As any local politician will tell you, how citizens get around is a fiercely important issue which can rumble for years without bursting into a crisis.
For the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, however, that crisis has come, and low-level rumblings must now be addressed as a strategic problem.
Last year, as lockdown and other restrictions changed the way Londoners travel and reduced the frequency of our journeys, the Mayor introduced “Streetspace for London”, a programme intended to encourage walking and cycling and to prevent an increase in car usage.
The stated aim is to “keep London’s air as clean as possible… and tackle the climate emergency”.
Among the most prominent measures have been the widening of pavements (or the narrowing of roads, depending on one’s perspective) and the introduction of cycle lanes.
However, last week Streetspace hit its own obstacle.
A group of London taxi drivers had sought judicial review of a decision which would ban black cabs from a new bus-only route on the A10 in Bishopsgate.
It would have created one of the largest car-free zones in any capital in the world, but involved severe restrictions on even licensed taxis, with implications for those who could not walk or use public transport.
The High Court upheld the taxi drivers’ appeal, and the judge, Ms Justice Lang QC, did not hold back in her criticism of Streetspace more widely: it was an “ill-considered response” to the Covid-19 crisis, and intended, in her view, to “take advantage of the pandemic to push through, on an emergency basis without consultation”, sweeping changes to the capital’s traffic system.
Perhaps most damningly, Lang believed that “the Mayor and TfL intended that these schemes would become permanent, once the temporary orders expired”.
Although an appeal is being lodged, this judgement is a blow to the Mayor, because it strikes not just at his plans but at his motivation and behaviour. The High Court has effectively accused him of duplicity and disingenuous conduct in his implementation of policy.
The taxi drivers are naturally delighted at the outcome.
There has been celebration by many small businesses too, whose trade has been impacted by the restrictions on car usage and who have seen their areas become sclerotic with penned-in traffic. Many local councillors have taken up the cudgels against Streetspace too, reflecting the strongly held opinions of their constituents.
Many people on all sides of the political divide are sympathetic to the cause of managing traffic to ease congestion and be more environmentally friendly.
But the mayor has chosen exactly the wrong approach. With intent so dubious even a high court judge has criticised it, he has sought to punish the motorist rather than think creatively of ways to encourage pedestrians and cyclists, let alone users of public transport.
The official description of Streetspace refers to “reducing car use”, “restrict[ing] vehicle access” and “vehicles from using side streets”: all negative injunctions which suggest, on some level, that vehicle users are the problem.
Meanwhile Transport for London struggles with mounting debt as passenger fares have plummeted (it is peculiarly reliant on fares for its income compared to other major cities) and the financial burden of Crossrail grows ever heavier and longer-lasting. Whether these problems are the mayor’s fault, TfL’s or central government’s, they are a fact.
The ‘mood music’ from the government of London has been contradictory and negative. On the one hand, cars are the enemy, for reasons of pollution and congestion. On the other, since the onset of the pandemic, public transport should be treated with caution as a potential vector of disease, and used only when absolutely necessary. Londoners could be excused for feeling caught in a vice.
So what should the mayor do? There are no easy answers, but an attitudinal change is essential. The Streetspace scheme must be suspended (and the appeal withdrawn): it has been too tainted with the brush of dishonesty and double-dealing by Ms Justice Lang. Mr Khan must find, and find quickly, a substantial investment for TfL, and one which does not rely on excessive subsidy from the rest of the UK. Taxpayers outside London will not stand for that. There is capital out there which could be invested at low risk, but the mayor and his team must be willing to think creatively.
More broadly, imagination must be brought to the whole greening agenda.
The number of public rapid charging points in London for electric vehicles is in the low hundreds—laughably small for a city of nearly 10 million. The traffic management system in the capital is ageing and although TfL have signed a deal with Siemens to introduce a new, more sophisticated infrastructure called Sitraffic FUSION, it is nearly a decade away from full implementation. That must be accelerated, or there is a risk that it will eventually deploy technology which has been left behind.
If, as is widely expected, Sadiq Khan wins a second term as mayor this year, he must have a transport reset.
He must abandon anti-car rhetoric and thinking, and embrace a generous, inclusive, imaginative vision of how London’s transport network could work. The tech landscape is studded with creative start-ups offering innovative solutions. City Hall and TfL should open their doors to them.
Above all, if, as many believe, Mr Khan still hankers after the leadership of the Labour Party, he must recognise that there could be no better qualification than being the mayor who transformed London’s transport infrastructure. If he cannot do these things, there are still three months for voters to change their minds.