Confessions of a Political Animal

September 25, 2008

In favour of feudal roads

I’ll freely admit to being pretty slow on the uptake on this – and indeed it has been touched on elsewhere already, but given the apparently inexorable march of the right (sorry Gordon, ‘the novices’) towards power across Britain, it probably makes sense to take a critical look at the underlying ideologies that inform Tory policies.

Living in London, which despite denials, is clearly at least a sounding chamber – if not a petri dish – for future national Conservative policies, we have the dubious honour of seeing policy development in the raw. And every now and again, the Cameronite mask slips ever so slightly to reveal something of what lies beneath.

The July (told you I was late with this) edition of Transport Times (currently available via the Latest Edition link here, see page 4) carries a worrying article about the Mayor’s Transport Adviser, Kulveer Ranger’s stated opinions. Ranger (who would almost certainly fit anyone’s description of a novice being left in charge of a vital portfolio) told the London Assembly Transport Committee in his first appearance before them on 25th June (full transcript) that:

Bearing in mind that no mode should be seen above any other as well, so we have to keep in with a view that there are still a need to understand that the motorist is not at the foot of all traffic modes, right at the base of it, there is no hierarchy here.  We need to ensure that those people who need to travel by car and travel by car get a fair crack at the whip in terms of moving through London as do cyclists, as do people who travel by bus. […]

The Mayor feels actually that a difference between this administration and the previous administration is that we are not going to pander to the group of one or the other.

Mr Ranger, and by association Boris Johnson, is here striking at the heart of the orthodoxy – hierachies of road users – that has governed transport planning for decades. Now, striking at orthodoxies is by no means a bad thing per se, but it is only really sensible to do so when the reasoning behind them is faulty. In his statement about differentiating the current Mayoral administration from its predecessor, Ranger is setting about painting the programmes of bus lanes, cycle provision and pedestrianisation introduced by the Livingstone-led TfL as being part of a ‘hit-the-motorist’ conspiracy. In fact, as Transport Times mischievously points out, the principle of road user hierarchies

has been a mainstay of transport policy since Steven Norris’s time as a transport minister in the last Conservative government, as a way of prioritising transport users where road space is at a premium.

As a side note, said Steven Norris is now a member of the TfL board. Whatever must he be thinking about young Mr Ranger? With road space being so clearly at a premium in London, there can be no serious suggestion that road space rationing based on a hierarchy of users is anything other than a sensible principle, rather than a lefty conspiracy. Indeed, it is those arguing against such a position who represent the lunatic fringe. In taking an anti-hierarchy approach, Johnson and Ranger are aligning themselves with groups such as Safespeed, a collection of petrolheads who would scrap every speed camera and 20mph zone tomorrow. In a remarkably un-prescient web page Congestion Charging: Why its wrong and why it won’t work (full deconstruction at a later date), Safespeed says:

We’d scrap all bus lanes, and allow buses to compete on equal terms with all other traffic.

This is the logical conclusion of the Ranger/Johnson position – the ‘fair crack of the whip’ that Ranger promises is co-terminus with the equal terms competition that Safespeed demands. This would mean removing every priority measure given to any road user – bus lane, cycle lane, cycle advance lane and, of course, pavement. The worrying thing is, we have seen the start of just such a policy already with Boris Johnson scrapping the proposals for the part pedestrianisation of Parliament Square, despite the undoubted success of the similar scheme at Trafalgar Square.

So, how should an urban road hierachy be arrived at? We need to consider the policy objectives of having such a system. Firstly, road space is limited, therefore the use of the most space-efficient means ought to be encouraged; secondly, the safety of the most vulnerable road users must be prioritised; thirdly, given the immanency of EU fines for missed air quality targets in London, the lowest emission forms of transport need to be encouraged. Now, presumably Boris couldn’t possibly disagree with these three premises? So let’s go through them one-by-one to consider how each of the main forms of road passenger transport score, with the aim of creating a road user hierarchy that gives ‘a fair crack at the whip’.

First, road space efficiency, arrived at by dividing the average road space taken up by the vehicle by the average number of passengers (note – passenger figures are for London).

Mode Average road space (m sq) Average no of passengers m sq/passenger Normalised score
Car 9.26 (Ford Mondeo 5-door) 1.7 5.45 100
Bus 30.33 (Dennis Trident double-decker) 15.3 (off-peak) 1.98 36.33
Bicycle 1.17 (local government guidance average) 1 1.17 21.47
Pedestrian 0.08 (average) 1 0.08 1.47

Still with me? Good. Now, on to emissions, for which we will take carbon dioxide as being a not-entirely accurate (this is a back of the envelope sort of blog, after all), but convenient measurement. For the purposes of these measurements, I am going to take the bicycle and pedestrian emissions figures as 0. I accept that there are emissions associated with the manufacture of bicycles and footwear, but as I haven’t factored pre-use emissions into the car and bus figures, it seems fair.

Mode CO2 emissions/km Average no of passengers CO2 emissions/passenger km Normalised score
Car 167g (average) 1.7 98.24g 100
Bus 822g 15.3 (off-peak) 53.73g 54.71 
Bicycle 0 1 0 0
Pedestrian 0 1 0

Last one, now – safety. We are talking here about the safety of the user of the mode in question, rather than the threat they may pose to others. In other words, we are seeking to assess their vulnerability on the roads and who most requires measures for protection built in to transport policy. Figures are from the Department for Transport and are for 2006.

Mode Passenger km/death (million km) Normalised score
Car 400 12
Bus 3,333.33 100
Bicycle 32.26 0.97
Pedestrian 27.77 0.83

So, let’s add together the normalised scores to create our hierarchy of space efficiency, emissions and vulnerability. Remember, the higher the score, the lower the rating on each of these points:

Mode Total score
Car 212
Bus 191.04
Bicycle 22.44
Pedestrian 2.3

Obviously, this is based upon giving an equal weighting to each factor. On top of that, there may be additional factors that could be brought into play – such as the role being played in providing transport for the most economically deprived sections of society. These things are debatable. What isn’t debatable in the transport planning of a modern city are the three factors we have looked at, which provide a clear pointer as to how the hierarchy should look – and indeed has looked, prior to the era of Johnson-Ranger. You’ll notice, of course, that I haven’t added trams to this exercise: I didn’t want to cause too many heart attacks over at Coleman Towers at the thought of giving any road space to those highly space-efficient machines.

The new hands on the tiller of London’s transport network need to learn quickly that with a limited resource like road space, policies that discriminate in favour of the most space-efficient, environmentally friendly and vulnerable road users are the only sensible option. Luckily, as the Evening Standard has noted to its dismay, many of the old hands remain at the wheel at TfL, so hopefully sense will prevail.

Update 30/09: Further evidence of a move away from the hierarchy principle via Brockley Central (and Dave Hill) which points out an article in Estates Gazette which suggests that the Johnson-Ranger duo may be about to scrap plans to remove the disastrous and massively pedestrian-unfriendly Elephant & Castle roundabouts due to the plan’s ‘effect on car travel’.


  1. The principle of the analysis is sound, but you’ve got the figures a bit wrong – for the last theme (safety), your weightings should be in the reverse order. For the statistics quoted, bus is the *safest* mode (furthest distance travelled per death) and walking is the least safe – so walking should get the high normalised score (100) and everything else weighted appropriately.

    I make that 86.08 for bike, 0.83 for bus and 6.94 for car, so your end result would be bus 91.87, ped 101.47, bike 107.55 and car 206.94.

    In practice, bike and pedestrian safety are offset by the health benefits they offer (the British Medical Association did a risk analysis of cycling and concluded that the health benefits outweigh the safety risks because regular cyclists live longer than non-cyclists).

    Comment by Dave A — September 26, 2008 @ 12:02 pm | Reply

  2. Dave – what the figures are supposed to show is not safety, per se, but vulnerability on the road. What I am arguing is that in constructing a heirachy of road users, those who are the most vulnerable to death/injury should be prioritised. Therefore, as by far the most vulnerable road users, it is appropriate that pedestrians and cyclists are provided with specific safety measures – such as cycle lanes and pedestrian crossings. The figures are for the number of km per passenger death – so for the purposes of producing a heirachy using the rationale I am suggesting, the lower the ‘worse’. Therefore the safest mode (bus) gets the highest normalised score as its passengers (being surrounded by a lot of metal) need fewer considerations as regards their safety than other road users.

    Comment by Political Animal — September 26, 2008 @ 12:23 pm | Reply

  3. The answer is quite simple: allow people to bid for road space in an auction. If a billionaire wants to buy up the Northbound M1 next Monday to give themselves an unobstructed journey, that’s fine – it’s the market isn’t it? A real free market in road space would soon have most people screaming for control. Especially in urban areas where at the moment resident motorists are given free parking on the public road. (They think they are paying for it but actually they’re only paying for the cost of administering the scheme to keep non-residents out.)

    Comment by Tode — September 26, 2008 @ 1:32 pm | Reply

  4. […] ways of the Underground – or perhaps they know something we don’t? Is Boris cutting everyone elses’ transport schemes so that his loyal voters in Hammersmith & Fulham can be rewarded with an […]

    Pingback by People in free papers shouldn’t draw maps « Confessions of a Political Animal — October 14, 2008 @ 11:24 pm | Reply

  5. […] the surface for public spaces. The rationale for this seemed to be Mr Ranger’s pursuit of a hierachy-free transport network. Rather than countenance any possible inconvenience to motorists, Boris chose to […]

    Pingback by Elephantine miscalculations « Confessions of a Political Animal — January 15, 2009 @ 4:54 pm | Reply

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