Welcome to Part 2 of my Ten Reasons I Love London's Transportation System, starting with #6...
6. Traffic Calming
Having previously worked in traffic engineering, I try to follow the various trends making the rounds among progressive transportation engineers and planners in North America. Things like narrowing lanes, widening curbs at corners (the “bulb-out”), and restricting vehicular traffic while allowing pedestrians and cyclists unfettered access.
But living in London, I’ve been appreciating how many of what I thought were recent innovations are not all that new! I started taking pictures of every curb extension I saw, and noticed that the pavement often looked old! These weren’t necessarily brought in by some new-age Vision Zero reforms, but have apparently been common practice for a while. (It reinforced to me how myopic the North American transportation planning paradigm can be.)
An example. On a street in the London district of Camden, these few bollards (see photo below) change the entire character of the neighbourhood. What might otherwise be a speedway for cut-through traffic becomes a peaceful lane quiet enough to hear the birds chirping. This technique, known locally as “modal filtering”, is widely used to calm traffic, and return streets to the people. They’re incredibly effective. This reminds me of the same approach used in Berkeley, California, where ‘Bicycle Boulevards’ use techniques like forced turns to reduce motorist traffic while allowing through movement of cyclists and pedestrians.
Beyond that, I remember being amazed at the impressively narrow pinch points they use to slow traffic. Like this one in West London. Cars slow to a crawl to fit between the metal bollards (which, unlike ‘flexiposts’, are rather unforgiving), while trucks and emergency vehicles can traverse diagonally to avoid the pinch point. I’m sure drivers don’t like it, but it does the trick of slowing down traffic! Check out the video:
7. Clean Air Efforts
To my disappointment, I found the air quality in London to be rather lousy, largely due to the prevalence of diesel vehicles.
But I am impressed by the actions the government is taking, in particular two policy initiatives.
The first is the Mayor’s Ultra-Low Emissions Zone or ULEZ. This policy forces every motorist entering the city in a dirty car to pay a fee, on top of the daily congestion charge. And to little surprise, it works! Since the ULEZ was enacted, nitrogen dioxide emissions have been cut by a third. To me it’s a simple reminder that, when done right, public policy works. Yes, we can hope that consumers will reward car companies who offer cleaner cars. But the evidence is clear that this won’t get us to our climate goals (never mind our local air quality goals) any time soon. So kudos to the politicians willing to spend political capital on regulatory solutions to improve the environment and our own quality of life.
As well, while working at a bus company I’ve been impressed at how London is taking a leading role in the introduction of battery-electric buses. London has the largest fleet of electric buses in Europe. And while these buses aren’t cheap, the initiative (a) signals to the market that there are indeed customers for large-scale orders of battery-electric vehicles; (b) indicates that the local political leaders care about improving local air quality, and (c) advances the potential for consumer acceptance/embracing of electric vehicles (“honey, I rode an electric bus today!”).
My only caveat on the electric buses is that, no matter how clean the public transit fleet is, there’s still an elephant in the room. And that’s the fact that, no matter how clean the public transit fleet is, if that vast majority of urban travel is still done by private car, any progress is dwarfed by the pollution and congestion incurred by these travellers. So battery-electric buses are great, but let’s not lose focus on the fact that only 5% of commuters in the USA (and 12% in Canada) take public transit.
Nevertheless, well done London on two major initiatives to clean up the air!
8. Governance Structures
On the topic of policy, I want to acknowledge the importance that appropriate governance structures play in achieving policy goals. Professor Joe Coughlin from MIT taught that “policy debates get frozen in time once an agency is set up”. He and former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Frederick Salvucci explained that on public policy, legislators don’t really get things done--their agencies do. So the way a government agency is set up--what its mandate is, how it’s organized, and how it's designed to interface with other stakeholders--determines the course of action. This is infamously evident in transportation, where American state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) have made a legacy of prioritizing highway investment over all else. It’s simply what they were set up to do. Likewise, in cities that separate their transit agencies from their transportation departments, the two entities often develop siloed and even competitive goals.
London has a unified body called Transport for London. The agency is integrated across modes and functions. This means TfL oversees public transit lines, roads, sidewalks, taxis, Ubers, ferries, and more. And while it certainly has silos within the organization, the leadership at the very top is tasked with accomplishing progressive goals that require a holistic vision of transportation.
Case in point: the London Mayor has his own Deputy Mayor for Transport and a Walking and Cycling Commissioner (my favourite job title ever). Put simply: The values underlying London's transportation plans are reflected in the organizational structure of their government. And that leads me to point #9...
9. Oh, the Plans
London has great plans. I mean seriously - have a flip through the Mayor’s Transport Strategy and tell me that’s not a beautiful document.
I say this in reference not to the fonts or imagery (though it is an elegant font!), but rather the combination of substance and delivery that make it so effective.
Compared to many government documents I've read over the years, TfL’s documents are written in a clear, concise way with layperson language such that anyone can understand them.
Their goals are simple, yet each word is clearly thought through and substantive.
And finally, the plans strike the right balance of being ambitious yet pragmatic. This is especially important around Vision Zero, the push for zero traffic deaths, because while we know this is the only morally defensible endpoint, the short-term goals will not achieve that.
I used to be cynical about these kind of documents. They sit on a shelf while politicians act on their own whims. But the more I understand politics, the more I appreciate the importance of these publications. For one, they provide political cover for well-meaning politicians to make unpopular decisions (like lowering speed limits or raising parking fees). Additionally, they also help guide the third sector--advocates, community groups, non-profits--with their efforts. Finally, they serve as exemplars for peer cities seeking to make their own progress.
10. Land Use (Not Transportation!)
Number 10 is a bit of a cheat, because it’s not about transportation. But as planners often say, the best transportation plan is a land use plan.
London is a city of neighbourhoods. Hop off the tube from almost any stop, and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a cute town centre. You’ll find a grocery store, a laundromat and a coffee shop within a block or two, and it just feels cozy. The residential density of London means that almost every neighbourhood can support a grocery store through walk-in traffic.
More broadly, most neighbourhoods have everything you need for your day-to-day life, without needing a car. Cities call this the “20-minute neighbourhood” (or 15, or 30, etc.), meaning a neighbourhood where you can accomplish all your typical needs within 20 minutes without a car. So with this, the entire need for transportation is diminished!
Fewer and shorter trips mean a reduction in vehicle miles travelled (VMT) leading to quieter and safer streets, reduced air pollution and GHG emissions, and more time freed up in our lives for better uses.
Like every city, London is far from perfect, and can improve by learning from its peers. But as this Canadian reflects on living in England for the past year, he can’t help but come to appreciate so much of what makes London a world city. And yes, the Tube is awesome.