Friday, December 09, 2005

Congestion charge OVER London, please

Two snippets of contrasting information from this morning’s Wake Up to Money on Radio 5.

1. BAA unveils plans to press ahead with a new runway at London’s Stansted Airport, home to the low-cost airlines, and 30 miles from where I live. They want to increase throughput of passengers from the current 21million a year to around 50million. It will be expensive and both Ryan Air and EasyJet are complaining about extra charges but it doesn’t appear to be making any difference as Central Government is “determined to press ahead.” Their logic seems to be, according to David Learmont, editor of Flight International, that without new runways at both Heathrow and Stansted, London will become a “no travel zone.” DL commented that Paris Charles de Gaul has more runways than all of London’s three main airports combined. He seemed to be suggesting that without more runways, people would choose to fly to Paris instead. Which is a bizarre thought. “Where are we going to go on holiday? I know. Let’s look for the city with the most runways, that’ll be sure to be worth a visit.”

2. Bus services were deregulated in 1986, twenty years ago. They are now run by private companies throughout the country, with the one exception of London. However, during that time, the number of bus journeys has fallen by 7%. The only place where bus journeys are up is in, you guessed it, London. Is this a coincidence? Unlikely. Apparently, bus companies are not allowed to work together to provide connecting services because this can be construed as “distorting competition.” During these twenty years, the price of both bus and train tickets have risen faster than inflation. Meanwhile, car ownership is cheaper than ever, in relative terms.

What have these two items got to do with housebuilding? Transport and housing are intimately linked. We have a government committed to a “sustainable” housing policy, based largely around the notion that the journey to work must be accomplished by any other method than a car. On this basis, they will allow an absolute minimum amount of development in the countryside or on greenfields, insisting that urban cramming (aka brownfield development) is the future.

But the root of the problem here is transport, not housing. You can’t have a sustainable housing policy without a sustainable transport policy. The residents of these new brownfield developments still want or need cars and consequently building in towns just adds to overall congestion. Providing better bus services would be one sensible way of alleviating this problem but this just hasn’t happened. The political will just isn’t there, outside London.

The government’s transport policies are anything but sustainable, as the two news snippets indicate. A sustainable approach to air travel would be to say “Enough is enough.” There are already flights to London from all over the world. If anybody wants to get here, they can, very easily and pretty cheaply. If the demand grows, then passengers should pay more for their seats, just as Ryan Air and EasyJet do so effectively. In effect, we should have a congestion charge in the skies over London, just as there is on its streets. Doubling the number of flights into London will not only double the CO2 emissions from all the extra air journeys, but increase congestion on the ground as all these new arrivals go about their business.

And buses? The fact that the bus services have been left to languish for so long since the mistaken privatisations of the 1980s smacks of the fact that no one really cares about them. Except, it seems, Ken Livingstone, mayor of London, and the man behind London’s innovative congestion charging. He has spent a huge amount of money on buses in London and the results speak for themselves. They are packed. People will use them, if the services are frequent and reliable. The added success of many Park & Ride schemes around the country also shows that people are prepared to make combined journeys, part car, part bus or train, but they have to be certain that the bus/train link will be working.

But when I want to visit London, I am faced by a dilemma. I live out in the wilds of Cambridgeshire so I am off the grid as regards sensible public transport options. My journey has to start by car. But, if I am going into Central London, which is only 60 miles away, I don’t want to be in my car when I arrive, as I will have to pay the congestion charge and find somewhere expensive to park. Question is where do I break the journey and switch to public transport? I have basically three options.

A I drive to Cambridge, 15 miles away (and due west, rather than south in the direction of London) and catch the King’s Cross non-stop train: it runs every half hour and only takes 45 minutes, so it’s an excellent service. But it’s expensive to park at Cambridge station and there is no guarantee that there will be a parking space there on weekday mornings. That’s a stress I can do without. Last time I took this option, they sold me an overnight parking ticket for £12 when the car park was already full!

B I drive to a station on the Cambridge-Liverpool St line, one of which, ironically, is Stansted Airport. The trains are slower than the other line and they head into the City rather than the West End which is rarely convenient for me and usually results in much longer tube journeys, which I don’t look forward to. But there is usually adequate parking, although Stansted parking is expensive and involves a three or four mile detour off the M11 motorway to get to.

C I drive into the outskirts of London and look for a tube station with a car park. Redbridge, on the Central Line, can be good as it’s at the end of the M11 and the parking there is cheap, as little as £2.50 a day. Hop on the tube there and you’ll be at Oxford Circus in 40 minutes. But arrive before 2pm and you won’t find a place in the car park and you have to look at car parks and stations further east, which is time consuming and stressful. Redbridge car park could easily have been developed into a Park & Ride node but no doubt that’s not regarded as a sustainable option because it sort of encourages people to drive part way into London and so it languishes as a relatively small 200-space car park.

In reality, none of these options is ideal. There is no easy Park & Ride option for London: you are left to fend for yourself and try to figure out which route will be the easiest and where the parking might be adequate and affordable. Added to which there is no way of knowing which car parks have space, let alone being able to reserve a parking space in advance.

Why is it so difficult? If I did the journey every day, I would develop a pattern or a routine and I’d be able to do the same thing each day without thinking. But because my time of travel and my London destinations vary, I often set off from Weston Colville with no idea how I am going to complete my journey. That speaks volumes for the lack of integration in British transport policy. For too long, it has been dominated by the Cars are Bad, Public Transport is Good dogma. The result is that you cannot drive your car where you want without congestion or parking problems and that consequently you struggle to find sensible ways to use public transport. Unless, of course, you want to fly somewhere.

Incidentally, there is more space given over to parking at Stansted Airport than there is to runways. And I think BAA makes more money out of its airport car parks than it does out of its landing rights. At least BAA understands the Park & Fly concept. I occasionally catch a Ryan Air flight for some ridiculously low fee, under £10, and when I get back to Stansted, I have to pay £45 to get the car out of the car park. Its expensive, but at least you know where you stand. The same cannot be said of our railway car parking.