Cambridge Traffic Planning, or, The Definition of “Incoherent”

I recently commented on and suggested solutions to the traffic problems in my little corner of Cambridge. I was moved last week to attend a public meeting on the issue. I’ll report on that shortly.

First, though, I wanted to give a brief update on one area of lunacy I’ve previously mentioned, namely the taxi-rank in St Andrew’s Street. I can now report that absolutely nothing has changed. Rules clearly don’t apply to the St Andrew’s Street taxi-drivers. Most of the times I’ve looked, the taxis are “over-ranking” by as many as 6 vehicles, forcing buses leaving stops behind the rank to pull out further than necessary into a narrow road, where there are cyclists and pedestrians all over the place.

Worse, behind the taxi-rank there is a natural crossing-point, between Lion’s Yard and the city centre shops and a pedestrian walkway to the Drummer Street bus station and the Grafton Centre. Because a line of taxis now crosses this point, people have to do exactly what you’re taught not to in primary school, that is, cross the road between parked cars. This is dangerous. Especially if you’re in a wheelchair. And that’s what I saw this week – a woman in a wheelchair trying to see over a line of taxis parked on double-yellow lines. On this occasion she didn’t end up under a double-decker bus, but one did come thundering past as she was trying to cross.

But salvation is at hand! A Cambridgeshire Transport Commission has been established. Public meetings are being held. I went to the Cambridge Guildhall on Thursday 19th March, when Cambridge City Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council and the Cambridge Preservation Society gave evidence. I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account of the meeting, partly because Richard Taylor has already done so (I don’t know Richard, I just came across his blog last week, somehow).

But I’m also restricting myself to a few observations because I rapidly developed a severe headache, not entirely unrelated to what I was listening to. I couldn’t help thinking that, as ever, our decision-making capability is hopelessly compromised by a failure to recognise those two great contradictions in terms: local democracy and the rural economy. We fail to realise that the more local the influence on decision-making, the less democratic it is. And the more economic activity in an area the less rural it is – you can’t have both, you have to make decisions.

So here are my considered reflections on the politicial process to resolve the chronic traffic problems in Cambridge:

1. What public debate?
About the first thing I discovered at the meeting was that the deadline for responses from the public had passed on 13th March. A questionnaire has even been completed, already (see the Transport Commission website).

Interesting. I’d only just heard about the public meetings, yet I missed out on having my say. I know these “public consultation” processes always work like this, but wouldn’t it be better to have some discussion to help people formulate their ideas and then ask them about their views?

By conducting the questionnaire and asking for submissions as a first step the Commission has ensured that it has only gathered data based on uninformed views. OK, the Commission is tasked with a problem that has been around for years, but by taking evidence only before the public meetings, it minimises the amount of fresh thinking it can tap into. And ensured that most influence is wielded by insiders in the political process who are most aware of the timetable. Engagement with members of the general public interested in just this one issue has become a very one-way process.

If I were to make a submission, I’d rather not look totally ignorant, so would have liked to have heard the City Council’s and others’ views before putting finger to keyboard. Tricky when the submission deadline was 13th March and the public meeting 19th March.

2. Cambridge City Council priorities
I say I would have liked to hear Cambridge City Council’s views, but when I did I was shocked. Truly shocked.

Get this: the top priority of Cambridge City Council is climate change, expressed as “reducing carbon emissions”. Now, if I was to decide who should get the contract to solve climate change I wouldn’t award it to Cambridge City Council. It’s the wrong level of government. Are my local councillors going to invent the electric car? Build a Supergrid to bring to the UK renewable electricity generated from Atlantic wind and Sahara sunlight?

So one minute we’re talking about traffic congestion and the next about emission targets. Some exchanges were surreal. Sian Reid, the Transport person on the City Council, tried to convince the head of the Commission, Sir Brian Briscoe, that transport plans should take account of the effect on carbon emissions in the whole region, not just Cambridge City. She was right. It’s daft for Sir Brian to tell everyone just to worry about their own little bit. That is the trap of local democracy, and we’d never get anywhere.

Or rather, Sian Reid would have been right, if we were talking about carbon emissions. But we’re not. We can only include such a discussion in a limited way, as otherwise we have to make sweeping unjustified assumptions. We would not, for example, propose to create a railway running coal-fired steam-trains. But to equate the level of traffic in the city with carbon emissions is absurd. What if people start using electric cars?

My head started hurting at the meeting and it’s hurting again now when I read on Richard Taylor’s blog that:

“The hypothetical question of why not close the city centre car parks to discourage people driving in was raised. It was pointed out this could be ‘done tomorrow’. [Good idea!] Cllr Reid who is responsible for car parks defended them pointing to the new emission based car park charging system which she said would be accepted as people were used to paying their vehicle excise duty on the basis of emissions.”

What on Earth is Sian Reid on about?

The amount of traffic coming into the centre of Cambridge already is a massive problem. And it doesn’t scale. The roads are clogged and we’re expecting more people to want to travel in the region.

Forget carbon emissions. In fact, strike this from the Council’s objectives altogether. Just sort out the transport system.

3. Who’s in charge?
Ah, but we can’t “just sort out the transport system”, because we haven’t yet answered the question “who for?”.

Because we haven’t identified who the transport system is meant to serve, progress is hamstrung.

Human nature being what it is, everyone focuses on the congestion charge proposed as part of any transport improvement. Central government has apparently made the £500m for transport improvements conditional on a congestion charge.

But the purpose of the congestion charge (cc) is unclear. Here are two views:
1. The aim of the cc is to reduce the inconvenience to Cambridge City residents from outsiders coming into the town or driving through it.
2. The aim of the cc is to reduce delays on roads in a crowded part of the county.

The first perspective implies the City Council would have “sovereignty”. They would take responsibility for the commercial success of their constituency. Accordingly, one would expect the congestion charge to cover a zone, requiring payment on entry, with those living inside exempt from payment. If high charges deter shoppers, then so be it. It might actually be better for everyone if there were fewer shops in Cambridge and more in the surrounding area.

The second perspective implies that the transport problems of Cambridge are just a subset of those affecting a larger area. The County Council has “sovereignty”. But then it has to take a broader perspective than just Cambridge. The whole idea of a single congestion charge zone makes little sense.

Instead we have a farcical situation where the County Council has appointed a Transport Commission who are consulting local councils. That was the purpose of the meeting I went to. South Cambridgeshire District Council (SCDC) were able to announce that they oppose the congestion charge. Indeed, the head of that council explained that, because the buses were so slow, his 17 year old kids had been allowed to drive to Hills Road 6th Form College in Cambridge. Unbelievable. Cambridge University undergraduates aren’t allowed to run cars, but 17 year olds can. Someone should have a word with Hills Road College.

It is lunacy for SCDC to “oppose” the congestion charge or to give them a platform to do so – this statement should have been ruled out of order. SCDC were at the meeting purely to provide a perspective on transport in the Cambridge region, not to take a position on anything. As I’ve explained, the congestion charge must either be the responsibility of Cambridge – at least the majority Lib Dems in favour – or Cambridgeshire – all parties in favour. I know this, because someone wrote to the local paper asking who he was supposed to vote for. Maybe he shouldn’t bother. Maybe he should take the time to ask himself why he thinks he knows better than everyone who’s looked into the issue properly.

SCDC residents can only influence transport in Cambridge through their County Councillors, not their local Councillors. It is ludicrous for SCDC to have a “position” on the congestion charge (unless it extrends into South Cambs of course).

Personally I think it would be far preferable if Cambridge City Council took decisions on transport in Cambridge. Because the wider constituency represented by the County Council has the final say, we are drifting towards a vision of Cambridge as there to provide a service to the surrounding area. It is turning into a giant shopping centre. It would be preferable to tweak the political system to shift the balance so that transport and other planning in Cambridge reflects the needs of residents of the city rather more and the needs of those living elsewhere in the county a little less.

4. Strategy, what strategy?
Because we haven’t decided who the transport system is for, we have no clearly defined objectives.

One might have expected the Transport Commission to start out by identifying objectives. Every project I’ve ever been involved with has started with some kind of high-level statement of requirements. But when it comes to the future of Cambridge’s transport system, we go straight to arguing about the – at this stage hypothetical – congestion charge and who would be exempt from it.

What Sir Brian and Professor Tony might more profitably have done was:
1. Identify the objectives of the exercise.
2. Validate these with the public.
3. Produce some (internally consistent) options for meeting the objectives, based on something resembling logical reasoning.
4. Consult the now better informed public again.
5. Select one of the options.

Instead we have had uninformed public comment – many saying “no congestion charge” rather than addressing a complete solution – and will no doubt end up with an incoherent strategy.

Let me suggest what some of the objectives might have been, reconciling the interests of Cambridge residents and those from the surrounding area:
1. Reduce the usage of Cambridge City Centre (inside the inner ring road) by motor vehicles.
2. Ensure inexpensive, efficient transport options exist to support the needs of an increasing population in the Greater Cambridge area.
3. Minimise delays to traffic using designated through-routes.

A strategy could then be devised to meet these objectives. This stage should be the province of professionals. It requires objective reasoning, not subjective opinion. For example, the Commission might use the concepts of “limiting factors”, “efficiency” and “incentives”.

They might conclude that cost is not the limiting factor determining whether people drive into Cambridge or not. Any congestion charge would therefore likely have to be very high to be effective. No, the limiting factor for many journeys is surely the availability of parking. So, to meet objective no. 1, reduce traffic coming into the centre of Cambridge, we could close the Grand Arcade car-park. We could convert some of the railway station car-park into cycle parking. And we could tell Hills Road 6th Form College it is not acceptable for their students to drive into Cambridge.

The limiting factor for many journeys across Cambridge is very likely the existence of routes. If we don’t allow people to take short-cuts by leaving designated through-routes, then people will have to stick to the main roads.

Another limiting factor affecting cyclists (and even pedestrians) is the available space. There are too few cycle lanes and even pavements are congested in some parts of Cambridge! To achieve a modal shift away from cars, more cycle lanes and wider pavements are required.

Once some of the limiting factors have been addressed, the Commission should start to look at the efficiency of the system.

This will likely mean far more one-way streets. It is ludicrous, for example, that buses travel both ways, not only along Regent Street, but also along Emmanuel Road into the Drummer Street bus station.

But ultimately the Commission needs to consider the geography of Cambridge, with a busy centre confined on 3 sides by the river Cam and historic buildings. The obvious solution is for the main transport interchange to be located at the railway station (perhaps with a similar arrangement at Chesterton), with a high-capacity, high-frequency shuttle service – preferably a metro train in a tunnel, an elevated monorail or even the dreaded pods – between there and the town centre. We need to be prepared to invest in such a scheme. The Commission should not rely on vested interests, such as the bus company, but on its own reasoning.

Closing car-parks, closing minor roads to through-traffic and improving the design of the system will all help, but to meet objective 3, to minimise delays, we have to look at incentives. And now, finally, we have to consider a congestion charge. But what we’re left with are the busy routes around Cambridge and elsewhere in the county. Surely, rather than a zone, the charge should be levied purely on those using particular roads that are exceeding their capacity, causing delays for everyone? For example, a charge on the inner ring road would push some through traffic onto trunk routes. If some of these roads are too busy, a lower charge could be levied on them, moving some traffic onto public transport, or to travel at less busy times.

To sell a congestion charge to the public it must be presented as precisely targeted on busy routes. People need to be very clear what they’re buying. Rather than a zone, it would be far better to charge a fee for each busy road used – Gonville Place, East Road, Newmarket Road say – with a daily cap. And any talk of carbon emissions should be taken out of the discussion. Global warming is a different issue to traffic congestion.

5. Joined up thinking
It is impossible to separate traffic policy from housing and other planning policy. The head of SCDC pointed out at the meeting that Cambridge residents are on average 400 metres from their nearest bus-stop, but that this rises to 1000 metres in South Cambs. Look, the greater the housing density, the more customers there are for public transport (and for specialist local shops and small supermarkets!). It was refreshing to read today that someone is actually spelling this out. Here’s what Centre for Cities have to say:

“All cities are different. However, denser cities can be more efficient and more sustainable. Research has shown that denser cities around the world have a lower private transport energy use per capita. Private transport energy use in Boston, for example, which has an average urban density of 12.5 persons per hectare, was 50,000 per capita in 1990; while in Hamburg it was 20,000 per capita (37.5 persons per hectare) and around 3,000 per capita in Hong Kong (300 persons per hectare).

Growing through densification rather than urban sprawl therefore has the potential to make transport in Cambridge more sustainable, as more residents are able to walk or cycle to work.” (my stress)