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Why can’t the people running the Tube look after London’s roads?

Paul Finch
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Successful planning is about anticipating, then meeting, demand, argues Paul Finch

News that the Bakerloo line is to be extended through south-east London to Lewisham is further evidence that the people who run Transport for London’s Underground and rail services are the smartest strategic planners around.

These people are a successful answer to that doziest of propositions in British public life: that there is no point in building roads because they will simply fill up with traffic. Well, when the Bakerloo Line is extended, the carriages will fill up in Lewisham and at stops along the Old Kent Road, and will doubtless be quite full by the time they arrive at Elephant & Castle, where the line currently terminates.

Will anyone be dumb enough to suggest that if the carriages fill up, then there was no point extending the line? I very much doubt it, because the people who criticise roads think they are evil symptoms of private sector transport, whereas they regard the Underground as impeccably liberal, democratic and trendy, and therefore beyond criticism.

Brompton road, knightsbridge   geograph.org.uk   481142

Brompton road, knightsbridge geograph.org.uk 481142

Source: Stephen McKay

Unfortunately, the people at Transport for London responsible for the running, maintenance and repair of roads are the evil twin of the Underground brigade. London has now become a third-world embarrassment in respect of its road management, not just unsafe, but unusable. The useless and dishonest ‘congestion charge’ has done nothing to ease the stasis that has been self-inflicted by a combination of cynical politicians and officials who are either incompetent or possibly malicious (or both).

They know in fact how to make the roads flow, which is why all was reasonable when the people assessing our Olympic bid were in town. As soon as they left, the rubbish started again: dreadful traffic-light phasing, plus a superfluity of mostly empty buses jamming up significant junctions and sometime whole streets, Oxford Street being the obvious, but not the only, example.

Endless moaning about the dangers of congestion has been accompanied by the granting of licenses to as many as 100,000 private-hire taxis

What’s more, the endless moaning about the dangers of congestion and pollution have been accompanied by the granting of licenses to anything between 50,000 and 100,000 private-hire taxis, many of whom drive round London all day at slow speeds because they have to gaze at their sat-navs, having no real knowledge of London’s streets. By contrast, those who know what they are doing sit in jams in areas that have never before been seriously congested, wondering who, if anyone, is in charge.

This sick joke of a road system, where transport and air quality disasters such as Trafalgar Square are hailed as brilliant examples of contemporary urban innovation, has to be seen to be believed, especially when lorries are parked all over the square putting up ridiculous tents for trade shows. As previously stated in this column, I would like to sack all the people at TfL responsible for roads and put the below-ground managers in charge, working with the same ethos that has made the Tube so reliable and popular.

Incidentally, it was TfL’s strategy planners who spotted, in the early 90s, that central London’s population was rising again after four decades of decline. Their response, prompted by census analysis, was the generation of the Jubilee Line, Crossrail, and now Crossrail 2. That is because their ethos is one based on the ‘predict and provide’ model discussed here before.

Despite massive pressures, the Underground is just about coping with increased demand, and would be doing even better had the political class not delayed Crossrail for two decades on the usual spurious grounds of cost (it is now infinitely more expensive than it would have been) and justification, as though transport investment in major world cities is ever a bad thing.

Imagine if we had taken the same attitude to London’s housing that we are taking in respect of its rail systems. I hope to see a mayor who will finally tackle the shortage in a proper TfL public-sector way – predicting and providing instead of relying on private housebuilders to bail London out.

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