdown package – certainly in response to the questionnaires, people seemed to be saying they liked something. But because so many changes were introduced at once, we don’t know exactly what. Similarly, when we look at the change in behaviour at the trial sites, there are a number of negative outcomes, but it is difficult to work out why they occur.

We see, for example, an increase in conflicts between pedestrians and road traffic during the curtailed “pedestrian red” phase (p130). This might be because pedestrians are unable to accurately judge against the Countdown how long it takes to cross. It might be because that phase has been reduced in time. It might be for another reason. We don’t know, and there’s no way of knowing.

Let’s stick to what we do know. A timer counting down the seconds that people have to scurry across the road is implicitly hostile towards them. Cutting green man time is explicitly hostile. As is cutting overall pedestrian time.

Who gains?

After hundreds of pages of research, there’s still no clear evidence of any specific advantages, other than more green time for motor vehicles.

This is partly due to the methodology of the study. Given the multiplicity of  measures introduced at once, it is very difficult to draw out which changes might advantage pedestrians. But the very fact that the study was conducted in this way suggests that Boris Johnson’s TfL do not really care about the effects of individual changes on pedestrians, provided that road traffic is delayed by them for less long.

Pedestrian Countdown is explicitly part of Boris Johnson’s Smoothing Traffic Flow policy. In reality, what this means is: pedestrians are seen not as people making journeys, but simply as a factor contributing to the impedance of road traffic.

Is deliberately slowing pedestrians for the benefit of others hierarchical?

In June 2011, the Conservative Party’s London Assembly Members wrote:

Neither the Mayor nor the Government should impose an  artificial road user hierarchy as this inevitably has the effect of deliberately slowing down some users.

I think my hypocrisy-meter just exploded.

Attached: Transport Research Laboratory – PCaTS Technical Appendix 1 (pdf)

How TfL came to claim that pedestrians want less time to cross at Oxford Circus

July 6, 2011

Oxford Street is a pedestrian hell. Everyone knows this.

The need of spending money

In February 2010, the London Assembly demanded more time for pedestrians to cross Oxford Street (p25). Transport for London (TfL) responded by denying that this was their responsibility, claiming that “service levels for pedestrians would have to be discussed with Westminster City Council” (p3).

Despite apparently having no power to give pedestrians more time to cross Oxford Street, TfL have miraculously managed since last year to cut around 25 minutes a day from pedestrians crossing at Oxford Circus.

This is through their Pedestrian Countdown trial, part of the Mayor’s Smoothing Traffic Flow agenda.

Oxford Circus countdown

The clock is ticking...

In his most recent report to the Board, TfL commissioner Peter Hendy said about Pedestrian Countdown,

A majority (83 per cent) of pedestrians surveyed liked the trial technology, as did 94 per cent of mobility impaired users and 79 per cent of children, with the majority of people surveyed feeling safer and less rushed. (p10)

This seems unlikely. Having a massive timer counting down the seconds until cars bear down on you seems likely to instil panic – or at least to make you feel rather harried. Indeed, when scoping attitudes to the idea in 2009, this is what even drivers told TfL:

“They have this in Mallorca. You have everyone pushing and shoving as the timer runs out.” [Private motorist, male, 36+, inner London, non-time critical]

What are TfL’s claims based on?

TfL have, it seems, used two pieces of research as the basis for their remarks here and in their press releases claiming that pedestrians love the countdown system. The first is a questionnaire by market research company Synovate called Smoothing Traffic Flow – Intervention Testing. The second is significantly more comprehensive research by transport consultancy TRL.

This is the question which people were asked about the countdown system in the Synovate research:

Some pedestrian crossings could have a countdown display. This display would show pedestrians how much time they have left to cross the road. This would make it easier for pedestrians to know when they can cross safely. It could also reduce the likelihood of people trying to cross the road when they should not do so. This would mean traffic would not be delayed further, and would make pedestrian crossings safer.

How do you rate this idea? (p43)

This question is about as loaded as a Primal Scream fan in a 1991 club. Let’s unpick it a little. It seems to me that the penultimate sentence in particular makes two extraordinary claims:

  1. The solution to London’s motor traffic congestion problems lies in changing pedestrian behaviour.
  2. Pedestrian countdown makes pedestrian crossings safer.

The first claim is so preposterous that I am not going to bother with it.

There does not seem to be any evidence to support the second claim. Indeed, the TRL report summary published by TfL shows that at three of the four sites with a statistically significant change in conflicts between pedestrians and traffic, conflicts increased hugely (more than doubled – p33). I see no basis for Peter Hendy claiming that Pedestrian Countdown is safer, and if anything the evidence seems to indicate the converse.


The Synovate research is no basis for claiming that anyone is in favour of Countdown. People were given, frankly, false information about what a new system might look like and then asked to how much they might like this fantasy system. Of course people are in favour a magical clock which increases safety, makes people feel calmer crossing the road, and significantly reduces traffic congestion  – this is not what Pedestrian Countdown is, and it is duplicitous of TfL to claim that it is.

I viewed the Synovate questionnaire through an FOI request. It contains plenty of content that I have not blogged about. To download it, click here. Fear not: plenty on the TRL research to come.

The truth about London’s killer HGVs: a third of them are empty

July 3, 2011

Another Londoner was killed last week after being subject to brutal, callous and unnecessary violence. Peter McGreal is the 9th cyclist  to have been fatally injured by an HGV on the capital’s streets this year. Also last week, an as yet unnamed cyclist was dragged under a tipper truck in the City.

Additionally, at least three pedestrians – all of them women over 70 – have been killed by HGVs in London so far this year.

Boris Johnson tells us that goods vehicles are the “lifeblood” of London. A few fatalities here and there are unavoidable. Right?

Who is killed?

Overwhelmingly, the people killed by HGVs are people walking and on bikes. Data split by severity of casualty from the most recent year available (2008) shows the extent to which this is the case:

London HGV KSIs 2008: Note how the fatalities fall on the left of the graph

Source: London Freight Data Report 2010 (p31).

Whatcha gonna do?

No one really likes lorries. They kill and maim dozens of people in London each year. They contribute significantly to both particulate and carbon emissions. They’re noisy and not exactly pretty: lorries don’t make our streets pleasant places to be.

But they’re just a fact of life, aren’t they? Construction, deliveries, waste management – these are all integral to the running of a city.

Much like the occasional case of gonorrhoea for the gallivanting Lothario, HGVs are just the price of doing business.

What do the numbers say?

Like our promiscuous Prince Charming, if we’re going to engage in risky activity, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the probability that someone ends up in pain.

Currently, around a third of all HGV journeys in London are made by empty vehicles (p61).

The London figure is higher than the UK average, 28% (DfT, Section 1, Table 1.12). And the UK average figure is not low at the moment – in fact, the number of empty running HGVs has gone up since 2001 (p43).

Can it get lower?

The answer is a definitive yes. In Germany, the Maut Road User charging system has resulted in empty running lorries being reduced to about 19%, while our numbers have steadily risen:

Click image for source – page 20 (pdf)

The Swiss road charging system has produced similar trends.

Are longer lorries the answer?

Roads Minister Mike Penning is currently arguing that longer lorries are the answer to our HGV woes, as they would require fewer journeys to be made. But actually, the highest empty running figures are with the heaviest vehicles: in London, 39% of goods vehicles weighing over 25 tonnes are empty (p61).

So what is the answer?

Driving empty lorries through London costs the city’s residents and visitors dearly. It needs to cost haulage companies.

Current incentives are insufficient for hauliers to efficiently use their fleets – there are massive logistics companies out desperate to get their hands (and RFID tags) on London’s lorries. But companies aren’t using them, because logistics costs money.

There are all sorts of solutions to this – increasing vehicle taxation for weight, carbon usage, emissions, or vehicles running below a certain capacity.

I won’t pretend to be able to weigh up the merits of each of these options. The point is, they make driving HGVs expensive enough that people think carefully about their journeys – apparently this is needed, because dead people doesn’t seem to be enough.

Until running empty vehicles becomes a lot more expensive, HGVs are going to continue to unnecessarily blight our cities, and to kill their inhabitants.