This chapter explores the most important challenges and opportunities facing London’s roads and streets. We identify five developments in particular that are raising new issues and opening up possibilities for London’s surface transport system and public realm.
1.1 A Growing City
London’s population and economy have been growing. Its population has increased rapidly over the last two decades and is predicted to keep growing by roughly 100,000 people a year for the foreseeable future. Economic growth in London, meanwhile, was significantly higher – 27.1 per cent – from 2010-15 than any other region in the UK. 1
The result of this growth in population and economic activity is that London’s surface transport systems have become increasingly congested and, without radical intervention, this congestion is only going to get worse, as London’s roads and streets have a finite capacity.
Vehicle journey times rose by an average of 12 per cent annually across central London between 2012 and 2015. 2 Increased competition for carriageway space is illustrated by the rapid growth in cycling (133 per cent in the years 2000-15), 3 with cyclists now making up over a quarter of all rush hour vehicle traffic in central London. And the competition for space does not stop at the kerb, 4 with many of London’s pavements already crowded and demand set to grow. The arrival of the Elizabeth Line, for example, is expected to increase the capacity of the rail network to discharge pedestrians onto central London streets by 10 per cent.
The impact of congestion, however, is contested and dependent on how one measures it. There are broadly three ways to look at congestion:
Speed of traffic and time spent in delays.
Reliability of journey time, irrespective of speed.
Proportion of trips caught up in delays caused by traffic.
On the one hand, journey speeds 5 and total vehicle delays measured by minutes per kilometre are worsening, 6 with the cost of vehicle delays expected to double by 2036. 7 Journey time reliability has also dropped. 8 Many road users, including businesses involved in the consultation process, report that with tight delivery windows to meet, it is the unreliability of journeys and the uncertainty this causes, rather than the journey speeds and delays, that has the most severe impact of them. 9 There is, however, a realisation from business membership organisations consulted by the Commission that if journey speeds continued to fall, this would also likely become an issue. Bus operations are also disproportionately affected by unreliability, which has been rising since 2013/14, 10 and has meant operators are forced to use more buses to meet their schedules or turn buses around before the end of routes more frequently.
Yet London’s growth is also an opportunity.
A larger population, living at higher densities and the economic growth it will bring with it, could support a more extensive public transport service, while sustaining stronger local economies and better local amenities, so lessening the need to travel.
Indeed, congestion is already affecting a smaller proportion of trips and people, as travel time spent in a vehicle has fallen, and more trips are being made by public transport, walking and cycling. The percentage of journeys completed by car, as well as travel time spent as the driver or passenger of a car, have both fallen significantly over the last decade, 11 although this is probably as a result of the shift away from car use generally.
So can we alleviate congestion? In the past, many suggested that the answer lay in increasing road capacity, but in cities with growing population numbers, this is unlikely to ease congestion in the long term, as more trips would likely be made by road users previously deterred by any expected time delays. Individuals are both price and time sensitive, and suppressed trips will be freed up when spare road space emerges. No matter what the capacity, congestion – as measured by journey speeds – reaches an equilibrium. 12
However, we can reduce the impact of congestion by reducing the proportion of people it affects and also improving the reliability of journey times. Measures that encourage a higher use of active travel (i.e. walking and cycling) and more efficient modes (i.e. public transport) will reduce the proportion of car trips and, while delays from congestion may not reduce, fewer travellers will be affected by them and many of those remaining may find that alternatives will be more suitable for them in the long run.
Finally, it is important to remember that it’s not just road space that has come under increasing pressure in recent years, so has parking space – kerb-side space in particular. Drivers looking to leave a vehicle or make a delivery find it increasingly hard to secure a place to park. And as with road space, transport authorities face difficult choices between different demands when allocating kerb space. Different road users – taxis, private cars, delivery and service vehicles, motor cyclists and cyclists, pedestrians – all lay claim to it. And there are many alternative uses for converted parking spaces, from wider pavements to servicing facilities cycle lanes.
1.2 Equity and Deprivation
Though London is a rich city, it is very far from an equitable one.
The capital has long had high levels of deprivation and this remains the case today – roughly a third of London’s children grow up in poverty, compared to around a quarter across the UK as a whole. 13 Moreover, on many measures, inequality and poverty have worsened over the last decade. The growing housing shortage has led to a widening wealth gap between (mainly older) people, who own property and (mainly younger) people, who do not. 14 Living costs, especially housing costs, have gone up much faster than earnings and welfare benefits, putting huge pressure on household budgets. 15 And there are good reasons for thinking that these trends are likely to continue, as population growth pushes up living costs and public spending cuts intensify. If Brexit weakens the London economy, as most economists predict, this is likely to make things even tougher for disadvantaged Londoners.
The design and management of London’s roads and streets, along with its broader transport system, shape patterns of equity, opportunity and deprivation in many ways.
Transport costs are high and make up a sizeable proportion of many household budgets. Poorer Londoners are more likely to fall victim of air pollution 16 and road accidents, 17 and to live and work in places with poor quality public realm, and transport connectivity. 18
Another aspect of equity and disadvantage is related to disability and reduced mobility. For many years, most public transport was profoundly inaccessible to physically disabled people because of the use of steps or stairs. Although much has been done to improve accessibility, this process is not yet complete. At the same time the number of Londoners with disabilities is likely to grow as London‘s population ages. For both older and younger Londoners who are not fully mobile, there are challenges with moving around the city and having access to services. The design and management of roads and streets will shape their ability to move around the city.
For all the progress made by women in recent decades, they continue to remain disadvantaged in many respects. London’s women, for instance, earn less through their life time than men, 19 are more likely to live in poverty, 20 and take on more than their fair share of domestic caring duties. They can feel less safe using public transport and streets, parks and other public spaces in London. Our transport system and roads and streets need to be designed and managed to cater to the particular needs of London’s women – including distinct and more local travel patterns 21 – and, as far as possible, address rather than exacerbate gender-based inequalities.
Against this background, the Commission took issues of equity, opportunity and deprivation very seriously. Our recommendations are designed to ensure a fair distribution of costs and benefits and promote economic and social inclusion.
1.3 Roads and Streets as Places
Roads and streets are not just conduits of movement for people and vehicles, but also places where people play, exercise, socialise, interact and trade (see Figure 1).
Too often in the past, however, planners and policy makers have prioritised the transport function of roads and streets to the neglect of their place function.
The public realm has always been important to cities, but it is becoming more so. London has placed a much higher value on public realm and social spaces over the past decade or so, with differently designed roads and places, and an appetite for occupying the city in a different way. As the city grows, and density increases, the availability of public outdoor space becomes more important.
The economic value of investment in public realm improvements is increasingly recognised. For example, it has been reported that better quality design can increase property and land values, rental yields, retail footfall, and consumer spend. 22 It is sometimes argued that businesses oppose moves to curtail car use and tame traffic movement, but London’s leading developers invest heavily in creating attractive public realm, with car free or car-light environments in their own developments, because they understand that is what occupiers want. Yet London consistently ranks poorly when it comes to the quality of its roads and streets. Low scores in these areas was a main factor in London ranking 40th globally in Mercer’s 2017 Quality of Living Ranking. 23
It is not that we fail to spend money on our roads and streets. TfL and the boroughs spend large amounts on highway maintenance, safety schemes, paving, and layout and junction modification. These are, however, not viewed as design or public realm projects but as purely engineering solutions. Components of good urban design are well understood and codified in numerous manuals and reviews, but good public realm cannot be guided purely by manuals and codes – it requires good designers. Urban design capacity at the local level is therefore another challenge that needs to be addressed.
1.4 Healthy Streets, Healthy People
London faces some big public health challenges and the way we use our roads and streets plays a major role in them. We distinguish four ways in particular in which the way we plan, design and manage our roads and streets shapes our health.
First, traffic collisions have long been an important source of serious injury and death. In 2015, there were 2,092 people killed or seriously injured on London’s roads, equating to nearly six every day, half of which were pedestrians or cyclists. 24 Our apparent acceptance of injury and death from motor vehicles now stands in stark contrast to our attitude to what we will tolerate in other contexts. Construction companies, for instance, and airline businesses now adhere to zero-harm policies – they take the view that no serious injuries or death are acceptable.
Second, transport-related air pollution has emerged as a very significant health concern – approximately half of air pollution in London is estimated to stem from road transport. 25 While the concentrations of some air pollutants have fallen recently, there are a number of regulatory breaches in London’s air in terms of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM). 26, 27
There are both European Union (EU) and World Health Organisation (WHO) limits and guidelines for acceptable levels of each pollutant, as shown in the table on the following page. 28 The Government suggests that 48 major roads in London alone breach legal limits for NO2 (although data quality issues mean this figure may be an underestimate). 29 There are a number of studies which link exposure to NO2 and increasingly PM, even for a short period, to a range of serious illnesses and adverse health effects, increased hospital admissions and higher mortality rates. 30
Actual and perceived air quality is a significant determinant of life satisfaction for Londoners, 31 indicating improving air quality and perceptions of it would be important to attract people to the city, as well as improving the quality of life for current Londoners.
Electric vehicles offer an opportunity to improve air quality, since they produce less pollution at source than diesel or petrol ones. As a result, government and transport authorities are trying to promote their take up. But even these produce harmful particulate emissions from brake, tyre and road wear.
Third, transport choices determine levels of physical activity, which in turn shapes both our physical and mental health. Half of the top 12 causes of illness and early death in Londoners relate to, or are exacerbated by, physical inactivity and encouraging active travel can help with the broader health needs of the population. 32 While 32 per cent of adult males and 47 per cent of females do not meet minimum physical activity levels, this problem is even more acute for children: 76 per cent of boys and 78 per cent of girls are not active enough. 33 The latest figures for the 2015-16 school year for London school children show that 21.9 per cent of those in reception, and 38.1 per cent of those in year six, are overweight or obese. 34 This is a public health time bomb. 35 While most school children live within walking distance of their school, less than half (43.7 per cent) actually do walk, while only 2.6 per cent cycle. 36
People who own cars are less likely to be active, 37 so creating environments where people need to walk or cycle as part of their daily lives will contribute to lowering high levels of obesity and inactivity. Currently only an average of 28 per cent of travel time is spent walking or cycling. 38 Yet, nearly half of car trips made by London residents could be cycled in around 10 minutes and more than a third of car trips could be walked in under 25 minutes. 39 The Greater London Authority (GLA)estimates that there is potential for the proportion of travel time spent walking or cycling to more than double to 60 per cent. If this is achieved, it would deliver a health benefit of 61,500 life years and an economic benefit of £2.2bn per annum. 40
Finally, roads and streets shape social interactions in a way that can affect our health. There is a rich body of research demonstrating the way in which the design of cities and the management of traffic affects crime, 41 neighbourly relations and other aspects of social capital, and well established evidence of relations between social capital and human health and well-being. 42
Relying solely on technology and the electrification of the vehicle fleet will not address the multi-faceted nature of London’s health crisis. Moving to a transport system that is less car-reliant and promotes more active travel would have large health benefits.
1.5 Harnessing Technological Innovation
Technology has always been a major determinant in how we move around. Just think about the way in which the development of the steam engine and then road-based combustion engines led to the development of suburbs.
Transport is now being revolutionised by a new wave of technologies – and ones that will have profound, perhaps particularly acute, implications for cities.
The way we use technology sits within a wider societal shift away from a culture of owning goods to a digital and sharing economy. Rapid technological development is disrupting traditional transport markets, revolutionizing information and sales channels, and creating entirely new supply chains.
There are two main interlinked developments that are impacting and will impact roads and streets: Mobility as a Service (MaaS) and Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs). Both of these are at their early stages of development and deployment, but are starting to, and have the potential to, transform the way we move around our cities, necessitating action now if we are to influence their effects.
Digital technology is already making it much easier to plan and personalise our journeys. We can map a route, call up a cab, unlock a car club car or pay for a bus or train with a smart phone or other digital device. The same technology allows us to access live updates while we are travelling and adapt our route accordingly, allowing for work, entertainment, or socialising on the journey. One result is that private cars are not as useful or as alluring as they once were – especially in a city like London with good public transport. We are moving from a world of mobility as a product – the private car – to Mobility as a Service, and car ownership in London has fallen accordingly. 43
It is estimated that by 2030 the value of the Mobility as a Service sector globally will exceed $1tn. 44 London is already home to several important players in the MaaS sector and a continued open data policy and tech-friendly stance could enable the capital to maintain or advance its position – to the benefit of London’s transport users but also to its engineering and transport businesses, who can sell the services they develop in London around the world.
Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are intended to be capable of safely completing journeys without the need for a driver. Advanced driver assistance systems, a step towards autonomy, are already available, and include self-parking, lane control and autonomous emergency braking systems.
Connected vehicle technologies, meanwhile, allow vehicles to communicate with one another or with highway infrastructure and other appropriate technologies.
Connected and autonomous vehicle technologies are not necessarily reliant on one another. However, combining the connected and autonomous elements within vehicles potentially allows for safer, quicker and more efficient vehicle movement.
All of these new transport technologies promise potential benefits. They should make it easier to make informed travel choices and move around the city in less expensive, and more efficient, productive, enjoyable and safer ways. They promise to lessen the need for space-greedy private cars and promote shared or public forms of transport. But they also bring potential challenges. In making it easier and cheaper to move around in cars, they could encourage car use and so contribute to congestion and pollution – witness the increase in use of private cabs with the advent of Uber and similar services – and discourage walking and cycling for some trips. Mobility as a Service models also challenge some of the traditional structures of transport ownership, operation and regulation.