1. Built environment
  2. Infrastructure
June 21, 2017updated 30 Jul 2021 1:50pm

Sadiq’s plans for transport are grand, green, and ambitious – but he's setting himself up to fail

By Jack May

Sadiq Khan has published the draft of his first Transport Strategy as mayor of London. Admittedly, it’s no Queens’ Speech in terms of pageantry, media attention, or susceptibility to utter humiliation, but the strategy is worth taking a look at. 

Though it’s always a very vague, long-term focus document, interesting kernels can be found; what the broad priorities are, what City Hall wants to get the Government of the day to do for it, and what direction the mayor wants to get things moving in. 

The most noticeable thing about this batch of plans – which are still in draft form, as they’ll have to go to public consultation – is what David Cameron came to call the ‘green crap’. 

Think Green

Khan wants to make the entirety of the London transport network emission-free by 2050. The plan is to do this in phases – expanding the coming Ultra Low Emission Zone and T-charge with a view to setting up zero emission zones in central London and peripheral town centres by 2025. 

By 2040, he wants a zero emission zone to cover the whole of inner London, which would then expand out to the whole Greater London Authority area by 2050. 

In practical terms, that includes measures such as all new double-decker busses introduced from next year will be either hybrid, electric, or hydrogen; all double-decker busses in Central London will by hybrid by 2019. All busses should then be zero emission by 2037, with taxis and PHVs set for zero-emission capability by 2033. 

The green lobby is certainly happy, especially as London has struggled so intensively with pollution and air quality in recent years. Paul Morozzo, who campaigns for clean air with Greenpeace, described the strategy as “ambitious” and “well-thought-through”, and said: “London is a city at the cutting-edge of so many fields – let’s turn it into a clean transport leader too.” 

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There’s also a big initiative, dubbed the “Healthy Streets Approach”. The idea is to make London’s streets “better places to walk and cycle, cleaner, safer and quieter” – which in theory makes people more likely to walk or cycle to work – or even just to the nearest bus stop, tube, or train station rather than hopping in their car. 

Sadiq wants everyone to get using these blue babies. Image: Spsmiler.

The aim is for all Londoners to do at least 20 minutes of “active travel” every day – a nice idea, but something that personally I find a little far-fetched. That being said, if genuine improvements are made the quality and safety of London’s streets for non-motorists, anecdotal evidence shows many more people would walk or cycle. I’ve lost track of the number of people who respond to me telling them I cycle to work in London by insisting they’d cycle to work “if it didn’t feel so dangerous”. 

The end-game of this Healthy Streets Approach is to get 80 per cent of journeys made by walking, cycling, or public transport by 2041. Best of luck to you, Sadiq. 

Through the lobbying glass

One of the unfortunate realities here is how much of what you want to do as mayor is restricted to lobbying Government. The strategy hails the opening of the Elizabeth line, due next year, and stresses how important it is to get Crossrail 2 built, but all City Hall can really do is try to say “please” in as convincing a manner as possible. 

“The government must immediately give the go-ahead for Crossrail 2”, apparently.

Good luck trying to convince them to do that while Brexit negotiations are a shambolic series of capitulations by David “Double D” Davis, and the running of the government itself hangs by the thread of the goodwill of the [expletive] DUP. It’s hard to see large-scale transport infrastructure projects primarily benefitting London being top of the agenda in the immediate future – though at least there are certainly the votes for it in parliament. 

Another key aim of the Strategy is to create “a London suburban rail metro service to radically improve rail travel in outer London”. Though the Strategy attests to want to continue working with train operating companies, it’s no secret that Sadiq Khan would far prefer to take those suburban franchises into TfL hands, running them either as continuing expansions of the London Overground network, or as a new-fangled S-Bahn style network of another type. 

Crush the Sadiq-teurs, his face says. Image: Getty Images.

Again, given the state of the government and the reappointment of Chris Grayling as transport secretary – a man whose animosity to Sadiq Khan as a Labour mayor is both well-documented and unprofessional – that feels a little bit like a pipe dream. “The mayor and TfL are making the case to Government for devolution of stopping suburban rail services from mainline central London stations”, the Strategy says.

I’m making the case to Government for free croissants to be given out at all zone 2 tube stations before 10am, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. 

TfL also faces a huge challenge under Sadiq’s watch: from 2018 it will no longer receive a revenue grant from government. Not only will it rely on fares and income from advertising and other commercial ventures, TfL will also find it harder to consolidate into a position to embark on big transport schemes. Like Crossrail 2. 

The strategy argues that “the government… needs to allow greater use of Business Rate Retention, as well as approving additional power, including Vehicle Excise Duty in London” to ensure TfL can remain properly-funded. Making that happen in the current political context will be a tough battle for City Hall. 

As ever with such documents, the parts most likely to happen – and therefore the most interesting parts – are the slightly dull, nitty-gritty bits. 

Getting down to it

There are plans to bring more tube and train stations into the very select club of stations that are fully accessible, and plans to improve the DLR and London Tram – the two parts of the network that are already 100 per cent accessible – to ease the travelling experience for people with a disability. This is hugely positive, and drastically overdue. 

A mock-up of the interior of the new Tube for London. Image: Transport for London.

TfL is also working to improve staff training and changing the way and amount of information they have to hand in real-time, which will no-doubt mark a definite, if sub-conscious, improvement of the passenger experience. They’re also planning to roll out 4G to the entire London Underground network, which is nice if you like that sort of thing. 

The rolling upgrades to the tube will continue. Complete overhauls to the signalling system on the sub-surface lines – Metropolitan, District, Circle and Hammersmith & City Lines – will continue, and no doubt continue to cause very large, disruptive, and necessary weekend closures. Technical tweaks to the Jubilee, Northern and Victoria lines will allow for trains to run on those lines even more frequently – up to around the one every 90 seconds mark, which is seriously impressive on a global scale. 

And rolling stock fans will be pleased to know that the intention is still to start working on getting new trains on the Piccadilly, Central, Bakerloo, and Waterloo & City lines by the mid-2020s – though the eventual trains would be unlikely to enter service until the mid-2030s. 

Coming to a clapped-out line near you. Image: Transport for London.

All the extensions TfL already had in mind are staying on the books – the Bakerloo extension “to Lewisham and beyond”, the Overground extension to Barking Riverside, the Northern to Battersea, and dragging the DLR across the Thames to Thamesmead. All these are good things – and should be achievable if incremental improvements to the way London transport functions. 

But the problem, as ever, is in the blue-sky big-dream grand-ideas thinking that a city like London needs to keep it moving. 

Much of the city’s biggest ideas can only happen with governmental consent, at a time when what little government is on offer will hardly be feeling goodwill towards one of its now-powerful opposition’s most popular (and powerful) public figures. 

And huge plans to push towards a green transport system and a zero-emissions city are sorely needed. But too many such plans have fallen short in the past for nebulous proposals that stretch far beyond the timescale of this mayor’s political needs for the Strategy to be wholly convincing. 

Maybe next year they should get someone famous to read it out. Might make a world of difference.  

You can have your say on the Transport Strategy here

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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