Sadiq’s plans for transport are grand, green, and ambitious – but he's setting himself up to fail

Sadiq Khan's first Transport Strategy document sets up huge challenges for himself. Image: Getty Images

Sadiq Khan has published the draft of his first Transport Strategy as mayor of London. Admittedly, it’s no Queens’ Speech in terms of pageantry, media attention, or susceptibility to utter humiliation, but the strategy is worth taking a look at. 

Though it’s always a very vague, long-term focus document, interesting kernels can be found; what the broad priorities are, what City Hall wants to get the Government of the day to do for it, and what direction the mayor wants to get things moving in. 

The most noticeable thing about this batch of plans – which are still in draft form, as they’ll have to go to public consultation – is what David Cameron came to call the ‘green crap’. 

Think Green

Khan wants to make the entirety of the London transport network emission-free by 2050. The plan is to do this in phases – expanding the coming Ultra Low Emission Zone and T-charge with a view to setting up zero emission zones in central London and peripheral town centres by 2025. 

By 2040, he wants a zero emission zone to cover the whole of inner London, which would then expand out to the whole Greater London Authority area by 2050. 

In practical terms, that includes measures such as all new double-decker busses introduced from next year will be either hybrid, electric, or hydrogen; all double-decker busses in Central London will by hybrid by 2019. All busses should then be zero emission by 2037, with taxis and PHVs set for zero-emission capability by 2033. 

The green lobby is certainly happy, especially as London has struggled so intensively with pollution and air quality in recent years. Paul Morozzo, who campaigns for clean air with Greenpeace, described the strategy as “ambitious” and “well-thought-through”, and said: “London is a city at the cutting-edge of so many fields – let’s turn it into a clean transport leader too.” 

There’s also a big initiative, dubbed the “Healthy Streets Approach”. The idea is to make London’s streets “better places to walk and cycle, cleaner, safer and quieter” – which in theory makes people more likely to walk or cycle to work – or even just to the nearest bus stop, tube, or train station rather than hopping in their car. 

Sadiq wants everyone to get using these blue babies. Image: Spsmiler.

The aim is for all Londoners to do at least 20 minutes of “active travel” every day – a nice idea, but something that personally I find a little far-fetched. That being said, if genuine improvements are made the quality and safety of London’s streets for non-motorists, anecdotal evidence shows many more people would walk or cycle. I’ve lost track of the number of people who respond to me telling them I cycle to work in London by insisting they’d cycle to work “if it didn’t feel so dangerous”. 

The end-game of this Healthy Streets Approach is to get 80 per cent of journeys made by walking, cycling, or public transport by 2041. Best of luck to you, Sadiq. 

Through the lobbying glass

One of the unfortunate realities here is how much of what you want to do as mayor is restricted to lobbying Government. The strategy hails the opening of the Elizabeth line, due next year, and stresses how important it is to get Crossrail 2 built, but all City Hall can really do is try to say “please” in as convincing a manner as possible. 

“The government must immediately give the go-ahead for Crossrail 2”, apparently.

Good luck trying to convince them to do that while Brexit negotiations are a shambolic series of capitulations by David “Double D” Davis, and the running of the government itself hangs by the thread of the goodwill of the [expletive] DUP. It’s hard to see large-scale transport infrastructure projects primarily benefitting London being top of the agenda in the immediate future – though at least there are certainly the votes for it in parliament. 

Another key aim of the Strategy is to create “a London suburban rail metro service to radically improve rail travel in outer London”. Though the Strategy attests to want to continue working with train operating companies, it’s no secret that Sadiq Khan would far prefer to take those suburban franchises into TfL hands, running them either as continuing expansions of the London Overground network, or as a new-fangled S-Bahn style network of another type. 

Crush the Sadiq-teurs, his face says. Image: Getty Images.

Again, given the state of the government and the reappointment of Chris Grayling as transport secretary – a man whose animosity to Sadiq Khan as a Labour mayor is both well-documented and unprofessional – that feels a little bit like a pipe dream. “The mayor and TfL are making the case to Government for devolution of stopping suburban rail services from mainline central London stations”, the Strategy says.

I’m making the case to Government for free croissants to be given out at all zone 2 tube stations before 10am, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. 

TfL also faces a huge challenge under Sadiq’s watch: from 2018 it will no longer receive a revenue grant from government. Not only will it rely on fares and income from advertising and other commercial ventures, TfL will also find it harder to consolidate into a position to embark on big transport schemes. Like Crossrail 2. 

The strategy argues that “the government... needs to allow greater use of Business Rate Retention, as well as approving additional power, including Vehicle Excise Duty in London” to ensure TfL can remain properly-funded. Making that happen in the current political context will be a tough battle for City Hall. 

As ever with such documents, the parts most likely to happen – and therefore the most interesting parts – are the slightly dull, nitty-gritty bits. 

Getting down to it

There are plans to bring more tube and train stations into the very select club of stations that are fully accessible, and plans to improve the DLR and London Tram – the two parts of the network that are already 100 per cent accessible – to ease the travelling experience for people with a disability. This is hugely positive, and drastically overdue. 

A mock-up of the interior of the new Tube for London. Image: Transport for London.

TfL is also working to improve staff training and changing the way and amount of information they have to hand in real-time, which will no-doubt mark a definite, if sub-conscious, improvement of the passenger experience. They’re also planning to roll out 4G to the entire London Underground network, which is nice if you like that sort of thing. 

The rolling upgrades to the tube will continue. Complete overhauls to the signalling system on the sub-surface lines – Metropolitan, District, Circle and Hammersmith & City Lines – will continue, and no doubt continue to cause very large, disruptive, and necessary weekend closures. Technical tweaks to the Jubilee, Northern and Victoria lines will allow for trains to run on those lines even more frequently – up to around the one every 90 seconds mark, which is seriously impressive on a global scale. 

And rolling stock fans will be pleased to know that the intention is still to start working on getting new trains on the Piccadilly, Central, Bakerloo, and Waterloo & City lines by the mid-2020s – though the eventual trains would be unlikely to enter service until the mid-2030s. 

Coming to a clapped-out line near you. Image: Transport for London.

All the extensions TfL already had in mind are staying on the books – the Bakerloo extension “to Lewisham and beyond”, the Overground extension to Barking Riverside, the Northern to Battersea, and dragging the DLR across the Thames to Thamesmead. All these are good things – and should be achievable if incremental improvements to the way London transport functions. 

But the problem, as ever, is in the blue-sky big-dream grand-ideas thinking that a city like London needs to keep it moving. 

Much of the city’s biggest ideas can only happen with governmental consent, at a time when what little government is on offer will hardly be feeling goodwill towards one of its now-powerful opposition’s most popular (and powerful) public figures. 

And huge plans to push towards a green transport system and a zero-emissions city are sorely needed. But too many such plans have fallen short in the past for nebulous proposals that stretch far beyond the timescale of this mayor’s political needs for the Strategy to be wholly convincing. 

Maybe next year they should get someone famous to read it out. Might make a world of difference.  

You can have your say on the Transport Strategy here

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.