Putting roads at heart of London's transport solution

Transport for London last week published a progress report on the work being carried out by its Roads Task Force to reshape and reprioritise the capital’s vital road network. Interview with Deputy Mayor for Transport Isabel Dedring.

Alongside the report, Mayor Boris Johnson also pledged a doubling on investment in London’s road network from £2bn over the next ten years to £4bn as part of an over-arching £30bn vision for the roads and highlighted the 50 schemes worth £200M either in planning or underway that hope to ease congestion, promote regeneration or improve safety.

"The Underground is now covering its operating cost for the first time....You could choose to invest the surplus in the road side of the business". Isabel Dedring, Deputy Mayor for Transport

And, of course, the power of this latter issue to improve safety for the increasing number of cyclists and pedestrians now vying for space on the road network cannot be understated. As an issue that continues to grab an unwelcome number of media headlines, it is clear that road safety continues to drive focus on roads.

That said, roads are also a vital economic force in the capital, with 24M journey made every day, transporting 80% of Londoners and 90% of freight. Ramping up investment in the network also makes clear economic and social sense.

Isabel Dedring is Deputy Mayor for Transport and so responsible for the capital’s strategic approach to tackling the capital’s transport challenges. She spoke to Infrastucture Intelligence about the highways challenge and opportunities ahead.

Q: You have just published your Roads Task Force progress report. What has changed in the way that the capital is now approaching roads?

A: We announced a doubling of investment in roads from £2bn to £4bn over the life of the London business plan which is a huge increase but it is still not commensurate with the level of investment that should be going into roads. We should be putting something like £30-50bn in the longer term if you were comparing to investment in the rail network. So we are not there yet but we are on that ten year journey. On the rail side there is a programme of activity with plans – the roads business doesn’t have that kind of strategic plan for what to do with the roads over the next 20 years. 

Q: You also talk about a £30bn long term programme of roads funding – where is that likely to come from?

A: There are many opportunities. Firstly the Underground is now covering its operating cost for the first time so there is an interesting question there around whether there is an opportunity for cross subsidy between the businesses. You could choose to invest the surplus in the road side of the business – it is one opportunity to think about. But also, the more that we pursue from private sources of funding from, say, land value capture, increasingly we are asking whether somebody else should be contributing. Elephant and Castle is a good example - funding is split in thirds between TfL, the Borough and the developer. We have similar plans at Old Street where we want to fundamentally remodel the roundabout. TfL is thinking much more about commercial development and has a £2bn target for revenue over ten years -  double what it was ten years ago.

Q: Have you been able to define the rationale for more investment in roads?

A: We have a growing city and so more pressure on the road network. We need to have a much clearer idea in our minds for what we want to happen in each location. The street typology planning talked about in the roads taskforce is now being rolled out and that way you can get more out of the road network because you are not doing conflicting things. But the other big pressure is the capital’s housing crisis. Again, Elephant and Castle is an example where there are thousands of homes going in and living next to what is basically a motorway is no longer acceptable. It is about getting the road network to support the development and quite a lot of the schemes that we are looking at I don’t consider as transport schemes – they are really development or housing schemes. Often there isn’t actually a transport problem but there is a housing or development problem to solve.

Q: Burying London’s roads in tunnels was talked about last year - is that still on the agenda?

A. It is of course a very complex and very expensive solution. But we are doing a strategic study on possible scope for small interventions such as the fly-under ideas that Hammersmith and Fulham plans, tunnelling at Brent Cross or smaller cut and cover works. But we are also looking at bigger tunnels where there isn’t an existing road and if you look at other cities around the world many have put in an inner ring road underground – the idea is not to increase the amount of traffic but to take it away from the surface to regenerate the area. Hammersmith and Fulham estimates that £1bn of land value that would be released from their scheme - again we are comfortable doing that on the rail side but not on the road and there is no reason why. 

Q: Is one of the problems that road in London are a patchwork and not looked after by a single body.

A. Yes – successive mayors have and will always want to change that but having a coherent view about how different roads work and an overall structure does tend to work well. That said, owning and controlling the traffic signals as TfL does is actually quite effective. So if you are talking about being able to increase or reduce capacity that is a strategic way to do it. However, [around specific projects] being able to offer Boroughs funding also helps. My observation is that there is a lot of cross party consensus across most of the Boroughs about what we actually want our roads to do.

Q: Is the car still seen as the worst way to get around London?

A. I think that depends on where you are in the Capital. What we are trying to say is that there are so many alternatives in central London. But in many of the areas of outer London there may not be alternatives for many trips – there isn’t a bus and it’s too long to cycle. So there is no ideology that you should get out of your car we are just saying that in this location you could do this and in another something else.

Q: Improving the environment for cyclists is much higher on the agenda than it has ever been in London – what is driving that? 

A. Certainly it is and that is a good thing. But one of the things that is great about the fact that there is a lot of political pressure on the cycling agenda is that you can use that to unlock some of the other agendas. Locations where you are making it better for cyclists but at the same time improve the public realm make it better for pedestrians and make the traffic flow more smoothly. I have tried to use the political pressure on cycling to benefit all road users. Over the last six to nine months you have seen the pressure on cycle safety move across to pedestrian safety and that is great. 

Q: So have we moved permanently away from simply painting the roads towards proper measures for cycling. In hindsight was painting blue superhighways the right way to go?

A. If you look at other cities that have through this in other countries it is several decades of transformation and there is a series of key moments in public consciousness where the agenda moves on. One of the moments was in the Autumn last year when we had a number of cyclist fatalities very close together and that help to get pressure on the issue. These events have a catalytic effect. I guess we are somewhere on the journey. The politics of an issue develop over time. Creating segregated cycle lanes and meaningful infrastructure will have a negative impact on other road users. Ten years ago the politics were not there [to manage this]. Now they are. Ideas have to have their moment.

Q. Is the approach and thinking by transport professionals changing to embrace new priorities and hierarchy over road space?

A. Definitely – people have got the message that there has to be change. But people still often try to come at the problem from a traditional perspective – the will is there but sometimes the creativity isn’t. Quite often it simply means bringing the architects and public realm designers in early rather than designing a scheme then asking them where to draw the trees.

Q. Are we leaving technology too far behind?

A. No. If you look at all the cycle superhighways and quiet routes and all the place-making that people want at, say, Kings Cross, Vauxhall or Euston, the net effect will be to take space away from vehicles But that is not all bad traffic - some of it is buses and taxis. So to accommodate this reduction we must overlay the technical solution with much more advanced thinking about traffic engineering and signals and look at the role that technology can play in scheduling freight movements. 

Q. The London Mayor is also leading a project to set out an infrastructure vision for the capital in 2050?

A. If you look at London as a successful city in the long term it will continue to grow. So we are asking what do we need to be successful? Not just in transport but in schools, waste, water, energy and in terms of the finance and governance to accommodate it. How do you meet the population growth and support the jobs. Roads forms a big part of this, as do river crossings, airports and the Tube and how, after we have finished the current upgrade programme, do we squeeze an extra 10% out of those new systems. What might you have to do with the existing rail network to boost the capital’s transport capacity. We are consulting now and the strategy is due out in Early Autumn.

Isabel Dedring is leading a debate on the London 2050 strategy at London First's Infrastructure Summit on 27 March. 

Click here for details

Q.Is London going to meet its emissions targets?

A. On PM10s we are broadly were we need to be – more to do but in terms of the European target we are in a much better place than we were a couple of years ago which is great. But NO2 is a problem across the country and across Europe. There are dozens of cities that don’t meet target and it is hard to envision how they are going to on the current trajectory as the reduction needed is huge. We are consulting on an ultra-low emission zone later this year but one of the issues is the huge cost of compliance.

Q: Is the congestion charge scheme still working?

Congestion is down. But the reason that reduction has flattened is because we have also taken capacity out, for very good reasons, but the result is that congestion increases. There is an issue to consider around the fuel duty system not working for the Treasury as cars are becoming more efficient. So they are thinking and that will have to think about how the raise money in the future to fund the road network. So as part of this national system there is perhaps an opportunity to make changes to the congestion charge system. That is probably politically more feasible.


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