Opinion: Boris Johnson’s transport strategy – a flailing mass of contradictions

A quick journey into the fantasyland that London’s City Hall has become leaves one quite simply lost for words. When in the past under Livingstone there was a degree of discipline, vision and planning (tempered of course by a slight whiff of the unusual) backing up the policies of Transport for London, we now have confusion, contradiction and incoherence flowing out of every orifice, from Boris’s mouth and advisers to TfL’s own offices.

The most amazing part of this farce is the manner in which Londoners seem to passively sit by and watch while London’s transport policy falls apart at the hands of a Conservative Mayor egged on by indifferent Tory Greater London Authority members representing the vested interests of Outer London. In City Hall, the only concept relevant is political mileage – even if the cost is throwing away the future of London by killing years of necessary investment and replacing it with a mass of spin, nonsense and re-launches.

The most dangerous part of London’s new transport policy is the very fact that it makes no sense whatsoever. Boris may portray himself as a man of some intelligence, but it is deeply unfortunate that his policies seem to spell out intellectual and logical bankruptcy. What Boris has managed to achieve in his time in office so far is to reduce future capacity and increase fares at a time of soaring demand for public transport. He has cancelled alternatives to the Tube and Bus in the form of the Oxford Street and Cross River Tram lines- promising extra bus services – while at the same time making this virtually impossible by ‘brooding’ over the scrapping of the congestion charge.

He has committed himself to regenerating East London and the Thames Gateway while at the same time scrapping nearly every single project that would help achieve that aim. When taken one at a time, his new ‘vision’ for transport in London sounds rather terrific – fewer cars, more bikes, improved Tube. However, when aggregated together, it becomes a flailing mass of contradictions.

How, I might ask, are we supposed to reconcile more bus services and a possible lack of a congestion charge with increased bicycle use? Or, alternatively, how on earth will London cope with massive population growth without improving its capacity to move people from A to B? Put simply, TfL is now advocating a policy of zero expansion in the face of rising demand, preferring instead to ‘spin’ new capacity out of nowhere rather than actually pick up tools and spend money to build it.

Not that you would hear this from TfL, if you actually bother reading the spin that comes out of that particular part of Boris’s empire. Apparently, new Tube upgrades will result in capacity increases of up to 40% on some lines. This forms one of the key arguments made against projects that the Liberal Democrats and Liberal Youth support like the Cross River Tram – there is no need for it, as Tube capacity is going to ‘increase substantially’ thanks to ‘improvements’ to the Northern line. Boris seems to completely miss the plot here. Given the fact that the Tube is already overcrowded and full to the brim, surely this is merely expanding capacity to cover demand that is currently unmet?

Like a desperate man trying to keep up with an ever-increasing mountain of debt, TfL is now years behind projected passenger growth- and is compensating for this by trying to spin its way out of the situation through a massive campaign of ‘We are Improving Your Tube’ in the vain hope that commuters like you and I fail to notice the still-heaving crowds at platforms in a few years’ time. What TfL fails to mention is the fact that these are projects are years behind schedule and billions of pounds over budget – a legacy of Labour’s failed PFI/PPP revolution which is now ingloriously dumped in the lap of London’s over-stressed, overworked and overtaxed population.

Improvements on the Tube also fail to address a key problem that afflicts London today- the imbalance between North and South caused in part by a shameful lack of investment, both under Livingstone and now Johnson, in public transportation south of the River. Once again, Boris’s objectives contradict each other: how does he expect to reduce crime in South London when he refuses to go ahead with projects like the Cross River Tram which will regenerate areas like Peckham and Brixton and bring in jobs, businesses and growth?

We are in the midst of a financial crisis. While we bail out banks to the tune of hundreds of billions, we have allowed the rest of the economy to go to hell in a hand-basket. While most of us see this as nothing short of a disaster through which we must now live for the next two to three years, certain interests in City Hall and the London Assembly see this as an opportunity to conveniently kill off much maligned but necessary projects of the Livingstone era under the excuse of austerity measures. The Liberal Democrats are not arguing in favour of reinstating these projects immediately, as we understand that there is no money available for transport investment in the near future. Our key and fundamental objection is to the crass manner in which City Hall has failed to leave options like the Cross River Tram open for future consideration by killing them off too early.

What Boris and City Hall need to do if they really do care about the future of London, rather than their short-term political fortunes, is to bring as many projects as possible to the stage of the Chelsea-Hackney Line with the route and infrastructure safeguarded for future funding. Cancelling all these projects now, after millions of pounds in planning and development will not save taxpayers’ money but effectively flush it down the toilet- while safeguarding them will leave options open for City Hall if and when funding is available and ensure that the GLA and TfL are able to quickly finance and implement needed improvements once the economic situation improves.

Boris is mistaken when he argues that keeping these projects around will ‘mislead’ Londoners – because the only thing ‘misleading’ is the way in which City Hall has shamefully spun this awful situation. We are, by most predictions, approaching a transport crunch, and unless we do something now to genuinely increase capacity through projects like high-speed rail from London to the rest of Britain and improvements within London such as the Cross River Tram we will shed jobs and investment to other cities that are better prepared.

However, it is not only Boris and City Hall who are to blame for this farcical situation: it is the failings of politicians, from the self-interest of Outer London GLA members – who would rather see the capital choke to death in a maelstrom of emissions and congestion than to sanction improvements for the city centre – to Brian Coleman’s irrational objections to projects such as the Cross River Tram which will ultimately benefit his very own constituents.

It is the failings of the lopsided economic policy of New Labour and a central government that prefers to splurge billions on bank bailouts and short-term tax cuts while neglecting meaningful investment in the economy, such as in transport infrastructure, to boost future growth. London needs long-term vision and politicians who can see past a week, or a year, or a single Mayoral term and do what is necessary to safeguard this vibrant and growing metropolis by making the right decisions and planning ahead for the future.

* Edwin Loo is the Campaigns Director for London Liberal Youth and an undergraduate student at the London School of Economics.

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