I BLAME KEN
Steven Norris says London has ground
to a halt because of the Mayor's hatred of motorists
PUT any two Londoners together for more than five minutes and you can almost guarantee two subjects of conversation: the price of their respective homes and the state of London's traffic. Discussion of house prices produces a mixed reaction. It is nice to know that at least something is appreciating in value, when the stock market is bombed out and the bonuses have disappeared. On the other hand, it is a bit scary to know that you could never afford to buy the home in which you live; and with teachers and nurses unable to put a toe on the property ladder, it is no wonder that public services in the capital are in the state they arc.
On traffic, however, there are no disagreements. It is universally accepted that over the last year the city has ground to a halt, and that the Mayor is personally responsible. The language may vary, but whether your interlocutor is a cabbie or a captain of industry, they all believe that Livingstone has discharged his responsibility for transport by making things much worse, fast. Are they right, or is this an urban myth?
What is not at issue is that Ken's director of street management at Transport for London, Derek Turner, has introduced a new regime for traffic lights on some major routes, the effect of which is to provide much longer pedestrian phases. At the same time, Transport for London has encouraged the 33 boroughs which manage the rest of the road network to bring in similar changes, and some have certainly responded enthusiastically. While the stated aim is pedestrian safety, the effect has been a glacial slowing of vehicle traffic — particularly in the central area. For this we can blame only Ken.
The Mayor has also simultaneously embarked on a set of major road schemes of which the largest are in Trafalgar Square, at Vauxhall Cross just south of the river in Lambeth, and at Shoreditch in the east. All of these, taken on their own, have an ostensibly rational purpose. The Trafalgar Square scheme allows a marvellous new pedestrian route from Soho to the north of Leicester Square down to the top of Whitehall, creating a wonderful new piazza outside the National Gallery that will transform the whole area. Pedestrians have always had a terrible time negotiating Vauxhall Cross, unless they were prepared to embark on a series of aerial walkways that were entirely exposed to the elements and impossible for all but the most able to negotiate. Shoreditch has been inexorably overcome by the car, to the extent that any sense of community has virtually been destroyed. In all three cases there was a strong case for change, and no doubt that the change would cause some, albeit temporary, inconvenience to motorists. One of the ways transport planners deal with the impact on traffic of these major schemes is to rephase traffic lights: so, yet again, many central-area lights have been deliberately retarded.
There were indeed plans for Ken personally to flick a switch, at a great public ceremony, and to announce the completion of the works and the return of the settings to normal; although the word on the street — if you'll excuse the expression — is that this particular ceremony may have been put on hold. I suspect that this is the origin of the widespread belief among Londoners that all of this playing around with traffic lights is part of a diabolical plan to make congestion worse in the city before the introduction of congestion-charging next February. Certainly, every black-cab driver believes it with a passion, and it has attained the status of holy writ.
The conspiracy theorists suggest that, once congestion charges come in, all the traffic lights will be returned to normal, all the roadworks will disappear and everyone will notice how much easier it is to get around. This, they might add, is a classic of the genre — a clear and cynical objective brilliantly delivered to a gullible public, the stuff of which the old Red Ken of the GLC would have been justly proud. Usually, when the words Livingstone and conspiracy appear in the same sentence, I am only too willing to link them, but there are signs that for once we may be giving Ken more credit than he deserves. All the evidence suggests that, as a well-known nondriver, Ken simply did not appreciate the hell he had created — at least until very recently. One of his most trusted lieutenants, Redmond O'Neil, has reportedly been livid with Turner, and has accused him of throwing away Livingstone's chances of re-election. Turner points out that it makes perfect sense to do all the work now rather than later, but the Mayor's office is unconvinced. Whichever way you look at it, Ken has overseen and authorised a programme which — however attractive some of its individual parts — has led to the most congested year that many of us can remember.
The Transport minister John Spellar has apparently turned up the pressure by summoning Livingstone's much-heralded transport tsar, Bob Kiley, on several occasions to demand results, not least following a spate of furious calls to the DfT from sundry Cabinet grandees caught in the jams. Kiley. the New Yorker who arrived to the sound of trumpets two years ago, runs a distinctly unhappy ship at Transport for London. His decision to appoint a raft of fellow Americans to the top jobs, without any outside competition worth the name, coupled with an autocratic and dictatorial management style, has made him hugely unpopular with his staff and distinctly vulnerable on issues which, frankly, he knows little about.
The truth is that two-and-a-half years into his mayoral term, Livingstone's transport plans are in a shambles. An intensely political animal, he sees transport in terms of class war and frustration theory. This argues that the best way to reduce congestion is to pick on drivers, who are by definition privileged and therefore deserve all they get, and make their lives so miserable that they simply stop driving and go away. It is a ludicrous theory, not least because the drivers generally have nowhere else to go.
Few people these days drive in central London for pleasure. The extra standing traffic produces pollution that is disastrously damaging to the environment, and it is hugely bad for the London economy. Whether any of this will percolate into the glass testicle at Tower Bridge I very much doubt. All the evidence is that even now Ken cannot see what damage he is doing, not least to his own reputation. I ought to be delighted about all this, but as someone who lives and works in the city I am not. Traffic in London is going to get an awful lot worse before anyone else has the chance to make it better.