Wednesday 22 August 2012

The role of amnesia in local transport planning

I was clearing out some old files when I came across a now long-forgotten document. I refer to the London Borough of Waltham Forest’s Interim Transport Plan 2000/2001.

Produced at the start of the new millennium, this 114 page document (with additional unpaginated tables) sets out a variety of targets to be achieved in the area of transport over the next decade.

Glancing at it, I was struck by what a fabulous vision lay in prospect for the lucky residents of Waltham Forest. Over the next decade Waltham Forest was on track to be one of the Greenest places in Britain, as far as transport was concerned. Car use by council employees would switch from private cars to council-owned electric cars, and the mileage allowance for “essential” car use would be totally phased out. In addition there would be a massive cut of 20 per cent in the number of motor vehicles on the borough’s roads. What’s more cycling would grow and go on growing, until by 2012 in the London Borough of Waltham Forest ten journeys in every hundred would be made by bike.

Let me quote exactly what the Interim Transport Plan 2000/2001 says on these matters.

On page 36, under Green Transport Plans, it is revealed that:

A scheme at the Waltham Forest Chingford Municipal Offices has been implemented whereby two electric cars are being used by staff in an attempt to switch 10% of “business at work” journeys to electric travel rather than private car use. The scheme will phase out the Essential Car Users’ Allowance and other casual car allowances as the electric car pool expands over the next ten years. 

 On page 37, under Traffic Reduction, it is stated that:

The London Planning Advisory Committee (LPAC) have set a traffic reduction target of 20% for Waltham Forest from 2000 traffic levels by the year 2010. Road traffic reduction is needed because it will produce many benefits including reducing congestion and car dependency, improving bus reliability, improved conditions for walkers and cyclists and better environmental conditions and air quality. 

On page 66, under Cycling, the borough gives its support to a London-wide initiative:

A London Cycling Strategy was launched by LPAC/London Pride Partnership in October 1997, this includes a number of targets, in particular, that by 2012 the number of trips in London made by bicycle should increase from the present two percent to ten percent. The LCN [London Cycle Network] is the key capital investment in taking this strategy forward and meeting the target.

(Elsewhere the Council committed itself to an increase in cycling of at least 80 per cent in the borough in the period 2001-2010)

What happened to those targets? More than a decade later the reality is that not a single one of those targets came even near to being achieved. In fact they all failed in a spectacular fashion.

The interesting thing is that failures like these have no impact whatsoever on subsequent transport planning. Much the same kind of promises are made in document after document, year after year. Yet not a single document refers back to earlier documents, either to acknowledge past failure or to analyse it.

This is what happened.

The two newly purchased electric cars were put on show at council environmental events (I have a dim memory of seeing them years ago on display at the Green Fair or some such event). After some years had passed a whistleblower tipped off the local paper that the two electric cars could be seen rusting and disused, quietly abandoned in a council yard. The great electric car experiment was a dismal failure. The Council has bought no electric cars since.

How did that “traffic reduction target of 20% for Waltham Forest from 2000 traffic levels by the year 2010” work out? I recently enquired, and received this reply:

For a number of years after 2000, the Council did not have the resources to carry out borough wide traffic monitoring. However, this was done between the years 2005 - 2009. The results show that there was generally very little change in the overall traffic levels in the borough (with +/- 1% range) in that 4 year period. It is likely that there has been a fairly minimal change in the overall traffic levels in Waltham Forest between 2000 and the present day. 

So, nothing at all was achieved. There has been no traffic reduction whatever in the borough.

(I am by the way not entirely persuaded by the official reply. The trend of car ownership in the borough has been steadily upward for many years. My belief is that traffic volumes on both major and minor roads are significantly greater than they were a decade ago but in the absence of counts this is impossible to establish.)

And cycling?

Last year’s borough Local Improvement Plan revealed that according to TfL cycling’s modal share in Waltham Forest was below one per cent (nought point eight per cent to be exact). It appears that cycling locally has at best stagnated, and at worst has declined. A ten per cent modal share is nowhere on the horizon.

All this of course raises the question as to why these three targets were not achieved. Or rather, as far as transport planning in the London Borough of Waltham Forest is concerned, it doesn’t. When it comes to local authority transport targets, amnesia is the order of the day.

Borough transport planning documents appear on a regular basis every year or so, and they always promise to “encourage cycling” and curb car use and promote walking, and none of them is worth a hill of beans because they are just empty words which fail to acknowledge the glaring failure of previous identical commitments. In that regard the borough’s most recent LIP (2011) is as culpable as any.

The stark, blatant, core reality is that cycling and walking are given “encouragement” but only on car-centric terms, and the big money and the serious infrastructure changes are directed at car use and car parking. For example, in the unpaginated tables at the end of Interim Transport Plan 2000/2001, devoted to capital expenditure, it is revealed that the so-called Leyton Relief Road (designed to ease pressure on Leyton High Road) cost £9,372,000.

That’s right, trying to combat congestion by building a new road – a strategy which has rightly been compared to combating obesity by loosening one’s belt – cost over nine million pounds. The road did include off-road cycle tracks but these were cosmetic, since the route is irrelevant to most local cyclists, leading from the car-centric Temple Mills complex in Leyton to the municipal rubbish dump in Walthamstow.

Another page reveals that putting in traffic lights exclusively for drivers at the Crooked Billet roundabout cost £450,000.

And cycling and walking? They get £25,000 to encourage “travel awareness” through “publicity and maps”.

I also believe that the failure of each of the three targets should not be viewed in isolation but that they are intimately connected. The official explanation for the failure of the great electric car innovation is as follows:

Yes - we did purchase two electric Peugeot 106 cars in 2000 and these were used by staff making business trips for a number of years. However, these were the early days of volume electric cars and they proved to be problematic in terms of reliability. In addition, the number of dealers qualified to repair them was very limited and we had problems getting spare parts and getting repairs done. 

The council currently has no electric vehicles. This in itself is of no significance, since the ‘Green’ claims made for electric cars are essentially bogus, ignoring as they do the environmental costs of producing such vehicles, the environmental costs involved in creating the electricity to power such vehicles, and above all the fact that an electric car is still a car – a means of personal mobility which generates a huge range of negative consequences, particularly when used in dense urban areas where much better alternative means of transport are possible.

However, bear in mind that the London Borough of Waltham Forest’s great electric car innovation also promised to “phase out the Essential Car Users’ Allowance and other casual car allowances as the electric car pool expands over the next ten years”. It emerged last year that staff using their own vehicles for “essential” council business (known as the “grey fleet”) was a scheme which had escaped all proper scrutiny and was completely out of control. The council employed a consultancy (the Energy Saving Trust) to review the borough’s grey fleet.

The EST made three fascinating discoveries. Firstly, ‘the Council’s grey fleet emissions relative to the size of its fleet…are high compared to other London Boroughs.’ Secondly, ‘the report concluded that the Borough currently pays very high rates for its grey fleet provision.’ Thirdly, and perhaps most revealingly of all, ‘The grey fleet is not managed; there is insufficient data to address the high costs’.

What is apparently not scrutinised by the report (the council has not made it available to the public) is the concept of “essential” car use. The borough is relatively compact (think of it as a rectangle running north to south, around 10 km in length and 5 km wide). Such distances could, in theory, easily be cycled. However, it emerged that “essential” car use included members of the transport section driving some three kilometres for a meeting with the local cycling group. Or to put it another way, the council’s own transport planners are addicted to fossil fuels and car dependency, and this addiction probably extends to other areas of council employment.

Council employees will often enjoy the perk of reserved parking which has traditionally been free. Add to that the perk of an “essential car user” mileage allowance and other forms of subsidy, and car use is a very attractive option. This fossil fuel dependency inevitably influences the priorities of local planners. The “official” explanation for the council’s abandonment of electric cars is not especially plausible and I strongly suspect that basically none of the officers wanted to give up using their cars or being financially rewarded for doing so.

Meanwhile the official explanation for the massive failure of the traffic reduction target is as follows:

Since 2000, the Council’s planning and transport policies have tried to reduce reliance on the private car by encouraging more people to walk, cycle or use public transport. In addition, our land use planning policies have tried to promote ways of reducing the need to travel. However, a substantial traffic reduction target such as 20% would only have been achieved by a combination of ‘carrot and stick’ approaches. For example, the London Mayor's congestion charging scheme was introduced in 2003 in central London which made a big difference in that area but traffic restraint schemes have not been rolled out in the rest of London. 

There is of course a grain of truth in the argument that some things are outside the council’s control. Some of the roads in the borough come under the remit of Transport for London, others under the Highways Agency. Waltham Forest Council is not, for example, empowered to restrain traffic on the M11 motorway or the North Circular Road. However, these are the exception rather than the rule. It is also the case that on some occasions the council seeks to restrain car ownership by, for example, introducing a clause into some new developments in a Controlled Parking Zone that forbids residents to apply for a car parking permit. However, these are also very much the exception rather than the rule.

The overwhelming thrust of council policy since 2000 has been to promote increased car ownership and use by a variety of inducements. These include halving the cost of CPZ permits, changing the CPZ permit charging regime in favour of owners of bigger cars, massive subsidies for free new on-street parking bays, the continuing reallocation of space on footways from pedestrians to drivers, a refusal to crack down in any way on blue badge fraud (arguably out of control in this borough), a disinclination to ban drivers from parking in cycle lanes, inadequate cycle parking, traffic light phasing which prioritises motor vehicle flow over pedestrian flow, and the view that the health of the local economy is dependent upon prioritising shoppers who arrive by car, who should be encouraged by free or very-low cost on-street car parking.

However apart from these parochial symptoms of a council which is fundamentally car-centric in its policies there are two broader aspects of council policy which are also relevant: infrastructure spending is heavily weighted in favour of motor vehicles, and the purpose of transport infrastructure is perceived to be smooth traffic flow, i.e. the convenience of drivers.

The council is not generally in favour of making the use of the private car inconvenient and the number of road closures in the borough appears to be minimal. (The council is unable to say how many road closures there are: I used FOI to ask and it turns out that the council doesn't even know how many roads there are in the borough, let alone how many are closed to motor vehicles. The amateurism of supposed professionals is truly extraordinary.)

Policies which favour walking and cycling are acceptable but are always qualified by the proviso “where possible”, a qualification which defines possibility not in terms of technical possibility but rather as meaning “which does not seriously impede smooth traffic flow or prevent on-street car parking”.

In short, the claim that the council’s failure to meet its commitment to a 20 per cent traffic reduction was due to outside forces is almost entirely bogus. The council has promoted the ownership and use of the private car in the borough, and the consequences of that are visible on every car-choked street.

Lastly, why did the borough’s cycling target fail?

That’s an easy one to answer. The policy engine was vehicular cycling, a transport strategy which has demonstrably failed. Its concrete expression was the LCN:

The LCN [London Cycle Network]] is the key capital investment in taking this strategy forward and meeting the target. The aim of the LCN is to provide a network of safe, convenient and conspicuous cycle routes…suitable for use by cyclists of all age groups” 

And this is how the LCN worked out in practice on the A112, the central north-south communication spine in the borough.

Elsewhere, in Leyton, the council allows unlimited free car parking in the LCN, with the result shown here.

Statistics which count individual cycling trips on particular roads in isolation from driver trips need to acknowledge (but never do) that any upward trend might be expected from a borough where the population is increasing in number.

Or to put it at its most basic, “encouraging cycling and walking” involves a light scattering of sugared words over a determined and unyielding car-centric agenda.

But, hey, why brood over the past? Let’s apply the traditional amnesia and all cheer loudly as we embrace another glorious future.