‘Well, unsurprisingly some might think, we at the RAC Foundation say No to the proposition that we should design the motor vehicle off London’s streets. Now this is not for some pure ‘pro-car’ ‘let’s keep everything the same’ reason, as this is not the type of organisation we are. As a research based charity we look at the facts and evidence and form a reasonable and responsible position from this basis. I will now take a few minutes to explain to you how we have come to this conclusion.
Firstly it is important to recognise what alternative transport solutions are able to deliver in London and how the car fits into this overall mix. Over the last decade two Mayors and Transport for London have overseen major improvements in London’s transport system: upgrading the tube, more reliable bus services with a denser network, cycle lanes and an ambitious cycling strategy…and the list goes on. One of the consequences of this is a 5% shift from car usage to public transport.
We undoubtedly need to continue investing in public transport, walking and cycling initiatives in London. This is indisputable, but this does not mean we should design the motor vehicle off London’s streets. The car still has a role to play.
It is also important to remember that ‘London’ is not one entity – there are two different London’s – central London with its radial routes and a doughnut shaped outer London and these two places have very different characteristics and travel patterns. Only 19% of all movement on the roads is by car or taxis in central London whereas 67% of travel in outer London is by car, which is similar to many other parts of the UK. With this in mind there are different ‘design’ options for London as a whole, but to date, there has been too much focus on what can be achieved in the relatively small ‘centre’.
So why is the car still so popular given the level of congestion on London’s road network? Can anything be done about it? In outer London, travel is typically geographically dispersed, so it is difficult for rail to offer an alternative for all but a modest proportion of journeys. The density of movement will also rarely justify a high frequency bus network on all but a few key corridors into major centres such as Croydon, Harrow, Heathrow and similar. This inevitably leads to personal movement being dependent on the road network and this will always be the case in outer London, whatever public transport accessibility improvements are made at the margin. It is also important to recognise that ‘cars’ do not only account for personal travel. Excluding commuting, over 20% of London’s road traffic is directly involved in business activity, which tends to be difficult to shift to over modes.
This is the reality of the situation that London is faced with. Going forward travel demand is only expected to increase with 1.25 million more people and over 750,000 new jobs in the Capital expected by 2031. As desirable as it might first appear to design the motor vehicle off London’s streets, we need to be aware of what function the car is playing, especially in outer London and recognise that other modes won’t on their own be able to fill the gap. Congestion, environmental concerns (both local and global), social segregation and road safety issues are all legitimate reasons for wanting to rid streets of cars, but the reality is that cars can’t be taken completely out of the equation. Parking charges and more wide spread road user charging could go some way to managing down the use of cars (as suggested by the Mayors Transport Strategy), and there is even a question about whether London’s aims can be achieved without this. With or without road pricing the ongoing smoothing traffic flow agenda is vital for providing a more economically viable road network for the city as ‘roads for movement’ are still needed alongside the development of more liveable streets.
Where environmental issues are concerned, strict EU targets on new vehicle emissions, and the development of new low carbon vehicle technologies, means that a large proportion of all domestic transport CO2 reductions will be delivered by vehicle improvements. There will also be significant improvements made to air quality. Over the past 18 years, particulate matter from vehicles has decreased 53% and further decreases will be secured from the EURO VI standards after which time diesel particulates are expected to equal those from petrol vehicles by 2015.
Difficult choices will undoubted need to be made to achieve viable transport operations in inner and outer London over the short, medium and long term. In the short term, maintaining a viable traffic operation in Central London will be a significant challenge. Difficult decision may well need to be made about vehicle access times, speed limits etc, but designing out the car completely will not be possible. Land use planning to reduce the need to travel will be increasingly important.
Going forward it is vital that the strategic transport issues facing the city are addressed rather than there being a pre-occupation with modally-focussed schemes. Cycling initiatives although well placed, are on their own, unlikely to secure great modal shift from the car. For instance if a quarter of cycle hire use came from existing car drivers, reductions in vehicle kms would only be around 1%. The expectations of these schemes need to be realistic.
All this does not to suggest however that we should forget the role of behavioural change, it has an important part to play, especially in the urban centre of central London. Roads need to be more attractive for walkers and cyclists, but we ignore at our peril the need for a viable road network. Getting the balance right is difficult, but this is the essence of transport planning – London is no different.’
And the conclusion… the room was marginally in favour.