Archive for September, 2011

Transport for London’s lack of transparency: just one example

September 28, 2011

As the protests at Blackfriars continue, it is worth looking at the issues which made this bridge the battleground for variety of campaigners around cycling, air pollution and reclaiming streets for people.

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A Blackfriars Bridge protest: Image from ibikelondon

A key part of the reason that Blackfriars became so heated so quickly was the announcement in February that TfL would not consult at all on their proposed plans for Blackfriars – except regarding one right hand turn, and only for five days (including a weekend).

Such manifestly unreasonable actions led to many Londoners writing to their Assembly Member, and ultimately Val Shawcross was able to reveal that TfL would be consulting on plans for the entire bridge.

But there are plenty of cases where TfL refuses to be transparent and is able to get away with it. Here is just one of those.

‘Pedal confusion’

I am aware of two recent incidents where someone has been killed by a London bus driver who has subsequently claimed in their defence that they accidentally pressed the accelerator rather than the brake.

  1. July 2011 – a bus driver who claimed his sciatica caused him to press the wrong pedal on Oxford Street, killing 25 year old Jayne Helliwell, had the case against him dropped after the CPS decided to offer no evidence.
  2. August 2011 – the South London Press reported that the driver of the bus who claimed she accidentally pressed the wrong pedal, crushing 65 year old civil servant Newell Lewis to death against some railings, was given a 12-month suspended sentence and 150 hours of unpaid work.

To their credit, Transport for London seem to be doing something about this.

The minutes of their Health, Safety, Environment and Assurance Committee in August say:

A study commissioned by London Buses looking into ‘pedal confusion’ (where the wrong pedal is pressed accidentally resulting in unintended acceleration) among bus drivers was concluded. The recommendations will be shared with bus manufacturers. Bus operators have agreed to incorporate key lessons into their training and bus driver awareness materials. (p10)

I emailed Transport for London on August 5th, to request a copy of this study under the Freedom of Information Act.

Transparent as a rock

These are the events that have occurred since then:

Date Action
5th August I request a copy of the pedal confusion study under the FOI Act.
23rd August I receive an email from TfL informing me that this Freedom of Information request (amongst others) is being refused as they consider that I have put in too many similar requests in a 60 day period.
TfL agree that they will consider some other requests under the Environmental Information Regulations – which are broadly similar to FOI for information relating to the environment, but have no cost limit.
26th September I ask my London Assembly Member, Val Shawcross, to request a copy of the study at Mayor’s Question Time. She kindly agrees to do so.
1st September TfL say they will not accept the Pedal Confusion study under an Environmental Information Regulations request, despite the fact that information on buses, the built up environment and human health & safety is covered by the conditions set out in the Information Commissioner’s guidelines.
14th September Mayor’s question time rolls around, and Val Shawcross requests a copy of the pedal confusion study from Boris Johnson.

The answer from Boris Johnson  was:

Officers are drafting a response which will be sent shortly.

Apart from delaying in the hope that Val Shawcross, Ken Livingstone’s running mate, might have better things to do than chase up an answer, such a response also takes the issue out of the public domain.

People who are not Val Shawcross (and this includes me) will have no idea if or when TfL officers have drawn up a response, or what it might contain.

Routine

The above behaviour is not so scandalous that it alone warrants anything more than slight irritation.

But it is just one, mundane example of TfL’s everyday obstinacy, which shows the divergence between their attitude and the public’s.

That TfL has commissioned the pedal confusion study is commendable: but that it won’t release it demonstrates its deeply held view that the public ought to sit back and let their city be run by the professionals.

I’m sick of it here, at Blackfriars, with the Cycle Superhighways budget, the Cable Car, and innumerable other places.

Until Transport for London is prepared to listen to Londoners, I suspect we will see a lot more people protesting at Blackfriars Bridge.

London is broken: why people keep taking to the streets at Blackfriars

September 20, 2011

Running the roads is an enormously expensive business. TfL’s Surface Transport division’s expenditure is forecast at £2.6bn this year.

Let’s put this in perspective for a second – this is twice the figure lost by rogue trader Kweku Aduboli, which last week plunged global investment bank UBS into a quarterly net loss.

While much of the press bemoaned last week’s fares rises in articles which might as well have been written by Ken Livingstone’s campaign team, Dave Hill deftly pointed out the actual issue: Transport for London needs cash.

Hill argues that this money should instead come from higher road pricing for car users – which there is plenty of evidence for. But let’s take a step back.

Where does all the money go?

Transport for London give the public some idea what happens to this money through Finance and Policy Committee meetings.

But how useful is this? Thursday’s meeting, for example, revealed that TfL had revised the estimated final cost of the Cycle Superhighways down from £145m to £105m.

Did someone tell them cyclists like downward inclines?

Why isn’t this news? Basically: because no one really knows what it means.

Can Transport for London really have just reduced the budget by £40m without bothering to consult beforehand, or tell anyone afterwards?  It looks like it – but astonishingly for a public body, they don’t have to say.

Open up TfL

Here’s the rub. Does the Mayor really have to choose between two politically horrible options to come up with capital, raising fares or charging car users – where the decision of a leader largely elected by the outer boroughs is preordained?

That depends if the roads really require the level of government subsidy that they currently receive.

Climate Rush, an organisation who protest primarily about climate change, are on Thursday holding a protest at Blackfriars where their first demand is “an open and democratic Transport for London”.

They cite when TfL ignored the London Assembly’s unanimous vote about Blackfriars Bridge as their watershed moment – but there are plenty more.

Why has Transport for London this month suddenly said it has to splash out an unbudgeted £60 million at Hammersmith Flyover to “address recently identified structural defects”?

Vanity project? Same budget as Boris’s Cable Car

Might such maintenance be required because of the high volumes of wear caused by motor traffic? Is it right that £60m of public funds is being used to restore the very conditions that doom us to perpetually pouring more money into a congested, destructive streetscape?

Why does London keep taking to the streets?

Londoners are not happy with the political choices that are being made on our streets – choices being made with our money.

Thursday will be the third mass protest against TfL at Blackfriars Bridge alone in the last four months – and I suspect that there will be more.

Transport for London are not accountable to the public, nor to our elected representatives, the London Assembly. Nor our MPs, nor our local councillors, nor anyone else we ever get to vote for – with one exception.

TfL are only accountable to the Mayor – and so, for those concerned with transport, protests sizable enough to make Boris take notice are the only form of political engagement left.

The Climate Rush protest is on Thursday September 22nd, meeting at 8am on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge.

Why have TfL cut £40m from the Cycle Superhighways budget?

September 16, 2011

To see the May 2011 budget where the estimated final cost of the final tranche of Cycle Superhighways is £142m, click here (p13). To see the September 2011 budget where the final cost is £106m, click here (p11).

The budget allocation in September 2010 was £145m.

What is going on at TfL?

Transport for London have this quarter decided to embark on a £5m project to “commence investigation” of rebuilding the A4 Hammersmith Flyover, minutes from Thursday’s Finance and Policy meeting reveal. This project was not in the March 2011 Business Plan, and no money has been set aside for it.

TfL estimate the final cost of this project will be £60m. They have so far found £100k from the funding stream for maintaining the road network. The remaining £59,900,000 “is unbudgeted and the funding sources are being explored”.

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Cycle Superhighway 7: Do we need to spend less money on these?

Transport for London have also managed to award over-budget funding to a number of projects in the last quarter.

This includes the controversial Henley’s Corner scheme, which has ballooned in projected cost from £8m to £9m in the last three months.

Under budget

Impressively, despite all this, we are informed in the Q1 Operational and Financial Report that for this quarter TfL have actually come in under budget. How have they achieved this feat?

This is due to re-phasing of expenditure on Cycle Hire, Countdown II, Cycle Superhighways and Better Routes and Places schemes. (p11)

For those not steeped in TfL vernacular, Better Routes and Places is the current name for the directorate which funds the Biking Boroughs, cycling and walking Greenways and various walking events and streetscape improvements.

Steep drop

Just to confirm for anyone who is unsure about these numbers – and that included me because I couldn’t quite believe the amount of  money disappearing here – this really is happening and it’s reflected in a number of Transport for London’s documents.

In the Project Approvals list of May 2011, the Estimated Final Cost of the Tranche 2 Cycle Superhighway Routes was £142.4m. Now it is £105.7m.

What next? These are both down from the initially approved cost of £145m

The September 2011 Investment Programme Report final cost for the ten Cycle Superhighways as £105.7m (p41), down from September 2010 figure of £145m (p43).

Re-phasing

These projects need the money that they have been allocated. In May 2011, the project to build the first two Cycle Superhighways was closed after spending £22.4m out of the £23m they had been given project authority for. A cut of similar proportions would have left Londoners with a £6m shortfall.

I am flabbergasted that TfL have almost silently made such deep cut, burying it in the driest of committee minutes, released on a Friday.

Cycle Superhighways are one of the Mayor’s flagship projects. I confess, I do not know how TfL expect to be able to deliver them with £40m less to spend. I wonder whether Boris does.

Blackfriars Bridge: what we can learn from radical feminism

September 6, 2011

A constant barrier faced by people arguing for change in conditions is the claim that the presence of those conditions is, in itself, evidence that the groups involved are in favour of their existence.

Perhaps my favourite, slightly pretentious example of this is the 17th Century political philosopher John Locke. One of the founders of liberalism, a staunch advocate of the social contract and fierce opponent of the arbitrary rule of monarchy, when discussing the role of women he has a pretty serious wobble:

She should be subject to her husband, as we see that generally the Laws of mankind and customs of nations leave ordered it so: and there is, I grant, a foundation in nature for it.

Locke is unable to overcome the conviction that women ought to be subjugated by men. His only justification for this being “natural” is that this is the behaviour that he has observed.

This continues into modern political debate. Attempts to strike a balance between economic productivity and the need for childcare are concluded with statements from media and policy outlets like:

Pay mothers to stay at home.

Why? This presumption that state should legislate in a gendered fashion based on the historical behaviour of one sex is underpinned by the assumption that actions in the past have been choices.

This view – that the actions of women are an approximate indicator of social vocation – is perhaps most succinctly rejected by Catherine MacKinnon:

Take your foot off our necks, then we will hear in what tongue women speak.

Blackfriars Bridge

In Transport for London’s presentation to the London Assembly about Blackfriars Bridge, published last week, they similarly use the argument that a situation currently exists as evidence that it ought to exist – even though what we see at Blackfriars has quite clearly been artificially created by the very body who refuses to change it, Transport for London.

The Assembly were presented with this pie chart as part of the justification for making cycling conditions worse (p3):

These figures are highly suspect – we know that actually, there are more bicycles than any other vehicle over Blackfriars Bridge into the City during the AM peak.

Note how in the above graph, TfL lump together car and LGV occupants to make that section larger than cyclists (both would otherwise be smaller).

They also assume inordinately high vehicle occupancy rates – on average more than 3 people per occupied taxi – leading to the ridiculous conclusion that more people commute over Blackfriars Bridge by taxi than by bike.

But none of this matters. Even if TfL’s data was correct: so what?

Are we to assume that a relatively low percentage of cyclists over Blackfriars Bridge is an argument for worsening conditions over the bridge?

The demand is there

Transport for London can perpetually produce presentations and press releases of modal share stats, layout drawings and planners’ projections of junctions where they squeeze cycle lanes and remove pedestrian crossings.

But they cannot keep trying to use the fact that people are not cycling in London as an excuse for making London’s roads more hostile to cyclists.

There is a demand for cycling in London on traffic-free routes. On Sunday, 55,000 people on London’s streets showed us that.

And yet TfL in Blackfriars and elsewhere are not just refusing to make streets better – they are actively making them worse. The reason that there aren’t more cyclists on the streets is because of how those streets are being designed.

An executive decision

This is not about TfL and the figures they plug into which modelling software – if the Mayor and TfL can persuade us that it is, then we will never have conditions for cycling in London that would get the tens of thousands of Sky Ride participants on London’s streets any other day of the year.

Sky Ride

Our streets for a day

This is a political situation where people do not have the freedom to use their streets in the way that they would like to. The way out is through a decision that the Mayor has to make.

Image problem

This is an irritating issue for Boris Johnson and TfL because they are aware that Blackfriars has the ability to undo the good work of the Sky Rides: the persistent focus on the day-to-day reality of cycling can harm both Boris and TfL.

Catherine MacKinnon argued that practices of inequality do not require that acts be intentionally discriminatory, “all that is required is that the status quo be maintained”.

Boris can opt to do this – keep building streets the way that they have been built, keep designing people out of London’s cities, keep telling us that this is “not atypical” of London. Or he can choose not to.

But as more people start to notice, and write about it and take to the streets, Boris will find it harder and harder to convince Londoners that he’s in favour of cycling, while continuing to design it out of the city he runs.


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