I ran against Ken Livingstone for Mayor back in 2000, when he was an independent courting Green Party second preferences and keen to win allies to support congestion charging. It was going to be the first step towards city wide traffic reduction and when combined with the rapid expansion of the bus network, it led to a big shift towards public transport, as well as the start of the rise in cycling numbers.
What surprised me about Ken Livingstone's transport strategy was the way that it accepted that traffic growth of over 14% in a decade was inevitable and it put money into new road schemes to bolster economic growth. We persuaded his city hall advisers that they could halve the predicted traffic growth for Inner London, but with the population rising fast they saw it as inevitable that congestion and traffic was going to get worse.
As I get ready to leave City Hall next May, after 16 years on the London Assembly I'm having exactly the same argument with Boris Johnson. The big difference is that when I started I was an optimist who hoped I was right. Now I'm an optimist who has all the evidence on my side.
The big road schemes never got built, but London kept on growing and thriving. The population went up by an average of a 100,000 new Londoners a year and traffic reduced by 1% each year. Despite their recent boasts of taking a million car journeys off our streets every day, Transport for London have never acknowledged how overly pessimist they were. Despite being the only world city that reduced traffic at the same time as growing so fast, they are now making predictions of traffic growing by half again on some roads in the next twenty years. Why?
Part of the reason for Transport for London's doom and gloom is that they are constantly making a case to the Treasury for more money and this Government is keen on funding new roads. Never mind that new roads in already congested urban environments always create more congestion and pollution, the engineers want to keep themselves busy.
The other reason is a loss of faith in what they were successfully doing for fourteen years, as the Mayor froze bus expansion and gave cars top priority again. Boris Johnson's smoothing traffic flow policies speeded up traffic by slowing down crossing times for pedestrians. He stopped safety schemes going ahead at dangerous junctions if they would cause traffic jams, e.g. Bow Roundabout and the cancelled Parliament Square project. His policy shift also put a stop to all the small scale priority measures which were making walking and cycling easier. The rising rate of cycling casualties and a huge public campaign led to the Mayor reversing his opposition to inconvenient safety schemes in 2012 and adopting a Go Dutch approach.
Go Dutch was a brilliant campaign and is leading to the creation of some quality schemes, but there are a lot of second rate schemes still being built as well. With tight budgets and a new set of ambitious road expansion plans, the money for quality cycling and walking schemes is likely to be squeezed unless we stop the big bulldozers in their tracks.
The next Mayor is faced with an air pollution crisis to solve and the knowledge that expanding our road network will just make that crisis worse. What we need is the same kind of determination as when London adopted the congestion charge. The only way London will work is if we reduce traffic at the same time as increasing our population. The next Mayor has to instil a sense of optimism into Transport for London. They have done it before, they can do it some more.
See my new website HowCongestedIsMyRoad for the predicted growth in delays for your area and my suggested alternatives.