Archive for Strategy

Path Dependency

We are where we are. History has given British cities comprehensive bus services, too much car parking, and hardly any provision for cycling. In the short term, buses are probably the most effective way to get people out of their cars, but bikes can have a major supporting role.

Path dependency is the idea that our situation is influenced by historical choices, which effectively limit our scope for subsequent change. It doesn’t really matter whether those past choices were right or wrong; we are where we are. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t copy what has happened elsewhere, just that it will be easier and more effective to build on what we’ve already done, rather than start afresh.

A key historical choice for British cities can be traced back to the Great Fire of London in 1666. The fire spread rapidly due to narrow medieval streets, with the upper floors jettied out. After the Great Fire, the streets were rebuilt on the same alignments, but wider. This principle was gradually applied elsewhere, and pretty much every British town has fairly wide (15m or so) main streets as a result.

Some countries in mainland Europe adopted a similar pattern of widened streets, but not all. Haussmann built boulevards (much wider streets with trees) in nineteenth-century Paris, partly for military reasons, partly to clear out slums, and these were copied in many other cities. Vienna built a boulevard in a ring around its centre. Some other – typically poorer – countries kept their dense narrow streets.

Centuries passed, and the consequence of these wider streets was that cities were open to the invasion of motor traffic – first the bus (or tram), and subsequently the motor car. Buses could run direct into the city centre, and this allowed the building of extensive suburbs. Later, when people owned cars, they could likewise drive into the city, and places were found for them to park.

It all came to a head in the seventies, when people started to address the problem that cars had become, but in many ways it was too late – there were already too many parking spaces.

Cities which had retained their narrow medieval streets were in a different situation. Bus services never really developed, or were limited to the edge of the city centre. Suburbs developed a bit later, and roads to the suburbs were built wider, so bikes didn’t get in the way of cars. The narrow streets in the centre soon filled up with cars. There were few places to park, except in the street. When eventually the streets were reclaimed for pedestrians, there was nowhere to park, and the traffic mostly evaporated. People just had to ride their bikes instead.

In Britain, we also pedestrianized our city centres. But we felt obliged to build new roads so that people could get to their car parks. Many British towns and cities have a dual carriageway around the centre, and large roundabouts or gyratories at the junctions. Those roads have allowed further increases in parking, with new multi-storey car parks, and offices with basement parking.

So where do we go from here? Using cars in cities is hugely inefficient, taking up acres of roadspace, and causing endemic congestion. Our streets have been adapted to try to cope with the peak hour – if we want to reclaim some space, we need to reduce driving to work. There is a big concentration of workplaces in city centres, with many people still driving, despite the availability of alternatives. For instance this map of Oxford shows where people are using their car to get to work (though note that this includes a fair number of people who park at the Park & Ride).

Oxford Driving Density

Driving numbers from the 2011 census, table WP703EW (modal figures for each workplace zone).

Our experience in Oxford is that it is possible to induce modal shift by closing roads. But there’s a limit to how far you can take this – you have to leave reasonable routes available for deliveries. The root of the problem is that people will carry on driving to work until there is nowhere for them to park. Reducing the amount of parking is difficult. Councils can stop new parking from being provided, but have little influence over existing parking. Landowners have some incentive to build on car parks, but mostly they won’t.

Let’s assume this process can be speeded up, by using a workplace parking levy to increase the incentive, getting landowners to take a more enlightened approach, or introducing retrospective planning control. How will the drivers travel to work in the city centre instead? The base assumption has to be that people will use the alternatives roughly in the same proportions as currently. In most British cities, that means a small amount of walking and cycling, with a clear majority using public transport. In a few cities, there are a good range of rail services, but after rail, the principal alternative is the bus.

There is only one city (Cambridge) where cycling is substantially more important than the bus, as a means of commuting to the city centre. There are only two others (Portsmouth and York) where buses and cycling are equally important. And only three more (Oxford, Bristol and central London), where cycling is more than half of bus use. Even in Cambridge, it’s recognized that improving bus services is essential, because many people are commuting from places that are too far away for most to want to cycle.

City Centre Modal Splits

Many people wouldn’t be seen dead on a bus – buses are regarded as too downmarket. Cyclists and pedestrians can also be quite hostile to the idea of buses, especially if they feel threatened by them. But the image of the bus has been transformed in places like London, Brighton and Oxford, by giving buses priority. Politically, to get away with restricting parking, you have to provide reasonable alternatives, so rehabilitating the bus is absolutely essential.

While buses could provide for most journeys into city centres, there are good reasons for also promoting cycling. Cycling is good for taking some of the peak load, and for catering for shorter journeys. Cycling is also better at providing for journeys within the suburbs.

The widespread use of buses in British cities is essential background to understanding the likely space that might be available for cycling on main roads. Bus lanes need to be provided to improve the quality of the bus service. So the main way to provide for cycling is to allow cyclists to use the bus lanes too. This caters for a fair range of adult cyclists, especially if bus drivers are trained in how to share appropriately. Where the road is too narrow for bus lanes, there’s usually room to squeeze in cycle lanes. The main difficulty is removing residential parking.

Clearly, this use of bus lanes and narrow cycle lanes is not ideal from the cyclists’ point-of-view. It certainly isn’t as good as has routinely been achieved in much of the Netherlands. But taking space from buses to provide more room for cyclists would be a backwards step in the British situation. We need the buses to get people out of their cars, so that in due course there can be more space for cycling as well.

The situation isn’t the same in all British cities – most have rather more car traffic than Oxford. With bigger roads, there are more junctions that will be difficult to make cycle-friendly. In those situations, the initial provision for bikes is more likely to involve back routes and segregated links for critical stretches where there aren’t alternatives (eg river, railway and major road crossings). But away from the worst of the traffic, it should be possible to make provision for cycling along main roads that is acceptable to most adults.

If we’re to stand a chance of making our cities into wonderful places to live and work (and indeed, efficient places to do business), we need to focus on reducing car traffic, and use whatever tools are necessary to that task. In Britain, we have a substantial history of providing buses, so a quality bus service needs to be the first priority for our streets. That inevitably leaves less room for bikes, but there is still enough room for cycling to play a substantial supporting role. It’s tricky getting the balance right between buses and bikes, especially if people insist on simply advocating for one or the other. But there is a huge opportunity to provide a good range of alternatives to driving, if we accept that both bus and cycle provision are required.

Data sources: Census data – contains National Statistics data © Crown copyright and database right. Workplace zone boundaries – contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right. Roads (colour-coded by speed limit), placenames and hospital locations © OpenStreetMap contributors.

Oxford Transport 2065

Walking, cycling, buses, trains and cars have changed little, we just stopped driving when all the parking spaces were taken away.

When looking forward, it can be instructive to look back, and think about what has changed, what hasn’t, and why. In 1965, the principal modes of transport in and serving Oxford were walking, cycling, buses, trains and cars. The technology has improved in a number of respects, but the same basic structure persists. The reason is that the various non-car modes are all pretty well adapted for their respective distance markets, with more equipment and space used at higher speeds for longer distances. The car competes with all modes at all distances, as well as having a near monopoly on suburban and ex-urban journeys above a couple of miles. So while the vehicle technology will continue to evolve, the scope for paradigm-shifting change is limited, and can probably be discounted. No flying cars or jet-packs, sorry.

LetsLiveInOxfordBut transport is more than about vehicles. It is also about the infrastructure which society chooses to provide to support the use of different modes. In 1965, there was substantial likelihood that major new urban motorways and huge car-parks would be built. The government’s Traffic in Towns report had shown (in 1963) that cities would need to be substantially rebuilt if cars were to be accommodated. In 1970 Oxford City Council proposed building a spine motorway along the railway, and a motorway link across the river and through East Oxford to the bottom of Headington Hill (see diagram – from Oxford Civic Society’s “Let’s LIVE in Oxford”, 1970). Many other cities did indeed build such roads.

Instead of building roads, Oxford introduced Park and Ride and bus priority to keep traffic levels within the city broadly stable, despite substantial increases in the number of people travelling. Over time, parking has been reduced in the city centre, and has started to be brought under control at the hospital and university sites in Headington. However, parking has been allowed to increase in Cowley, where there is a major car works, and a couple of business parks close to the ring road. Fairly substantial provision for cycling has been made over the years, with facilities on about 50% of the urban main roads. This proportion is very high by UK standards, but still far from complete.

The third key aspect of transport is the location of housing and jobs. Housing growth has largely been directed at the main towns about 10 miles from Oxford (Banbury, Bicester, Didcot, Witney), with Abingdon and Kidlington also significant. It has suited the districts around Oxford to prevent Oxford expanding into its green belt – they have directed development to their own principal settlements instead. The politics of this is stable – it is unlikely to change. These settlements aren’t large enough to justify rail investment on their own, but three of them have benefited from being on the way to somewhere else, establishing a basic half-hourly train service. The other main settlements support frequent bus services.

Employment has become more dispersed over the last 50 years, and people travel further to get to work, with a lot of cross-commuting. Outside Oxford there has been a substantial shift to commuting by car. Central Oxford remains the largest employment concentration, but Headington has become a major location for hospital and university jobs. On the edge of the city, Cowley is also substantial, with people driving from all over the county. As well as the other main settlements, there is also a major employment concentration near Didcot, split between two business parks at Milton and Harwell, almost entirely accessed by car.

So the overall pattern has been for central Oxford to restrict parking, and switch access to walking, cycling, bus and train. But this has been a long process, with traffic levels remaining much the same. Much of the parking is private, and hard to remove. Something similar might be beginning to happen in Headington, but progress is likely to be slow. Outside the city, and in line with much of the rest of the UK, car use has become predominant, though cycling remains above-average. Housing is fairly well concentrated around existing settlements, but employment is becoming dispersed. The ready availability of employment sites outside the city threatens to undermine the approach that has been taken in Oxford. Contrariwise, the attractiveness of living in Oxford might encourage the other settlements to move away from mass car use.

Oxford’s alternative approach is unlikely to be deflected, and the difficulty of overcoming obstacles is likely to reduce over time. By 2065, parking is likely to have been substantially reduced in the city centre, and reduced by enough in Headington to eliminate congestion. The cycle network will have been completed, the bus lanes removed, and pavements widened. There will still be many who drive to Cowley, but there will be a fast bus link to the station, with connections to the rest of the county, so people will have a choice not to drive. The business parks will have been replaced by housing, with the offices relocated to the edge of the city centre as a result of the workplace parking levy. The buses will all be electric, and run through Queen Street. The referendum for a special tax to build a bus tunnel under Queen Street was lost.

Elsewhere in the county, the pressure on economic, health and carbon grounds to reduce car use eventually bore fruit. Bicester eco-town led to the development of a full cycling network in Bicester, and home delivery of groceries eventually allowed the town-centre car parks to be sold for flats. Didcot developed by expanding west, along the new bus spine routes to Milton Heights and Harwell. Diverting the main road through Milton Park had been a stroke of genius – avoiding the cost of a new railway bridge, giving the buses the straight route along the railway, and opening up the land south of the railway for housing. Didcot now extends all the way to the Harwell site, and more than half of Harwell’s workers now live in Didcot. Congestion on the A34 is a distant memory.

The future of local transport is not really dependent on technology, or even on behaviour. What matters is the politics. For five decades we have known that the car needs to be restrained if life in cities is to be improved. Land-owners have slowed down change, but eventually change will come.

Why can’t a bus … be more like a tram?

Buses could operate like trams, but only if we find an alternative to drivers checking and selling tickets.

The simplest way to make an excellent bus network for Oxford would be to allow two-way bus operation in Queen Street. This is probably what would happen if Oxford had a tram system. There are similar situations in (for example) Basel and Freiburg, and the trams run straight through the city centre without causing too much of a problem. There are also cities like The Hague or Antwerp where the trams run under the main street. This is very expensive (hundreds of millions of pounds), and would be quite hard to justify. But what these cities have in common is that the trams go through the very heart of the city.

So why are buses different? Why are they so horrible that we want to remove them from our city centres? It’s still rare for a bus to be fully-electric, but they are a lot less noisy and smelly than they used to be. Well-driven hybrids, in particular, are hardly a problem at all, when moving. The main difference is the amount of time buses are stopped, to let people get on and off. The occasional bus isn’t a problem, but in a busy city centre you can quickly end up with a wall of buses, destroying the pedestrian feel of the street.

The length of time for the stop is the result of selling and checking tickets. At peak times, it can take five minutes to take on a full load. At less-busy times, two minutes is quite normal. By contrast, a typical tram stop takes between 15 and 30 seconds.

The usual system for checking tickets on trams is to have random inspections. These are never frequent enough to stop widespread fare-dodging, with 25% or more of people travelling without tickets. Clearly it is fairer if everybody pays.

The solution adopted for bus rapid transit in South America has been to create gated stations at the all the bus stops. A simpler version of this could be considered for Oxford. This would start by having someone to sell tickets at the busiest bus stops at the busiest times, then maybe a couple of people to check tickets, so the rear doors can be used for boarding. It would help if all buses had rear doors.


Even so, it wouldn’t be possible to load a full double-decker in less than a minute. The best option then is to split the boarding between two stops, say at Bonn Square and Carfax. Buses would stop at Bonn Square to pick up half a load, then at Carfax to pick up the remainder. This gives more places to catch the bus, and keeps the impact at any location to a minimum. A possible alternative would be to have two stop-positions at one stop. But for this to work efficiently, the buses would need to run in pairs (eg by despatching them in pairs from the railway station).

I think if we seriously focus on improving dwell times, and have multiple credible stops in the city centre, we can run the buses much more like trams, so they have much less impact on the pedestrian environment.

The best arrangement is to run most services from the east through Queen Street (two-way) to the railway station. A few services (mostly the coaches) would still use St Aldates, but there would be many fewer stops (none at the top end), and the pavements could be much wider. Buses from the south would generally run via the new Westgate development and Castle Street to the station. Similarly, buses from the north would run through George Street to the station, reducing the amount of space needed in Magdalen Street, and providing easy interchange with other services.

Excellent BusMap

Small Town Blues

Making small towns into wonderful places to live and work will mostly proceed by improving conditions for walking. Improvements for cycling and public transport are probably an irrelevant distraction.

A few days in Dorchester set me thinking about how small towns could wean themselves off car dependency, and become wonderful places to live – if they wanted to. There are hundreds of small market towns like this in Britain, though they don’t all have quite such a long history.


Dorchester was a Roman town, and is the traditional capital of Dorset, though its population is only about 20,000. The Romans have long gone, replaced by a pedestrianised shopping street, some car parks, an interesting range of Victorian-and-older houses, and some tree-lined walks.

Outside the pedestrianised centre, you soon realise that the car is dominant. Streets are mostly quite narrow, but have a steady flow of traffic, and guardrail and indirect crossings to keep pedestrians in their place. Turn the wrong way, and you’ll find an oversized junction, probably giving access to a car park, or a roundabout built to minimise delay to motorists.

The town is famous as the home of the Victorian poet and novelist, Thomas Hardy. He built himself a house on the outskirts of the town, and rather delightfully had a room just for bicycles, when they were the latest fashion (in the 1890s). The garden is now somewhat spoiled by noise from the bypass. You like to imagine that Thomas Hardy would still be riding his bicycle if he were alive today, but I’m afraid he’d probably have long since built a garage, and taken up driving.

This is very different from an equivalent Dutch town. There would be a dense centre, with an inner ring road built on the former defensive canal. Car parks would be further from the centre. The first suburbs would have been built later, with cycle tracks alongside the main roads into the centre. But the suburbs would be more extensive, reflecting the huge population growth in the Netherlands over the last few decades. There probably wouldn’t be an outer bypass, though there might be a motorway fairly close by. There wouldn’t be a Tesco (or any other large food store) on the bypass. The normal way of getting about town would be by bicycle, though quite a lot of people drive.

We can’t magically convert a British market town into its Dutch equivalent – the urban form, street form and land use structure are completely different. We can’t just look over the North Sea and copy what the Dutch have done. We have to find our own way.

It’s not even clear that the people of Dorchester want to change. Traffic congestion isn’t really a problem, and driving is convenient. Those who don’t have access to a car are at a disadvantage, but that’s probably a minority. There is a bus service that loops around the suburbs once an hour, but it’s almost exclusively used by the elderly. People living outside Dorchester will be even more dependent on the car. So seriously restraining the car is unlikely to be popular.

The small-town Italian model would be to restrict parking in the centre, giving bikes a significant advantage. But it’s unlikely that Dorchester’s residents would be quite so keen to cycle, because the culture has been lost, and the streets have been adapted for the convenience of motorists. Dorchester also has some hills, in stark contrast to the Po Valley.

So if we can’t restrict traffic very much, our only real option is to minimise its impact, by reducing speeds, and giving greater priority to pedestrians. The whole town could be a 20mph zone. Some people will already walk into town, and some others might be persuaded out of their cars if walking wasn’t such an obstacle course. Remove the guardrails, and use Zebra crossings to give pedestrians priority. Not many people will cycle, but simply slowing the traffic will make cycling a bit more tolerable.

In time this should reduce some of the demand for parking, as people walk instead. This might allow some of the most central parking to be converted into amenity space, maybe a new square with shops. Dorchester would become a more pleasant place to stop and walk around, and visitors would stay longer, recommend it more, and return sooner.

In Britain’s market towns, where the level of cycling and bus use is minimal, it’s probably more sensible to focus on improving conditions for pedestrians, gradually reducing the impact of traffic. Shared-space roundabouts, road narrowing, and better pedestrian crossings, like at Poynton in Cheshire, might be the better approach, even though this isn’t particularly cycle-friendly. In small towns, we should focus on pedestrians.

Map © OpenStreetMap contributors

Limiting Traffic

You can get a long way towards making a city a wonderful place to live and work, by limiting the level of traffic. If you limit traffic around the city centre, you don’t need much cycle infrastructure.

The guidebook wasn’t encouraging – “travellers are scarce enough to attract a few stares”, but it turns out that Piacenza (forty minutes south of Milan) was a revelation: it has a huge everyday cycling culture. It’s hard to tell, but I’d say a higher level of cycling than Oxford. It was much the same in Parma (twice the size and half an hour further south), but with the added bonus of trolleybuses.

Clearly, from the age of the bikes, and the cyclists, this cycling culture has been there for a while: but how have they stopped traffic from taking over? In the centre there are a few pedestrian-only streets, where cyclists are probably officially banned, not that that seems to stop them. Around that is one of the newfangled traffic-limited zones (ZTL), with access confined to residents and deliveries between 0800 and 1900.

Outside the ZTL, there were no formal restrictions, but traffic was only moderate (I’d estimate somewhere between 5000 and 10000 motor vehicles per day), and speeds were reasonable (30-40 km/h). There were some shared-use pavements, but most cycling was on the road (even the old ladies). Junctions were often mid-sized roundabouts (25-30m diameter, with an island) – these have apparently been installed over the last few years, in place of traffic lights, but cyclists seemed to be muddling through them without too much difficulty. Further out, the roads were wider, traffic faster, and cycling was less common.

One major difference with British cities is that residential density is much higher, with apartments being the norm, buildings close to the street, and almost no gardens. This goes a fair way to explaining why car use has not become dominant – a lot of trips will be very short. The availability of good alternatives to driving will have made it easier to impose restrictions in the centre. The enclosed feel to the streets will also have kept car speeds reasonable, even without formal speed limits.

So what lessons are there for Britain? This approach is more natural for denser cities, with the urban form and street form doing much of the work for you. But the structure of progressive tightening of restrictions and traffic speed towards the centre could be reproduced in Britain. Perhaps the two key measures are the restriction on commuter and visitor parking in the area around the centre, and the low speed and urban feel of the inner ring road. This is quite different to the dual-carriageway ring road, high-speed roundabouts, and multi-storey car parks that are the norm in Britain.

For Oxford the key lesson is the value in restricting commuter parking. This would limit traffic so that junctions like The Plain and Frideswide Square could be more cycle and pedestrian-friendly. Visitor parking has long been restricted by price, though there is still too much of it, too close in (especially Broad Street). But we have struggled to limit commuter parking. There are thousands of parking places on private land, with the University and Colleges being the main culprits. We probably can’t create Italian-style limited traffic zones, but we could use the threat of a punitive Workplace Parking Levy – say £1000/year – to get employers to reduce parking spaces. There are comprehensive public transport services into the city centre; hardly anyone really needs to drive.

Despite the difference in residential density, I think there’s a lot to be learned from places like Piacenza. They show how it is possible to restrict the car and provide for the alternatives without having to comprehensively rebuild every street. They show how things can evolve and improve. I’m always willing to go back and investigate some more…

Think Like A Pedestrian

For twenty years and more, cities like York and Oxford have had a transport hierarchy that puts pedestrians first. For those who manage not to be entirely obsessed with bikes or public transport, this idea that pedestrians have highest priority is pretty much accepted without question. But it isn’t clear what that means in practice.

Over the years, I’ve seen several attempts to write a Walking Strategy, mostly trying to fill the gap next to the Cycling Strategy. Sometimes the language is copied, with talk of Core Pedestrian Route Networks. I often hear people trying to promote walking, with lots of talk of healthy physical exercise. Some people even encourage you to bribe yourself, with glorified calorie counters earning mince pies or ice creams. All of this seems to rather miss the point.

I think the problem is trying to think of walking in isolation, in much the same way as providing for other modes has become stuck in silos. There really are things that can be done to promote walking – I’d highlight raised desire-line crossings of side roads and short-response pedestrian crossings – but they are only addressing walking in isolation.

The wider issue is whether a street is the sort of place where people want to walk. Are there places to go? Are they within easy walking distance? Are there other people around? Is the traffic oppressive? Are people on bikes a threat? Are enough people being coerced out of their cars?

In recent years, I’ve seen more talk of place-making. This is the idea that improvements to the physical form of the street can turn them into attractive places where people want to linger. While these are often great, and look wonderful, you do wonder whether you are just being taken for a ride by fancy-paving salesmen. There are an awful lot of streets that are unlikely ever to get such a treatment, so again it doesn’t feel like a real solution. Plain old tarmac is just fine if you’ve got people: the trick is getting the people.

I think we need to break out of this idea of treating each mode in isolation, and promoting the ones we prefer. City streets are a single system, and you can’t treat one aspect in isolation. Instead, we need to refocus on disadvantaged user groups – such as pedestrians – and ask what they want to happen to the system as a whole.

So, for instance, pedestrians might want more-frequent bus services, with better connections – because actually they’d rather not walk everywhere. They might want good cycle facilities on the road, so that people on bikes don’t threaten them, and maybe they’ll try it for themselves one day. They might want the traffic to slow down, or be stopped from driving through the back streets. They might want lots of zebra crossings, so they can enjoy stopping the traffic, and not have to wait in the fumes or the heat or the rain. They might want the parking moved a bit further away, so drivers don’t hog all the space by the entrance. They might want there to be less traffic.

But pedestrians won’t want to stop the city functioning altogether. They’ll still want things delivered, still want disabled access, still want reasonable access by anybody really, just as long as the cars don’t take over.

I think it’s time we learned to think like pedestrians.

High Speed or not High Speed

High speed rail has its benefits, but we don’t have to build it all straight away: use high speed to enhance the existing rail system, not replace it.

Normally, it’s a good idea to separate fast and slow railway services. There are multiple intermediate stops on almost all corridors, so you need four tracks to run fast services. Approaching London, you ideally need six tracks, so the urban stopping service is separate. That’s the situation on the West Coast Main Line – six tracks to Watford, four tracks (mostly) to Crewe.

Around London, many of the main lines were four-tracked decades ago, in the days when there were far more freight trains. This typically extends beyond the limit of outer commuter services, allowing the fast trains a clear run. This is why there hasn’t been the pressure to build high-speed lines – we already have an extensive network of fast lines.

With the exception of Kent (where there had never been much four-tracking), the sensible option has been to increase linespeeds, build flyovers, and infill gaps in the four-track network.

And so it might continue if it weren’t for Milton Keynes.

The two largest rail markets in Britain are London to Manchester and London to Birmingham. The number of people wanting to travel would justify half-hourly non-stop services, but the infrastructure does not allow this. At the London end the fast lines are getting close to capacity. We are getting to the point where either everything has to stop at Milton Keynes, or nothing.

Approaching Birmingham and Manchester, there are sections of two-track railway, and the fast services have to run between stoppers. To make this fit, the fast services have to stop a couple of times. These extra stops do mean that there are more services to Birmingham/Manchester, and the high frequency partly compensates for the loss of speed, but there isn’t much value running more than three trains an hour.

With Milton Keynes planned to expand, the simplest option is to stop everything at Milton Keynes, in much the same way as everything out of Paddington stops at Reading. This slows all the fast trains by about five minutes. So the high speed line isn’t really about solving a capacity problem, it’s more that the capacity problem reduces speed, making a high speed line more worthwhile. Stopping everything at Milton Keynes would probably deliver enough capacity for a few years, but it wouldn’t take much more growth before something further would be required.

The engineers have identified a route for a new line, and have ended up proposing a tunnel almost all the way from central London to Amersham – about 40km. To justify the cost of this, the route to Birmingham and Manchester needs to be ultra-fast throughout, and the line needs to be full from the outset, with branches to anywhere big enough to fill a train. This intensity of service also requires a major expansion of Euston station, demolishing several blocks of social housing in the process.

The expensive parts of the high speed line are the new terminal stations and the tunnelling into the cities. The French typically don’t do either of these – they concentrate on building new lines between cities. Now that we’ve identified just how expensive the full scheme would be, I think it’s time to consider intermediate options that leaves the most expensive sections to later.

Looking at the problem incrementally, the starting point is finding a way to serve Milton Keynes using the slow lines. There is plenty of spare capacity on the slow lines, it’s just that the intermediate stops get in the way of running fast services. The incremental solution is therefore to provide a way for fast services to overtake slow ones. The sensible place to do this is on the stretch between Kings Langley and Tring, where there are five stops fairly close together, and a major road to build alongside.

Six-tracking between Kings Langley and Tring would allow fast services to run on the slow lines to serve Milton Keynes and Northampton. Unfortunately, the slow lines through Northampton aren’t fast enough to provide a good alternative for destinations further north (eg Euston-Rugby, or Milton Keynes-Birmingham). The loop through Northampton is two miles longer, generally has a lower speed (75mph), and a severe restriction through Northampton (30mph). It might be possible to upgrade the existing line, but it wouldn’t be cheap. To provide for fast services to destinations further north, it would probably be necessary to build a new line bypassing Northampton.

The approach to Birmingham is two-track from Rugby, and completely full with a mix of fast and stopping services between Coventry and Birmingham. Running more services would require four-tracking or building a parallel line for at least some of the route.

So, catering for growth will need additional infrastructure at several points along the route. Joining these up and building a completely new line is clearly a sensible alternative, especially if it means that fast trains can then go even faster. This pretty much makes the case for a new line from the outskirts of London to the outskirts of Birmingham (eg Kings Langley to Berkswell).

The HS2 scheme for the Birmingham approach is proving to be quite complicated and expensive, having to slot between canals, railways and motorways. Speeds cannot be particularly high, since the trains are about to stop, and there is little advantage compared to the existing (100mph) line. It would be more effective to four-track the existing line, and provide capacity for other fast services as well. There is also, broadly, enough capacity at Birmingham New Street, assuming fast trains don’t get any longer than at the moment (260m), and slow services run through, rather than terminating.

The HS2 scheme for rejoining the West Coast Main Line is to head north from Berkswell, rejoining beyond Lichfield. This is duplicating the existing 125mph four-track route through the Trent Valley. It would be substantially shorter to diverge further south, and rejoin near Rugby.

The current works at Norton Bridge are essentially completing the separation of the fast lines as far as Crewe. When Crewe is resignalled in the next few years, it’s likely that linespeeds through the station will be increased for trains that don’t stop, particularly for those going to Manchester.

While it’s then two-track to Stockport, it’s fast, and not too many other services to get in the way. Through Stockport it’s slow, but there are four tracks, and potential to dedicate two of them to fast services. One possibility would be starting the four-tracking at Cheadle Hulme, eliminating the junction, and then providing a flyover just south of Stockport to take the slow services over to the west side without conflict. This would allow linespeeds to be increased, and provide enough capacity for some fast services to run non-stop.

At Manchester Piccadilly, the new platforms on the through lines will provide capacity for more terminating services in the main station. Further platforms can be constructed on the east side of the station, when they become necessary.

So, there is a coherent package of improvements that can provide substantial new capacity, and faster journey times, without the expense of tunnelling into London, Birmingham and Manchester, and without wholesale redevelopment of stations. The full HS2 package would provide even more speed and capacity, but it’s not at all clear that this is required immediately. Better to do the partial scheme first.

In a similar way, services to Leeds and Sheffield can be improved incrementally. The key bottleneck is south of Hitchin, where there are too many outer-suburban services on the main line. One possibility is to bypass the bottleneck, by using the fast lines out of St Pancras to Bedford, and then a new line alongside the A421 to St Neots. This would provide enough capacity to run additional trains non-stop to Leeds, and to run services via the East Coast to Sheffield. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of platforms at St Pancras, but it should be possible to create a link to the St Pancras lines from Kings Cross, at the north end of the railway lands.

Rather than build an all-new high speed line, I think a greater improvement can be made by selective new build and four-tracking more of what we already have. That way the benefits will be felt more widely, and the new capacity will be put to good use, rather than duplicating what we already have. In a small country, it’s the ability to run non-stop that makes the critical difference to speed.

The map shows the existing four-track railways (in yellow), the suggested high-speed lines (in red), the suggested four-tracking on the approach to Birmingham and Manchester (in green), and the suggested link between the Midland and East Coast main lines (in blue).


Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors. Base map is OpenStreetMap Transport layer.

Lower Fares / South London Overground

To really reduce fares, we need to make rail into an all-day transport service. South London is a key opportunity for transformation.

It’s become an annual tradition: when the inflation index is published for July, the campaigners start putting out press releases about what that means for rail fares in January. Eventually the government agrees to reduce it by a little. This makes the campaigners seem important, and the government seem generous, so everyone’s a winner. But it detracts from the underlying issues.

To get fares down properly, we need lots more people using the railway off-peak. The cost of running the service is mostly fixed, so the more people travel when there’s spare capacity, the lower the cost per journey. In due course, this will feed through to lower fares.

Longer-distance services into London roughly pay for themselves. This is where rail is strongest – running fast into the centre of London. It’s also where improvements to rail have the greatest effect, because getting to and from the station has (proportionately) least effect. Inevitably, railway management tends to focus on these services, rather ignoring the shorter-distance ones.

This is a problem, because it is the short-distance services that require the subsidy. But it’s also an opportunity, because short-distance services are more likely to work for leisure journeys. All you need is a high-frequency service, easy access to and from the station, and something worth going to.

Putting this together, there’s a distinct virtue in short-distance services being managed separately from long-distance services, and integrated with connecting services in the centre. If you can combine that with improving the attractiveness of the city centre, all the better.

For a number of reasons, the short-distance services in south London have remained part of the national rail network, rather than being incorporated into the Underground. The network is more interconnected, so it couldn’t readily be linked into the Underground one line at a time, as was done in north London. Instead, the whole inner network needs to transferred in one go, with just a few fast lines left for the outer services.

That wasn’t feasible until a few years ago, but the advent of HS1, and Thameslink begin to make it possible. There will need to be some further alterations, but on nothing like the same scale. The outer services need sufficient capacity so they can largely avoid interacting with the inners. I’ve identified the key improvements that will be required:

New flyovers north and south of East Croydon. These allow fast services to run from Victoria and London Bridge through East Croydon without conflict, but with cross-platform interchange. This increases the capacity for outer services, allowing the inner services to terminate. The first flyover is at Windmill Bridge (just north of East Croydon), and will take the southbound Victoria fast line (blue) over the London Bridge fast lines (orange). This reduces the inner services to a single line for a short way, but this is sufficient.

The second flyover is at South Croydon, and will take the southbound Victoria fast line (blue) back over the London Bridge fast lines (orange).

A new bridge, and a rearrangement of lines at Chislehurst. This diverts the Kent mainline outer services (orange) away from the stopping services (green), so that they can take over the lines to Chatham and Maidstone. A new curve between the fast and slow lines allows the stopping services from Bromley South to run to Orpington without conflicting with the fast services.

Six-tracking of the section from St Johns to New Cross. This keeps the outer services (orange) separate from the Charing Cross and Cannon Street locals (green). The outer services can then run into Thameslink using the new flyover at Bermondsey. This requires the widening of the cutting under a local street, and rebuilding a number of bridges. There are a couple of tight spots, but it looks feasible.

With a few fairly simple changes, all the local lines out of Victoria, Charing Cross, Blackfriars, Cannon Street and London Bridge can be separated from the outer services, and integrated with the Underground. Off-peak service frequencies can be increased, making rail into a true all-day transport service. If this is combined with making central London into an attractive leisure destination, then more people will travel off-peak, spreading the costs, and (ultimately) reducing fares.

Original imagery courtesy of Google Maps.

Low Traffic City Centres

To become a truly great city, London needs to exclude most traffic from its central commercial districts.

A shopping trip to Stanfords in London set me thinking about what makes a city a truly great place to visit.

The heavy traffic, buses, taxis and crowded pavements all feel an inherent part of London’s character. But that very character is also something that makes the centre of London a place that many Londoners generally avoid. It is too noisy, too busy, too congested. London is one of the world’s great cities, and a huge number of people work in the centre, but it is not fulfilling its potential as a shopping, leisure and cultural destination. It is still too dominated by traffic.

Many cities have made their centres attractive by excluding through traffic and reducing parking. However, by looking at a large number of examples, a pattern emerges: the low-traffic area is approximately one kilometre across, and surrounded by a ring road. This is the size of the pre-industrial city, with the ring road taking the place of the city wall (or canal). Vienna, Munich, Amsterdam, Copenhagen all seem to follow this same basic pattern.

The problem is that central London is much bigger than this, being about 5km by 2km – and that’s excluding the part of the congestion charge zone that’s south of the river. If you try to draw a 1km grid on the west end, you end up with heavy traffic on Oxford (or Wigmore) Street, Piccadilly and Regent Street, which is exactly the unsatisfactory situation we already have.

Some of the Italian cities, notably Florence, have restricted traffic over a bigger area, roughly 2km x 2km. This has required a strict ban on private traffic during the day, with limited provision of zonal permits for residents and deliveries. Trying to impose a 2km grid on central London is a bit more realistic. It can mostly be done using the wide roads that the Victorians built: Embankment and Kingsway.

The congestion charge zone has been fairly effective, but the lack of control within the zone means that the main commercial areas still have too much traffic. We can do better than that.

One observation from the various continental cities is that they typically have very little explicit provision for bikes in the centre. There are often cycle tracks alongside the ring road, but they tend to form a secondary route, with the main cycle routes heading into the restricted zone. The priority for the ring road is to keep traffic out of the centre, not to provide a cycle superhighway. At the moment, London seems to be adopting the opposite policy – of giving the traffic free rein in the centre (for a fee), and trying to carve out cycle superhighways on the few roads that are wide enough. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.

I’ve drawn a map showing how London might be made into an attractive low-traffic destination. To give access to all areas, three key routes (in pink) would be retained as traffic streets. The rest would be access-only. The traffic would be suppressed by blocking all the other through routes, by pedestrianising the streets in light blue, including Oxford Street and Regent Street. These blue routes would remain bus corridors, but would be much less congested than at the moment. They also make a good set of commuter cycle routes. There would be a few cross routes for taxis, but all other traffic would have to go round.

Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors

Office Location

Commuting patterns are the result of where people live, where they work, and how they travel between the two. Workplaces may only take up a fraction of land, but their location is clearly critical to the transport system. Do we want offices to be concentrated in a few locations, spread about evenly, or something in-between?

The dominant economic force seems to be to concentrate offices in a few locations. Businesses like to be near customers and suppliers, and like the flexibility to grow and acquire staff and space that comes from being part of an agglomeration. Staff like the flexibility, and also direct access to shops, banks, and places to eat and drink. This is why offices have traditionally located in city centres. Above a certain size of city, there needs to be public transport, but this works reasonably well, given all-day demand, and priority over cars. But it can be difficult to get enough priority over cars.

The public transport priority problem is particularly acute where a city’s expansion has been restrained by a green belt. It is harder to make public transport from outside the city competitive, because the higher speeds in the countryside mean that urban priority has less impact. Railways can be competitive, if the distance is far enough (maybe 10 miles), but buses will need very clear priority to be competitive.

In recent decades, there has been a growth in business parks, where cheaper offices are offered on an out-of-town site, sometimes with some form of tax incentive. Almost all access is by car, and people drive from miles around. On a small scale this works well-enough, but as the business park expands, the road network becomes unable to cope, leading to chronic congestion (and demands for ever more capacity).

There have also been large-scale developments on suburban sites, particularly hospitals and universities. These also tend to be accessed by car, but the congestion effects are usually more immediate. In Oxford it has proved possible to impose parking restrictions at the large institutions. Many people live close enough to walk (or cycle), and many others can use public transport or Park & Ride. The restrictions are unpopular amongst the staff, but can be made to work.

The dominant tendency seems to be for employment locations to agglomerate. As such it makes sense to focus on city centres, and to make them work in public transport terms. Employment growth should also be focused on city centres, even if that means more people commuting from outside; at least then there is a fair chance that they will commute by public transport.

This does not mean that all jobs should be in the city centre. A reasonable concentration of jobs in smaller towns will give people access to local employment, and the number who drive in from outside will probably be tolerable. What should be avoided is creating concentrations of employment with a wide catchment, and not particularly drawing their workforce from adjacent settlements; that will overload the road network.

The data for Oxfordshire shows how Oxford dominates (even though Headington and Cowley have been separated out), but there are other significant centres of employment.

Oxford is distinguished by having an unusually low driving share, markedly lower than any other location. Headington is also noticeably low. The internal driving modal shares vary, dramatically, from 12% for Oxford to 60% for Didcot/Harwell/Milton. The external driving modal shares are almost uniformly high, with only Oxford and Headington differing from the norm.

I have calculated a self-sufficiency ratio – the percentage of a town’s employees who live locally. If you combine the three Oxford areas, their joint self-sufficiency is 48%. The most striking result is that all the other towns are as dependent or even more dependent on commuters from outside. People aren’t just commuting into Oxford, they are commuting in large numbers into every employment centre (and most of them are driving).

Does this create a problem? We know there are horrendous congestion problems around Oxford, so there needs to be further improvements to public transport. Where else is it a problem? The worst concentration is around Didcot/Harwell/Milton, both because it is large, but also because a lot of the traffic is concentrated on the A34. The other location with a particular problem is Kidlington, where the self-sufficiency ratio is very low. In both cases, major employment sites have been developed outside the town, rather than organically.

The solution for both Didcot and Kidlington is to actively seek to integrate the employment sites into the towns, with excellent walking and cycling provision, new housing conveniently placed for the employment site, and new public transport links. In the case of Kidlington, it would probably be better if some of the employment land was converted to housing.