London's black cab drivers want to stop its cross town cycle routes

Look at that lovely lack of cabs. Image: Greater London Authority.

Remember these?

These are the two new cross town cycle highways planned for London. One runs east-west along the Embankment; the other runs north-south along Farringdon Road (the maps expand if you click on them). They are, says the London Cycling Campaign (LCC), “Europe’s longest substantially segregated cycleways”.

Well, the good news is that, they've got the go-ahead from City Hall. There have been a few minor changes to the plans (a slight narrowing in some locations, that sort of thing), but nothing substantive, and construction will begin in March.

The bad news is that, within mere minutes of that announcement, this happened:

The London Taxi Drivers' Association aren't the only organisation whining about this particular decision. Consider this statement from Howard Dawber, spokesperson for the Canary Wharf Group property firm:

“Canary Wharf is calling for a trial period – like during the Olympics – so we can see how the scheme works in practice and make any necessary changes.”

How one can trial building a massive great cycle highway is not exactly clear. You either build it or you don't. If you only build part of it, you’re not really trialling the thing at all. But anyway.

Both these statements are – let's not kid ourselves about this – acts of naked self-interest. Cab drivers don't want scarce space on key routes like these given over to cyclists, which would slow traffic and make expensive black cabs less attractive as a way of getting around the place. Similarly, if you own Canary Wharf, you’re probably gonna oppose any development that might slow traffic down on the main road route to Heathrow.

A judicial review can't block the new cycle lanes forever: the courts are empowered to review the process by which decisions are made, but not the decisions themselves. The worst case scenario here is that Transport for London could be forced to go back to square one, and re-do their consultation process.

That’s unlikely to change public opinion. As the LCC notes:

There has been overwhelming support for the proposals... More than a hundred major businesses on or near the routes, including Unilever, Royal Bank of Scotland, Deloitte and Orange, also publicly backed the scheme, as did all parties on the London Assembly. Opinion polling showed that Londoners as a whole backed the scheme by 64 per cent to 28 per cent.

What a judicial review can do, though, is make the process of getting the cycle lanes built so horrible that London's political leaders decide it isn't worth the hassle. From here on, it's a battle of willpower.

Still, the whole thing has given Uber’s London office a great chance to troll their arch-rivals in the black cab lobby:

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.