Interview: Christian Wolmar, transport journalist and prospective mayoral candidate for London

Not long ago, we discussed the Conservative Mayor of London's Vision for Cycling with his newly appointed Cycling Commissioner Andrew Gilligan. Now, we speak to Christian Wolmar, former LCC trustee and respected transport journalist, who's also a prospective Labour candidate for the next London mayoral election.

You can follow Christian via his website or Twitter. Photo: Paul Bigland

Q: If you were mayor, how would you make London a better city?

London is a fantastically successful city, with so much going for it, but it is falling behind other cities on issues around liveability. There is rapidly rising inequality, a shortage of housing, under-investment in transport infrastructure and serious problems around congestion and air quality.

Making London a better, safer, nicer place to be is what my campaign is about. One of the important aspects of making London a more liveable city is to improve its environment in every way possible. The key to this is to reduce the number of cars and lorries coming into central London while improving all other modes of transport.

A bit of a historical perspective is helpful here. For a period in the aftermath of the Second World War, it seemed that the car would be king. People would drive into central London and park their cars in huge underground car parks. The London Underground was neglected with very little investment, the bus service was unreliable, cycling was dismissed as being only suitable for those who could not afford a car and there was even talk of closing railways like the North London Line.

The apogee of this type of thinking was the plan for the ringways, three (or four, depending on the version of the plan) circular motorways that would cut swathes through London. One broadly became the M25 and the middle one would have followed the route of the North and South Circulars.

But it was the central ringway that was most extraordinary in terms of the devastation that would have been caused and, remarkably, part of it was built – the Westway linking Shepherds Bush with Paddington. The fact that a plan which would have destroyed 50,000 homes to create space for cars would even have been considered, let alone nearly implemented, gives one a feel for the thinking at the time. When Labour retook control of the GLC in 1973 it scrapped the ringway plans and saved London from becoming a Los Angeles-type of city, dominated by motorways and link roads.

Fortunately, the tide then began to turn...

Instead of major new roads we got bus lanes, controlled parking zones, better enforcement of traffic regulations, cycle lanes and the congestion zone. Thanks to the IRA, we got the 'ring of steel' limiting traffic into the City of London. These measures recognised that the car can be a hindrance rather than an aid to accessibility – a strange but compelling paradox. We have to build on this lesson and go with the historical flow.

Reducing the number of cars coming into the central area is the policy from which all others will follow. There are many ways to achieve it, from reducing parking spaces and implementing a more sophisticated and wider congestion charge zone to creating more bus and cycle lanes and making places such as Parliament Square more pedestrian-friendly. Indeed, one idea I have is to return the north-bound carriageway of Park Lane back to the Royal Park out of which it was taken in the 1960s, to create a crazy motorway between Hyde Park Corner and Marble Arch.

But liveability is not just about improving our environment...

London is in danger of becoming a doughnut, where only the rich can live in the centre. This is damaging in many ways, not least because ordinary people are having to travel increasing distances to work. Making the city more liveable must include preserving the heart and soul of what makes London such a fantastic place by addressing the issue of ever-rising inequality measures such as the Living Wage, ensuring a good supply of social housing and making fares affordable are all essential to improving London.

Q: If you were Mayor of London, where do you think you'd encounter most opposition to plans to make the city more cycle-friendly, and what arguments would you use to win over opponents?

The main point to make is that cycling is not just about cyclists. It so happens that if you provide better cycling facilities — and make it easier for people to come into central London on their bikes — then the whole environment is improved, even for those who will never sit on a two-wheeler. It is quite easy to point to successful examples on the Continent where cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam are much more pleasant for everyone thanks to cycle-friendly policies.

We also need to emphasise the wider health and economic benefits of a more cycle-friendly city. Interestingly enough, at the campaign meetings I am speaking at, this issue rarely comes up. People do occasionally complain about bad behaviour by cyclists, but they rarely oppose the idea of giving them more space and establishing a more cycle-friendly environment. We need to be bold and continue to make pro-cycling arguments in a positive way.

Q: 42,000 people signed LCC’s petition "to make London’s streets as safe and inviting as they are in Holland". Were you one of them and, if so, why did you sign?

Yes, I did sign it and spoke at the 'Big Ride' when 10,000 cyclists turned up in the rain. It is a very interesting and effective campaign that demonstrates there is a mood for change.

Q: The Mayor responded to that petition with his Vision for Cycling – what do you think of it?

It could be fantastic. It is clearly a step change from Boris Johnson’s efforts during his first term of office and the appointment of Andrew Gilligan has clearly given the Mayor’s cycling policy a much greater focus. The Vision for Cycling has many of the ideas which I support.

The main problem, however, is the Mayor's policy of 'smoothing' traffic flow, and that road capacity is not reduced. These aims are incompatible with creating a more pleasant city, safe for cycling. He also doesn't support the idea of a universal 20mph zone, which would send the biggest message of all that vulnerable road users will be protected.

The key to properly implementing the Vision is getting Transport for London to deliver this programme quickly and ensuring local authorities are on board. The relationship between TfL and the boroughs is crucial to the success of this programme and we need a sense of urgency around this issue. Too often, unfortunately, the Mayor’s lofty rhetoric is not matched by reality.

I do have one concern which is whether the Vision will attract all types of cyclist. While I love the idea of turning part of Westway into a cycle lane, the notion of a cycling motorway is not the key to getting people on their bikes. It is aimed at the Lycra-wearing speedy cyclist (and I do sometimes indulge in fast riding on my road bike, though I eschew Lycra!) and in a way so are the Cycle Superhighways which I am glad are now recognised as inadequate.

This highlights the contradiction at the heart of Boris Johnson’s transport policy. He sees no conflict between ensuring that motorists can continue to go fast on London’s roads while trying to increase the number of cyclists. It is as if he is trying to make the cyclists go faster, so they can keep up with the cars, which is not the right way round. 

Q: You were on the board of Cycling England which was disbanded in 2010. What can be learned from its work?

The work we did was ground-breaking, creating the Bikeability scheme as a replacement for the old Cycling Proficiency tests and establishing Cycling Demonstration Towns that were funded at levels comparable with progressive European cities. It was an act of wanton vandalism that Philip Hammond, the then Transport Secretary, abolished Cycling England on the utterly gratuitous grounds that it was a quango. Cycling England spent its budget of £60m with just three staff and a few part-time workers, efficiently and effectively. Something similar needs to be recreated.

Q: How should the Department for Transport react to the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group's Get Britain Cycling report?

The lessons can all be taken from the work of Cycling England. The recommendations of the report have been welcomed by David Cameron but he doesn't recognise there is a key role for government in delivering these changes. Of course local authorities are important, but it is central government which must take the lead in setting a strategy, galvanising support, and showing that it really wants to see change.

And of course, it needs money to speed up change. Without central government taking the lead, many local authorities will simply do nothing, while those who are already supportive will be hamstrung by lack of cash or not have the political will to force through changes that might be unpopular in the short term. That is why, too, the role of London Mayor is so important. It is not only the Mayor’s powers that are crucial, but also the incumbent’s ability to champion causes and influence debate.

Q: Do you agree that more roads will need to be built to cope with the growth in London’s population — a third Blackwall tunnel, for example?

No. Building roads is not the solution. Interestingly, we have reached something approaching ‘peak car’ in London with virtually no growth in car use since the late 1990s. There are good reasons for this including the rising cost of driving, the growing popularity of cycling, company cars no longer being tax exempt and improvements in public transport, especially buses. Therefore, the need for new roads is questionable.

Our efforts should be focused on modal shift, getting people out of their cars for all the reasons with which we are familiar. Of course, vans and other goods vehicles will still need to move around, but there will be plenty of space for them. 

My campaign team, incidentally, is looking at ways of reducing the amount of freight journeys on London’s roads as a key transport initiative.

Q: What lessons come from the reduction in car traffic during the Olympic Games and the continuing fall in private car journeys in London?

The Olympics provided fantastic lessons. First, it showed that good planning and a coherent strategy can achieve substantial modal shift. This is very important as it demonstrates to opponents of schemes that people will leave their cars at home if there are compelling reasons to do so.

Second, a lot of roadspace was taken away for the ‘Games Lanes’ used by the Olympic ‘family’, and yet none of the predicted chaos materialised. That demonstrated that radical changes can be made quickly without damaging effect. I have the idea of using plastic barriers to implement road closures and narrowing quickly and cheaply, as a way of experimenting with what schemes could work.

The changes implemented for the Games also included reducing freight deliveries and changing delivery times away from peak periods, which again was a successful experiment. All these measures need to be followed through as part of the legacy of the Games.

Q: You’ve said in the past that you're astonished by the growth in cycling in London. What do you think are the reasons for this?

There are numerous factors, some of which are the result of action by local authorities, others which have deeper social roots. The turning point came in the early 1990s when a few councils began to implement genuine improvements. The widespread introduction of Advanced Stop Lines, even though a pretty crude measure and not enforced, was important in sending out the message that cyclists are entitled to some roadspace. Similarly, despite the poor nature of much of cycling infrastructure, its very existence sends out a pro-cycling message.

Then there were various events like tube strikes, and the 7/7 bombings in 2005, as well as the introduction of the congestion charge, liberating roadspace in town, which provided boosts to the numbers cycling. There are also demographic shifts at play too with London attracting bright young things from around the country who move to places such as Hackney, which not only has poor public transport but also benefits from a council that has done much to support cycling. All these explanations are partial, however, and probably do not explain the sheer scale of the increase.

The process is to some extent self-perpetuating. In other words, as more people cycle, they form a critical mass which makes it safer for further cyclists. However, we are in danger of reaching a point where all those likely to be attracted to cycling have started doing so and we need to work towards enabling those less certain of the benefits or more frightened of the traffic to get on their bikes. 

Q: You're an expert on the rail industry, having published several books on the subject. Is enough being done to encourage Londoners to combine cycling and train travel, and what more could be done?

This has been a longstanding problem. The issue is not, actually, about getting more bikes on trains. Even the Dutch discourage that, though clearly at off-peak times there should be sufficient accommodation. I welcome, for example, the recent move by TfL to allow bikes on DLR. And of course all new trains should have a limited amount of accommodation for bikes, notably shared space with wheelchairs since, for the most part, this is available for bikes - wheelchairs should obviously have priority. I am delighted to hear that Crossrail trains will have some space on them for bikes.

The key to improving the situation is to have better bike parking at stations. Until recently the situation at London's major stations was nothing short of a scandal and while it has improved somewhat with the new racks at termini like Waterloo and Euston, there is still inadequate provision. The newly refurbished King's Cross has hardly any space, and there would have been no racks in St Pancras had it not been for a campaign by cyclists. Network Rail, TfL and the Department for Transport really need to get their act together on this one. The cycle parking needs to be secure, too, so that people can leave their bikes overnight safely. But please, the recorded woman's voice saying 'these racks are monitored by CCTV 24 hours a day' at Euston is enough to drive anyone happening to park their bike there quite mad!