Must Try Harder – Oona’s Transport Policies

Any candidate for London Mayor will not deserve to be elected without a coherent and comprehensive vision for London’s transport system. The current Mayoralty’s policies have been hijacked by special interests and lack ambition. So any alternative candidate will need a compelling plan to get London moving in the right direction again. Oona King’s policies, whilst having some positive ideas, are too timid and derivative to set that direction.

If there is one area where the current Mayoralty’s limitations are most obvious, it’s transport. It is true that Boris has been seen at many a transport scheme opening, that he’s managed to fit in alongside other important engagements. The trouble is these have mostly been started by his predecessor. When you look at what he’s specifically done himself the cupboard is pretty bare. Many of the manifesto promises he’s fulfilled (WEZ removal, bikes in bus lanes) provided payback to special interest groups that supported him during the election. His “cycling revolution” is certainly costing a great deal but whether the benefits are as large is unclear at this stage. Any incoming alternative to Boris in 2012 will need to get things back on track pretty quickly and with limited money. Its with this context that we should judge the ideas that Oona King has put forth in her transport proposals.

Dave Hill has a good piece on some of the specifics and there’s now a PDF on Oona’s site with more details. I want to pick up on a few items because I think they show both a timidity in its approach and a tendency to re-cycle superficially attractive, but ultimately flawed policies.

Congestion Charge confusion

It took Oona a while to come round to the view that re-instating the WEZ was a good idea. In the early part of her campaign she prevaricated and I’m not sure that’s an approach likely to gain her much support in the Labour select-orate. Whilst the change to something more positive is very welcome, a commitment to use the income to lower bus fares displays an alarming naivety of the financial situation that TfL is in. True enough any and all additional income would be good and very welcome. She is right on the money when she says that the current cash being squandered on Boris’s new Routemaster and bendy replacement are a scandal. But the latest leaked warning from Peter Hendy should have alarm bells ringing. The best that the £55M to £70M that the WEZ would likely bring in will do over the long term is reduce the level of increase required, not deliver a cut.

Of course she could have proposed an increase in the level of the congestion charge or increased its geographic scope. That potentially might have increased the funds available, but on this the document is silent. This might be because its unpopular with certain groups in the ‘burbs she’s assiduously courting. Whatever the reason its a missed opportunity.

A tube line along the river

Superficially, the river looks like a useful adjunct to the land based forms of travel we have and its not that much of a surprise that Oona has landed on it. Everyone likes the idea of tootling down the river as opposed to be on a cramped, hot train underground train. It was of course the subject of a report by that well-known right wing think-tank Policy Exchange. There were a number of the Mayor’s contributing to the report, so it makes you wonder why we’ve not seen any great moves to implement any of the recommendations if they are so good.

This is an idea that has been kicked around for a long time. I can’t do a better job of articulating why its flawed than the Political Animal has done in this comments underneath a puff piece for the report. Given the article itself written by Andrew Gilligan (one of the authors of the report) you might want to judge the main body in that context.

If I look at where the “Thames Tube” service really fails for me, its in two areas discussed. Firstly we would need to significantly increase the subsidy to allow for a viable service. In times of surplus this might be possible, under current pressures that means something else is going to be cut. In effect someone, somewhere is going to lose their bus service to allow another set of customers to take the boat. That’s not a good trade off to me. Secondly you might make that trade-off if you could show that the areas that would be served by a boat service were undeserved. That’s not the case along the river with many areas already well served by a combination of the Jubilee Line, DLR and National Rail. River transport can work and this is not to say that the current Thames Clipper service isn’t valuable but if this is the major plank of your transport policy shows a skewed sense of priority.

School buses – not again surely?

Not a new idea and both the Lib Dems and Conservatives on the London Assembly have proposed this before I believe. Oona makes the claim that providing more buses will reduce congestion associated with the school run. I see no evidence for this.

For a start most schools are already served by existing bus routes (possibly with a short walk) – why do we need more? More importantly, the argument fails to address the fact that according to TfL’s figures 80% of the pupils live within 2km of their school. For these children the options that parents should be being encouraged to consider are cycling and walking not additional buses on the road.

For the remaining 20%, will an additional bus make all the difference? I doubt it. Looking at the local primary here in NW10, the parents that choose to drive make every attempt to get as close to the school entrance as they can possibly manage. I sometime think they would be most comfortable if there was an airport style airbridge that could connect to their car door so that their kids would not need to touch the pavement before entering school property, causing traffic chaos in the process. Its inconceivable that this group of parents would be happy to deposit them on a bus miles away.

Its shame that the big ticket items are ill-thought through because on cycling she’s probably closer to what needs to happen then Boris or even Ken. Encouraging commuting by cycling with better workplace facilities might have a real impact on participation and would likely be much more cost effective a measure than the current cycle hire scheme.

Overall the document is disappointing and I haven’t even mentioned Oona’s ill-advised foray into the area of the Freedom Pass. For something that the Mayor doesn’t control or pay for, its seems illogical (and poor judgement) for her to have become embroiled in an argument as to whether it should be means-tested or not.

For someone so adamant about being ‘new’ and ‘different’ this transport policy represents a real missed opportunity.

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