I’ve lived and worked in London my whole life and I wouldn’t have it any other way because London is the greatest city in the world, but chronic road congestion is holding us back.
The Capital is now ranked 7th worst in the world for slow traffic flow and the Victoria Embankment is one of the worst examples. Anyone who’s unlucky enough to drive east along the Embankment will know it’s gridlocked in the afternoon. Last week we learnt from TfL that it’s going to get even worse, with six months of roadworks due next year to make way for London’s new “super-sewer”.
City Hall should use this closure as a chance to think hard about how they can improve the overall situation. It’s now painfully clear that the loss of a lane in 2015 to make way for the east-west cycle superhighway was a mistake – as many in City Hall privately admit. TfL’s own data shows that eastbound journey times between Westminster Bridge and Tower Hill have increased by 16 minutes since the introduction of the cycle route, meaning it can take up to half an hour to crawl just three miles along the river.
The result? Higher costs for London’s businesses because of late deliveries. Local residents massively inconvenienced. Fears that the emergency services cannot get through if there’s a major incident. More congestion elsewhere as traffic gets shifted off from what should be a main artery linking east and central London. Higher fares for taxi and cab passengers because drivers can’t complete as many jobs in a day.
The theory behind cycle superhighways is that if you narrow the space for drivers you’ll turn them into cyclists out of sheer frustration. This ignores the reality that some journeys on four wheels are unavoidable. Unlike the middle-class, lycra-wearing men who make up the vast majority of cyclists, delivery drivers, ordinary people going about their normal routines, such as making school runs, disabled passengers and the emergency services cannot simply hop onto a bike to get to work.
Yes, there’s more we can do on staggering deliveries, with more late night and early morning drop-offs (though it’s interesting that it always seems to be the lorry and white van drivers who are denied a good night’s sleep and never the cyclists). Cracking down on a certain tax-avoiding US private hire company would help too. But this is tinkering at the margins when the fundamental problem is the loss of a vital lane on one of London’s busiest roads.
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Cyclists do not have a monopoly on fears about safety. Taxi drivers worry a tremendous amount about dropping off passengers with wheelchairs, which has become extremely dangerous because of the loss of kerb space on the Embankment. We do worry about emergency vehicle response times if there were ever to be a serious urgent need in the east of the city. As human beings, drivers also simply do not want to be held responsible for accidents that could have been avoided.
Historically, the cab trade and the cycling community have not had a good relationship, but it’s time for a grown-up conversation about how we share our roads, followed by real action and leadership from City Hall and Transport for London.
We all have an interest in safe, free-flowing traffic with less pollution in our air and less frustration on our roads. Cyclists stand to benefit if their reputation among people who drive for a living could be improved. Residents would be much less likely to object to new cycle superhighways if we could sort out the problems with the existing routes. All Londoners would live healthier and happy lives if already terrible air pollution levels – exacerbated by increasing congestion – could be reduced.
And there’s a hard-nosed economic imperative too. Whatever your views on Brexit, we’re in a period of economic uncertainty which looks set to continue. London is already the most congested city in Europe, with drivers stuck in traffic for 101 hours a year on average. If we want to able to compete with cities like New York, Paris and Frankfurt we must be able to show that we’re serious about reducing journey times. The alternative is an angrier, less competitive and more congested London.
Steve McNamara is General Secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association