Saturday 28 April 2012

Road Tax...

.. is a topic I have consciously ignored on this blog. Simply because anyone who trots out the road-tax argument as to why car drivers can treat cyclists badly is either unable to use reason or is trolling. Either way it doesn't compel me to engage with the argument.

However, "road-tax" has been in the news again courtesy of the cyclists' friend, John Griffin - boss of Addison Lee. Who thinks cyclists should be told "You want to join our gang, get trained and pay up".

Ignoring the rather presumptuous assertion that anyone would actually want to be part of Mr Griffin's gang in the first place, the issue of tax - specifically "road tax" - is used time and again. Yet it is such a bizarre argument that countering it incurs the danger of being dragged down to the same level. Yes, it is true that "road-tax" was abandoned in the 1930's and it is actually Vehicle Excise Duty which is basically a (rather crude) pollution tax. Yes, the roads, like pretty much everything else, is paid out of a central pot; there isn't a special fund to build and maintain roads whose income is derived from "road-tax". Yes, there is a coherent argument that says the total externalities of cars actually comes to a lot more than the money derived from "road-tax".

But all of this is trying to present logical arguments against a premise that is fundamentally illogical. And the people who use the "road-tax" argument aren't looking to engage in rational debate.

However, when I hear the "road-tax" argument, I do wish to run this to its logical conclusions. 

Firstly, the argument is based upon the assumption that paying more tax infers more rights. This is an exciting development. I have, for many years, had company cars. My last one was a large, rather plush, "executive saloon" which had a large engine and a CO2 emission that wouldn't have pleased anyone in the Green party. I paid quite an extra-ordinary amount in tax for the privilege of sitting in traffic in a leather seat, and when I chose my latest vehicle, I decided to forfeit a badge and leather seats for something that cost me less in tax. According to the "I pay roadtax" philosophy does this now mean I have less rights on the road? How about people driving smart cars or a Prius? Since they don't pay "road-tax" should they be bullied to the side of the road by those that do?

And why should the concept of inferring more rights based on tax paid be used solely with road transport? Why not infer more rights for, say education or NHS access based upon tax paid? How about those who pay more tax having more "rights" to influence where that tax is paid by access to politicians and government? 

Of course this is all nonsense, because the idea that paying more tax infers more rights is also - generally - nonsense. Actually it is something that is usually viewed as undemocratic and unhealthy to society - just look at the scandals involving the very wealthy and politicians. 

Cyclists and pedestrians have a right to the road in law which isn't extended to driving motor vehicles who use the road only by permission. 

So, as much as Mr Griffin wants to blather on about road-tax, the simple fact is that, thankfully, we don't need to "join his gang" to use the road.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Well Done Waltham Forest

I might have missed the article which has caused me optimism for improvements in cycling in Waltham Forest. I haven't seen it widely reported.

However, this article details a plan which has been passed by the council to introduce 20 mph on most of the borough's residential roads, and to allow cyclists to travel both ways on one-way streets. For reasons that I struggle to fathom, the conservatives saw fit to vote against the plan on the grounds of "safety".

As I have mentioned in previous posts, the average speed of travel when using a car on most streets in Waltham Forest makes 30mph seem a fairly distant dream. When one is spending most of the time sitting in queues for junctions, the difference between doing 20mph or 30mph on the short stretches which are free of traffic is unlikely to improve journey time by anything meaningful. And 20 mph will make the residential roads much more amenable to pedestrians, residents and cyclists alike.

The one-way streets are somewhat more contentious, but on roads that have had cycle contraflows enabled, I rarely find an issue cycling them in opposition to traffic flow. Many of these roads have been restricted to stop rat-running and therefore can accommodate two way cycle traffic with little issue. It appears to me from reading up on the subject that one of the issues was actually how to amend signs to allow contra-flow cycling - no entry signs weren't allowed with cycle exceptions apparently, spawning some quite un-intuitive signs and road treatments to accommodate.

So, Waltham Forest should be commended for its plans. It looks like there is a general will to improve matters for cyclists (as well as other non-motorised road users). I do think there is one problem with 20mph though. In that, where roads have been designated 20mph, it is a rare driver that actually sticks to it. My road is a 20 mph traffic calmed one, and I witness every day drivers going way above 30mph, less still 20mph, on it. It is a road with a high number of residents with children, and driving at these speeds shows the lack of consideration one is sometimes up against. So, it isn't enough to simply designate 20mph zones, thought needs to be given to policing it as well. And this is tricky.

Maybe what is needed is a brave redesign of our residential streets along the "home-zone" lines, where it is really difficult to speed in the first place. Maybe we need to look for the police to blitz certain areas in relation to speeding in order to raise the profile. And these schemes could also look to take off the road many of the illegal and uninsured drivers who are statistically more likely to be involved in accidents than those legally using the roads. Apparently, at the last estimate, the percentage of drivers who are illegally using roads in East London may be as high as 10%. Imagine taking these drivers off the roads. Maybe the roads will be slightly less congested - maybe it is even possible that those forced out of their cars would transition to the cycle?

The Speed of Progress

Today, I did a local round trip of around four miles by car. Traffic was much lighter than on an average day - even though on a Sunday one gets stuck behind cars parked on yellow lines. Average speed was 14 mph.

Last week, I drove to Camden one morning, after the 9am school run had finished. I averaged 9mph. Parking cost me the best part of 10 quid.

Last time I drove locally at around 4:30 - 5pm, a short journey of a couple of miles took the best part of 45 minutes. I drive at this time (the perfect storm of the school run and end of work) very occasionally to validate my reasons for using the cycle.

I travel to Camden on my cycle at a much faster average speed. And I am an unfit cyclist on an old and heavy bicycle. The local average in my car today was about the same as my average on a cycle, and this was in traffic that didn't hinder me particularly.

Remind me again, how do bicycles hold up traffic?

Addison Lee Boss : Breaking the law and running over grannies is OK

OK, so he didn't actually say this - but seeing as he is defending his editorial in his Addison Lee magazine by saying he may have used some poetic license, I thought I would as well.

I should imagine most people now know that John Griffin has urged his drivers to use London bus lanes and he will pay the fines whilst AL and TfL slug it out in the court on Monday. Then, he wrote an editorial in the AL magazine which seemed to imply cyclists (especially novice ones) have only themselves to blame if they are run over. And then capped it all by dropping in the classic "cyclists don't pay road tax" canard to end.

I am not going to analyse what he said in the editorial, since other sites have covered this far better than I could.  I do wonder about the logical reasoning of a man who, in one breath, can encourage his drivers to break the law, whilst on the other berate cyclists for using ipods. Considering the collection of youtube videos showing Addison Lee drivers texting, on the phone, and generally throwing themselves around the road, one might think he would be better worrying about this than the actions of cyclists.

Now, in The Times he seems to be trying to "clarify" his comments by saying that he is simply concerned for cyclists and thinks that we need more training. He says "If my article causes a debate around whether cyclists need training and holding to the same standards as other road users, bring it on". If  by "standards [of] other road-users" he means some of his mini-cab drivers' then, judging by the videos linked above, he has set the bar really rather low.

One can deconstruct his comments and subsequent backtracking  sorry - "clarifications" until the internet runs out of storage space, but the really interesting thing is why he thought printing these types of comments, and openly asking his drivers to flout the law by using bus lanes would actually pose no issues. Those of a more cynical nature may wonder whether he believed the significant cash donated to the party of current government bought him a certain indemnity. Others may wonder whether he realised that he won out over the M4 bus lane by flouting the law and then managing to get the fines cancelled, and thought he could do the same here. Certainly I doubt he expected this type of reaction to either statement. The story has now run in nearly all national papers, has spawned a protest group and been aired on radio. It has even brought black cab drivers and cyclists together in unity against Addison Lee - a truly spectacular achievement.

But much more than this, his comments and actions have irritated people who cycle in London. People who work for companies that use his services. People who may be in a position of authority to review or influence these contracts. Already there are posts from managers saying they have cancelled their use of Addison Lee, and rumours of bigger cancellations.

And this is what is really amazing. That John Griffin - a man savvy enough to build a large business - doesn't actually understand that cyclists aren't some odd-ball phenomena designed to fling themselves under his taxis. They aren't some militant out-group that are hellbent on destroying capitalism. They are simply people getting to work, going home, doing some shopping, meeting friends, going out.

They are, in short, his customers.

The Open Road

Recently I have had to travel by car for work quite extensively. It isn't something that I particularly enjoy, and driving is no longer something that can be defined by most as pleasurable - certainly not anywhere near London.

I have had to drive from E17 to the M4 / Chiswick roundabout and back again a couple of times in the last week. None of the journeys were without severe congestion, even though I was travelling outside the rush hour. Indeed if one wants to travel around the North Circular without fairly serious queues you will need to do this before 6 in the morning or after 10pm at night. I have even been stuck in tailbacks at around midnight at Henley's corner. I frequently travel this road at 5:30am and, even at this time, traffic is building heavily.

To illustrate the issue, my last trip from E17 to M4 was started around 9am. I averaged 11 mph for the whole trip - a journey time of not far short of 2 hours. To re-iterate - this was 11mph average outside the standard "rush-hour", on a road that is generally 40mph or 50mph speed limit. On my cycle I manage a better average.

So it is with a certain incredulity that I learn the government are predicting a 42% rise in traffic in London over the next 25 years.  What average speed is likely if this comes to pass? I should imagine it to be speedier to abandon my car in the queues and walk to my destination over the top of the gridlock. If this predicted growth is accurate (and there are doubts over whether the government understand the change in dynamics with travel), then no amount of road building will stop the whole system grinding to a halt.

I am unclear as to what the government plan to do about their predicted growth in traffic. Anyone who isn't completely car centric must see that the situation is unsustainable now, less still if we are going to add half as many cars again to the system. No amount of tinkering around with traffic lights in the name of "traffic smoothing" is going to change matters - what is needed are significant changes in attitude to travel, from individuals who currently decide to cover a couple of miles in a car to planning which allows offices and homes to be constructed far away from transport hubs, and roads constructed in such a way to make travelling by car easy and every other mode difficult.

Attitudes have to change. I heard a woman on the radio the other week say that fuel price increases have meant that she has a choice between driving the children to school or buying food. Not only are attitudes like this incredible, but the fact that they aren't challenged even on public radio is even more amazing. We are so emotionally tied to the car, that any alternative is simply viewed as crazy. How has it come to this? How can we think that we can add another 43% to the road networks in London?

I do see changes in attitude starting to happen. This year I saw more cyclists during the winter than previous winters - and now the weather is getting better I am very much heartened by the numbers of cyclists I see on local roads. My heart was lifted when I went to the shops in Walthamstow this weekend to find that all the spaces for cycles were completely full (shortly before becoming rather irritated that I had to try and find somewhere else of course!) But to wean us all from cars needs so much more. New offices and homes shouldn't just have the odd cycle stand as a sop to environmental guidelines, they need to be considered in relation to train stations, bus routes, shops and existing dwellings. The lady on the radio the other day has to be shown other options, and those options have to be made as easy and attractive as travelling by car.

It is all perfectly possible. In fact, if the alternative is another 42% traffic on our roads, any alternative to this is the possible, and simply trying to cater for more traffic is the impossible.

I will be back on the cycle tomorrow. And despite the sometimes horrible infrastructure, the challenging roads and delights such as Bow flyover, I cannot wait to get back onto a mode of transport that doesn't trap me for hours on a journey that should take a fraction of that time.

As a finale, let me share with you two videos taken around Tottenham Hale in the morning. One shows the chaos caused by a single accident, the second shows that the standard state of affairs isn't much better. Surely we can do better than this?