Michael Liebreich is an entrepreneur, clean energy and transport expert, member of the Board of Trade, former member of the London Transport Board and an Olympic skier. This is the final part of a series in which he explains what it will take for a Conservative candidate to pull off an unexpected victory in the 2024 London mayoral race.
In this final installment, we’ll look at transportation.
Great transport reset
The primary reason people live in cities is to communicate with each other quickly and frictionlessly. For this the transport system has to work simply. Right now, it doesn’t. And nowhere does London have such a backlog of innovation when it comes to transport.
Twenty years ago, there were 40,000 minicabs in London, operating from certain offices; By 2019, on the eve of the pandemic, that number had risen to 95,000, driving pollution, congestion and friction on the roads. Twenty years ago, there were 6,500 buses in London – today there are just under 9,000; Ridership peaked in 2014. Twenty years ago, Waze and Google didn’t exist pushing drivers into a rat race on residential streets. Twenty years ago, there was no home delivery; Today we have delivery vans backing up on our roads, double parking and blocking other road users.
Forget Khan’s bogus suggestion last year about dropping bus routes – it was political theater to back up the government’s demand for another TFL bailout. All aspects of London’s surface transport need to be rethought, to shape the city for the next 30 years.
The idea that buses are working class transport and should be preferred over all other modes of transport needs to be said for the canard. London’s bus routes need to be restructured to bring people into central London or between the outer boroughs, not criss-crossing central London and free-flowing onto Oxford Street (which should eventually be pedestrianised). Today’s technology allows buses to adapt to capacity and demand – no more excuses for running empty buses.
London’s shopping and commercial hub, Zone 1, should be served by a network of accessible, autonomous electric shuttles – technology that exists today – complemented by black cabs and delivery vehicles. If London is to retain its iconic black cabs in the long term, the service they provide needs to be clearly differentiated from that provided by private hire vehicles. Because of this, they are over regulated and the vehicles are much more expensive.
Conservative mayoral candidates should avoid getting into low-traffic neighborhoods and bicycling culture wars. They may be great at whipping up a narrow segment of the Conservative base, but it won’t deliver a mayoral majority, as we’ve seen. The next mayor will have to negotiate a peace deal between those who value the freedom to drive and those who value the freedom to enjoy their local streets. Where there are trade-offs, most weight should be given to local needs, not rat-runners, and to access and security, not convenience.
As for cycling, we all walk but only a minority cycle. Why can walking in London be so unpleasant, yet we discuss cycling? The next mayor will be a walking mayor.
Software will eat congestion
Another canard that needs to be said is that London’s biggest transport problem is its limited area and road layout. Digital technology allows smart allocation of road space. London, a pioneer in congestion charging, must be a pioneer in dynamic road pricing – to manage congestion and allocate space between different road users at different times of the day.
London’s curb space also needs to be dynamically managed. A thought experiment: imagine you suddenly wake up in a city with no parked cars. What would you do with two extra lanes on either side of each road? Bus and bike lanes? Filter lanes to improve traffic flow? Street cafe? Charging stations? Drop-off bay for home delivery? More terms for taxis and minicabs? Public toilets? Pocket parks and playgrounds? Car club parking? One thing’s for sure: there’s no way you’re going to hand over all the space London’s car owners have to store their expensive, unused vehicles, despite their vociferous protests.
Dynamic road and curb pricing promises to improve London’s safety and quality of life, while raising funds in a way that aligns city hall and council incentives with the need to keep traffic moving. But unlike Khan’s ULEZ extension it needs to be done in a fair and transparent manner.
Show us the money
The next mayor needs to stop running cap-in-hand to the government for transport funding except for projects of national importance such as Crossrail 2. Khan will leave the next mayor with a deal that commits London to a decade of transport austerity – negotiated with the Department for Transport’s here-now-yesterday transport commissioner Andy Byford. The only way out of its austerity is for TfL to cut costs and find new sources of income.
During my six years on the board of TfL, coming from the world of private business, I was amazed at the bureaucracy. I have never seen a volume of papers produced by so many and read by so few. Despite repeated ‘cost-saving’ programmes, TfL today has 600 managers earning more than £100,000 a year. Its debt has been increasing for years before covid hit. Money can be saved, and a lot of it.
On the revenue side, it’s about making TfL’s commercial operations harder. Surplus land should be transferred to a separate unit, a portion of which is sold both to generate funds and to bring in talent and investment. As a result the joint venture should be commercially run to throw cash at TfL every year. Much more third-party funding – from councils, businesses and, where appropriate, crowdfunding – is expected of TfL to be brought in to cover the costs of all things that do not bring in revenue. Beyond advertising, TfL also has opportunities to extract greater value from its estate in sectors such as telecoms, energy and hospitality.
London’s transport system has come to a standstill. A Conservative offer for London would have to show a clear path to sorting it out, preparing TfL for the coming decades and funding it.
Of course, all of this begs a final question. Who will be the Conservative mayoral candidate? Above all, it needs to be someone who can strongly communicate the overall position I set out here: to address the sense of chaos and flux hanging over London, while simultaneously addressing Khan’s policy backlog and delivering the innovation needed to make our city great for the future. prepare