As argued in the introduction, London has a proud history of transport innovation, and there is still much to be proud of today. The level of investment in recent years has been impressive. In the 20 years from the creation of TfL to the opening of Crossrail, the capacity of London’s tube and rail system will have doubled. 2 This, alongside investment in new and improved cycle facilities and a dense bus network, has resulted in a sustained shift of travel behaviour away from private cars to public transport, and to some extent cycling.
But roads and streets still provide for 80 per cent of all journeys in the capital. 3 With London’s population and economy growing fast, its roads, built environment and public services are under increasing pressure. We now face some big and fast-evolving transport and related environmental challenges.
Londoners’ transport habits have been changing, and we are travelling less for both work and leisure. 4 Technological innovation has enabled more remote and flexible working, while online retail and entertainment enable goods to be delivered to people’s doorsteps. This has contributed to a decline in private car usage, 5 and in car ownership, 6 and a lower uptake of driving licences, especially among the young 7
However the move towards an ‘on demand’ economy, and the rise of new apps enabling mobile services, have translated into an increased usage of delivery vans, other light goods vehicles (LGVs), and taxis and private hire vehicles (PHVs). Total vehicle kilometres by LGVs increased by 33 per cent between 2000 and 2017. 8 Between 2013 and 2017, the number of licensed black taxis increased by just four per cent, while the number of licensed PHVs increased by 75 per cent. 9
As a result, although the mix of vehicles on the roads has changed, overall demand has grown. Despite a longer-term downward trend, over the last few years total vehicle kilometres across Greater London have increased slightly, with a more pronounced rise in outer London. 10
This reversal of the previous reduction in vehicle usage, combined with the proactive reallocation of road space to bus and cycle lanes, has led to growing congestion. Although not a perfect measure of congestion, average vehicle delay is the most commonly used. On that measure, London now ranks as the sixth most congested city in the world and the most congested in Western Europe. 11 The problem is particularly pronounced in central London, where average vehicle delays have increased by 46 per cent in the 10 years to 2016. 12 However, as Figure 1 illustrates, the issue now spreads far wider than central London, particularly at peak times.
Congestion has a big impact on individual London residents, commuters, visitors, businesses and public services. It also affects London’s overall productivity levels, economic competitiveness and reputation as a global city to do business in. London’s drivers lost 277 hours to traffic jams in 2018, costing £4.9 billion in direct and indirect costs or £1,680 per driver. 11
Congestion also impacts public transport users. Bus speeds in London have been declining faster than anywhere else in the UK, and this has a direct link to usage. 14 Indeed, London bus passenger numbers have declined by six per cent over the last three years – and as much as 15 per cent in some areas. 15 Yet, buses are among the most efficient forms of travel, especially at peak times. 4.5 times more people can be transported per hour by an average occupancy bus in the same area of road space, than by car. 16
Road transport is a major contributor to carbon dioxide emissions and various pollutants that impact on local air quality. Approximately half of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM) air pollution in London is estimated to stem from road transport. 17 Electric vehicles offer an opportunity to improve air quality, but even these produce harmful emissions from brake, tyre and road wear: non-exhaust processes contribute approximately half of coarser PM10 and a quarter of finer PM2.5 road traffic emissions. 18 Manufacturing cars, and in particular batteries, also has a significant environmental impact. The best way of improving air quality is to reduce overall vehicle usage.
There are now well established links between air pollution and a range of serious lung, heart, circulatory and other conditions. 19 These pollutants seem to be particularly harmful to children, older people and those with pre-existing lung and heart conditions. 20 Yet, London consistently breaches binding international pollution limits. 21 Contrary to popular belief, it is not only central London that suffers from high pollution levels, but other areas close to busy roads and centres of economic activity (see Figure 2).
In London, air pollution is responsible for 141,000 life years lost annually, as well as over 3,400 hospital admissions, and costs the economy an estimated £3.7 billion a year. 22 Little wonder that Public Health England recently called on London and other cities to take radical action – including introducing road user charges – to reduce the overall number of vehicles on the roads and incentivise a shift away from polluting vehicles. 23 While concern about air pollution among Londoners has grown, as more evidence of its impact on health has emerged, misconceptions about relative exposure persist. Nearly half (49 per cent) of Londoners believe they are least exposed to poor air quality whilst in a car; 24 yet, studies have shown that car drivers and passengers have the greatest exposure on more congested routes as they spend longer in slow moving traffic. 25
As well as being a highly harmful source of air pollution, London’s vehicles pose other less direct public health challenges. There are now well-established links between physical activity, health and wellbeing. Inactivity has played a big role in the rise of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, dementia and other diseases. Physical inactivity is estimated to cost the UK as much as £1.2 billion a year and is the fourth most important risk factor for premature death. 26
Yet, widespread car use and the domination of London’s roads and streets by cars and other vehicles have contributed to a decline in physical activity such as walking and cycling, and, to some extent, social connectivity. Car owners in London are half as likely to undertake the government’s recommended 30 minutes of activity a day than those who do not own cars. 27 Currently only an average of 16 per cent of travel time in London is spent walking or cycling. 28 Yet, nearly half of car trips made by London’s residents could be cycled in around 10 minutes and more than a third of them could be walked in under 25 minutes. 29 It is estimated that recent public realm improvements to support active lifestyles in Walthamstow alone are delivering an increase in life expectancy of between seven and nine months. 30 Providing alternatives to car dependent lifestyles would help address some of the broader health needs of the population.
While London’s roads have got safer, 3,750 people were seriously injured and 131 people killed in collisions on our roads in 2017, with vulnerable road users (pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists) comprising the vast majority of casualties.
31 This is a level of harm that would never be tolerated in other areas of life. The Mayor of London has also introduced a Vision Zero action plan with the goal of eliminating all deaths and serious injuries from London’s transport network by 2041. Reducing traffic levels and speeds, widening pavements and creating safer routes for pedestrians and cyclists are all essential to meeting
Roads and streets are not just conduits of movement but also places where people play, exercise, socialise, relax and trade. As the city grows and density increases, the availability of public outdoor space becomes increasingly important for liveability. It is sometimes argued that businesses oppose moves to curtail car use and tame traffic, but London’s leading developers invest heavily in creating an attractive, car-free or car-light public realm, because they understand that this is what businesses, shoppers and residents want.
However, London consistently ranks badly when it comes to the quality of its roads, streets and public realm. Low scores in these areas, as well as persistent congestion and pollution, were the main factors contributing to London’s 41st place in Mercer’s 2018 Global Quality of Living Ranking. 32 Cars take up a disproportionate amount of space not only on roads but also at the kerbside and in driveways, as the average car is parked and not in use at least 95 per cent of the time. 33 With fewer cars on the road, this space could be used for wider pavements, additional cycle lanes, green space or other public realm improvements.
The final issues facing London’s transport system are those of funding and fairness. The way that roads are funded in London is complicated and in several respects curious, if not plain unfair.
All London drivers, like drivers throughout the country, are charged Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) and Fuel Duty, which are collected and spent nationally. While Fuel Duty goes towards general taxation, VED is now hypothecated to roads spending through the National Roads Fund. However, transport is an area devolved to the Mayor of London, so the capital does not receive a proportion of the National Roads Fund, as other regions do. Central government only takes responsibility for the motorways, which comprise 0.4 per cent of the total length of London’s roads, so little of what the capital’s drivers pay in vehicle taxation is spent on the capital’s roads.
In London, there is also an imbalance between the relative financial contributions of drivers and some public transport users to the overall transportation system costs in London. Despite the current Mayor’s policy to freeze bus and most tube and rail single journey fares, the price of daily and weekly caps and travelcards has consistently increased, affecting regular commuters. 34 By comparison, the cost of driving in the UK has decreased, in part because Fuel Duty has been frozen since 2010. The Underground is the only TfL service that makes an operating surplus, which then goes to support other parts of the transport system. These include London’s roads and streets, as the Congestion Charge, the only direct income in this area, is not sufficient to cover road maintenance and investment 35
However, TfL’s budget has come under increasing pressure, from cuts to government grants, falling fare revenues (due to declining usage) and the delay in opening Crossrail. 36 And while TfL is responsible for the strategic road network in London, the remaining dense network of local roads is managed by local authorities, whose budgets have also declined. Although the boroughs receive some transport and environment funding from central government and TfL, their ability to raise transport related-funding themselves is largely limited to parking charges. Their core funding will have been reduced by 63 per cent in real terms over the decade to 2020. 37
All this means that London’s roads are not self-financing and sustained underinvestment has led to a poor quality network. Potholes, dangerous junctions and narrow pavements threaten the safety of drivers, pedestrians and cyclists alike.
38 It has been estimated that simply clearing the backlog of underinvestment
on London’s roads would take nine years and cost £466 million. 39
The issue of fairness extends beyond financial imbalances. It can be argued that drivers do not pay fair compensation for the wider negative impacts they cause on society as a whole, in terms of the economic cost of congestion and the health costs of pollution. Furthermore, these negative impacts harm the poorest and most vulnerable in society the most. People living in the capital’s most deprived areas are, on average, exposed to about a quarter more NO2 pollution than those living in the wealthiest areas, 40 and nearly a quarter of London schoolchildren are exposed to illegal levels of air pollution. 19 Poorer people are also more likely to be exposed to road danger, 42 and to live and work in places with poor quality public realm and transport connectivity. 43 Yet, those groups contribute to the problem the least: middle income households have the highest car ownership, while low income households rely especially on buses. 44 Therefore, disadvantaged Londoners would benefit most from improved air quality and road safety, more reliable bus journeys and investment in public transport and healthier streets.