Transport Select Committee, 29 March 2017 “Urban Congestion”

On 29 March 2017, the Transport Select Committee of the House of Commons held its last meeting to get oral evidence on ‘urban congestion’.  Giving evidence, and answering questions, was Andrew Jones MP, the Minister for Transport.  The minister was accompanied by a civil servant: Anthony Ferguson, (Deputy Director, Traffic and Technology, Department for Transport).  Video of the hearing is available here.  I posted some tweets at the time, but hopefully this post will be easier to read.

The meeting was interesting, if only to hear the patient manner in which Andrew Jones responded to the heavily-loaded questions that members of the committee were asking.  I’ve knocked up notes of a few of the exchanges below (so typos and errors are mine), and drawn a few conclusions at the end.

Exchange between Rob Flello MP (Stoke-on-Trent South) and Andrew Jones, as to whether cycle lanes cause congestion and pollution:

Rob Flello: One of the issues we’ve heard frequently in evidence, taking London as a good example of urban congestion as an example in terms of road space, is that while traffic levels have fallen, traffic has got worse, and that that is due to a reduction in road space, primarily for three competing reasons: one is road works, one is bus lanes and one is cycle lanes.  We’ve also had evidence that although bus and cycle lanes actually create congestion, that Val Shawcross for example is still keen to put more of these schemes in in London under TfL.  Do you not think there is a contradiction between gathering evidence between something does – or does not – work, and then funding schemes to do more of the same that does not work in terms of tackling congestion.

Andrew Jones: Well, I’m not sure that’s right, and I don’t agree with that to be honest. I think we (Dept of Transport) should be gathering data and best practice, and that is a developing role for the department in lots of different ways.  But that doesn’t me we should cut across local decision making. I’m aware that the cycle lanes in London have caused a degree of controversy, but I would suggest that TfL’s view – and TfL can speak for themselves – their thinking on how they can encourage modal shift, and they are thinking along way ahead on how they can provide the infrastructure, way into the future …

Rob Flello (interrupting..): .. it’s causing congestion, that’s not controversial, that’s evidence based.  Traffic levels have fallen, but congestion has got worse and, therefore, pollution has got worse…

Andrew Jones: But again, I think TfL are working – and TfL can talk for themselves – but I think TfL are doing a lot to tackle congestion; they’ve introduced a congestion charge, bus priority measures, they’ve got financial incentives to reduce road works, they are controlling traffic signals to respond to road incidents. What I think they’re seeking to do with the cycle lanes is encourage modal shift to public transport or a more active mode of travel.  So I think they are thinking longer term.  I’m not going to cut across local decision making here, I think we should be encouraging local decisions, as local circumstances are – by definition – local. Our role is to support and provide financial support as well as idea support and best practice to develop …

Rob Flello (interrupting ..) .. even if that is creating more congestion?

Andrew Jones: Well, I think that the people of London can choose who they have as their representatives, and can express their choice (or not) via the ballot box.  But this is a local decision.

Rob Flello: So to be clear, the department collates this information, but if a local body decides to ignore the evidence, that is up to them?

Andrew Jones: Yes, they can do whatever they wish to do.  I have no powers to tell a local authority …. I have no knowledge that any local authority is not working earnestly to execute their responsibilities.  I certainly think TfL are trying to do that, and I think TfL are some of the world leaders in trying to make maximum use of a finite, historic, urban realm for transport, and I think they’re good at it.  So I don’t think it would be my job to wade in and say no.  The people at TfL are responsible to the Mayor (of London), and the people who elected the Mayor have the final say.  So I do not want to cut across local devolution.  We’d find ourselves in a degree of hot water with a number of mayoral candidates …

Exchange between Louise Ellman MP (Chair of the Committee, MP for Liverpool Riverside) and Andrew Jones, regarding construction of cycle lanes and the Government’s forthcoming Cycling & Walking Investment Strategy:

Louise Ellman (Chair): What lessons can be learned for cycling infrastructure from the severe congestion caused in London from the construction of the cycle superhighways?

Andrew Jones: Well, I think the construction of the super highways did cause some congestion.  Certainly, it wasn’t possible to get into a cab in London without getting some feedback ….

Louise Ellman: That’s quite a good test of public opinion

Andrew Jones: (tells cabbie anecdote … ) The introduction of cycle lanes is, I think a positive thing, in that we separate motorised from non-motorised vehicles for safety purposes. I recognise that it is quite intrusive, so on-line working is tough, but separating facilities to provide safer travel for cyclists has to be a good thing given there is clear demand for more cycling facilities.

Louise Ellman: What about the construction? The particular problems about the construction and the disruption they caused?

Andrew Jones: I’m quite sure there were .. but this has to be handled at a local basis. It can’t come to the department whenever a local authority is working to introduce cycle lanes. They have to take that responsibility on a local basis.

Louse Ellman: How do you see the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy developing?  Are you going to put more funds in that? Are you going to change guidance?  For example, cycle lanes?

Andrew Jones: I think it will be more about enabling. What we want to do is make cycling and walking a default choice for shorter journeys. We hope to publish the cycling & walking investment strategy very shortly.  The ambition will be through some funding, certainly. The funding for cycling and walking is £1.1 billion, and 2% of the department’s budget, so a significant budget.  We intend to measure this, the strategy’s success, by measuring the total number of cycle stages made, walking activity: we want more encouraging measures to get more people to walk to school.  Again, it’s on a local basis, the strategy will include tools for local authorities to develop their own local plans.

Exchange between Iain Stewart MP (Milton Keynes) and Andrew Jones, asking whether cycle lanes can be part-time:

Iain Stewart (MP for Milton Keynes): Two questions on cycle lanes. Firstly, looking at the cycle superhighways in London, they have a very hard barrier between the cycle lanes and the roads.  We’ve heard some comments that in retrospect that was a mistake: while we should have cycle lanes, they should not have that hard barrier, partly to reduce the construction time and cost, but potentially to allow the space to be used for motor traffic at certain times when the cycle lanes may not be being heavily used . Is that something you’re reviewing?

Andrew Jones: Caution required on that. We have a local transport note on cycle infrastructure design and that provides advice for local authorities about designing good, safe cycle schemes that are within current legislation. I think to have parts of the cycling facility designated partly as a motoring facility, then becoming a cycle facility, I think instinctively unsafe and difficult to manage and potentially quite unsafe. I quite like the idea of keeping the two separate …

Iain Stewart: .. sorry to interrup, but at what cost?

Andrew Jones: .. in what sense?

Iain Stewart: .. in the sense that the cycle lanes along the Embankment are often unused, when you’ve got traffic sitting stationary and belching out goodness knows what emissions which will be damaging the atmosphere. And if you didn’t have a hard barrier between the two, then at a very local level they could decide it is better for the environment to allow some of those lanes to be used for motor traffic.

Andrew Jones: No one has brought that suggestion to me, I will give it some consideration. My gut feel is that we should be trying to separate, for safety purposes, wherever possible. I understand your point, but I think it would be quite difficult to achieve.  Some people have come to me with the suggestion that motor bikes could use cycle lanes. I have reservations about that simply because of the speed differences between the two modes of transport.

Iain Stewart: My related question is once a cycle lane like the superhighways is in place, what retrospective analysis is made of the cost/ benefit ratio in the sense that where I live in London (down here) along the highway on what was, relatively a free moving road in the morning peak, is now you have miles of congestion and often heavy good vehicles sitting stationary emitting lots of emissions. Is that taken into consideration when planning future cycle lanes?

Andrew Jones: This goes back to our earlier conversation about who is planning them, and the role of the local authority here.  These are local questions and we (the department) do not plan these schemes. Our role here is to help with infrastructure design, this is why we have this local transport note , so it will  come down to local authorities planning and implementing to meet their local demand, not just now, but particularly into the future to cater for what I think is significant cycling growth.

Anthony Ferguson, (Deputy Director, Traffic and Technology, Department for Transport): We have seen some evolution in that the traffic signs regulations signed off last year included new facilities (signs, markings, signals) that are designed to facilitate and encourage cycling.  The note the minister refers to covers the harder construction issues.  There’s a flip side to what you said : as a user of the one (the cycle highway) outside this building in that while it may  be quiet, when it is busy it can be very, very busy and, if volume were to grow any more then having built it so big then it can only be so big ‘cos you’ve built a hard kerb there.  Anecdotally, there are already adaptations to the cycle highway, so TfL are already starting to make changes at a local level .  They have people out there monitoring and evaluating, it’s not us (department) doing it, but it’s happening. TfL collect a lot of data about usage, and what that means for the infrastructure they have provided and will provide in future.   I recognise what you say about ‘is it the cyclist or the HGV? Which is right or wrong?’ , it’s back to the earlier point: there’s a bigger canvas you have to look at because the question about whether the HGV is sitting in stationary traffic is more about your freight strategy , than whether cyclists are taking up too much road space.  It’s why TfL are better placed to analyse than we are centrally.

Further exchange between Louise Ellman and Andrew Jones, regarding car sharing:

Louise Ellman:  Is there scope for more sharing?  I believe there are 38 million empty seats in the morning rush hour in individual cars. Do you think there’s scope for more car sharing?

Andrew Jones: Yes, there probably is. There are various schemes, products and providers in the market place.  These are mainly web based platforms . There’s always been an element of car sharing in a work place, or in education, but I can see this growing and enabled by technology.

Louise Ellman:  In terms of road charging, I think you said you were against that, but there are falling revenues from excise duties so wouldn’t that lead you to have to think about road charging in some form?

Andrew Jones: that’s got Treasury written  all over it, so no is the answer!  My job is to get capacity into the networks, and work with local authorities, and take advantage of fantastic opportunities of technology.  VED will change in a few days time, that’s the only change that we have.

What did I conclude?

  1. The Transport Minister, Andrew Jones, does know the detail of his brief e.g. not being tricked by Iain Stewart’s questions about part-time cycle lanes.   We know that the Cycling & Walking Investment Strategy (CWIS) will be starved of cash in comparison to the rest of the transport budget, but I’m hopeful it will have more coherence with this minister’s name on it.
  2. I was disappointed by the quality of questions asked, data used, and anecdotes told by the members of the Transport Select Committee.  Most of the members were pursuing hobbies, some of which were informed by little more than what they can see of London’s Embankment from their Westminster office windows.
  3. I do not have high hopes for the committee’s report on urban congestion: it’s not going to provide startling insights given that the committee members appear to be prioritising their own opinions over hard data.
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