Tag Archives: London traffic

Access All Areas?

Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine. For hard users only: this one’s a bit technical if you’re not used to driving in London.

 

People take taxis for many reasons: for work, for pleasure; and sometimes when they have little choice. Sometimes people have luggage they need to get across London to a rail station or airport. People need to make hospital appointments, and a taxi is often chosen because it’s fully accessible. Sometimes a cab is taken in an emergency. It’s an uncomfortable feeling knowing we sometimes thrive on the misfortune of others. More positively, a ride in a cab could be part of a holiday or a Christmas treat. The common denominator in every case is that the customer expects a door to door service. This is our unique selling point. Increasingly, our USP has become impossible to deliver.

Over the last few years the number of roads closed off to us has increased dramatically. The good work in making Russell Square two-way was undermined when other parts of Bloomsbury were closed off in 2015. Many people with limited mobility need to get around the many hospitals and clinics in the Bloomsbury area, and journeys have been made slower – and consequently more expensive – for them. It’s become virtually impossible to set down passengers in some streets, notably Tavistock Place. I’ve done a fair amount of Taxicard work on ComCab recently, but I wouldn’t relish trying to unload a wheelchair in this one-way, single lane, thoroughfare. In late-2018, more roads were blocked off around Bloomsbury Square and more banned turns came in. Lord knows how difficult things could become accessing the UCH if Tottenham Court Road is closed to taxis.

Many people with limited mobility rely on taxis to get them around: you wouldn’t believe how many Taxicard jobs involve West End theatres. It’s now impossible to load a wheelchair at the door of the Lyceum Theatre.

The Ned hotel in the City is inaccessible for most of the day. Last year, certain streets around Shoreditch were closed to motor vehicles at certain times of the day. Hardly a day goes by without streets being closed off; some of them destined never to be re-opened. The whole area around King’s Cross and St. Pancras Stations is a mess. Goodsway eastbound has been closed for several months, with no indications when it might re-open. The sudden closure at the top of Judd Street has resulted in misery. There are no signs informing us of what’s happening, or whether it’ll ever re-open. Many vehicle drivers think they can use Mabledon Place to escape the misery, only to find they’re being forced to turn right. The authorities should have allowed a left turn to alleviate this problem, but no; as usual, they are keeping vehicles on the roads as long as possible, thus adding to congestion and pollution.

Things used to be so much easier. Allow me to put on my psychedelic rose-tinted specs as I reflect on the time when you used to be able to drive straight down from Gresham Street on to Southwark Bridge using King Street, Queen Street and Queen Street Place. Southwark Bridge is near enough impossible to access from the west. Blackfriars is little better. The closure of Stonecutter Street causes bus congestion in Charterhouse Street, and forces other folk aiming for the bridge to drive around the smaller streets around Tudor Street – when our progress isn’t hampered by giant cranes and orange barriers.

Al Fresco reminded us of the joys of St Bride’s Street in a recent Taxi article. Indeed, when I started out we used to be able to drive straight up St Bride’s Street into Shoe Lane from just off Ludgate Circus. St Bride’s Street is now closed to through traffic, except bikes. As I sit on the Goldman Sachs rank I watch cycles scattering the suits as they quite legally tear along the path alongside the office blocks. It’s painful watching lorries making deliveries and being forced to reverse out past the Boris Bike park, cab rank, motorcycle parking area, and huge piles of building materials. It’s a miserable road for anyone who has to access this hazardous little road.

Occasionally one-way streets are opened up to two-way traffic. Baker Street and Gloucester Place worked OK as one-way streets, but we now have to sit behind buses on a single lane and swerve in and out of Right Turn lanes. It’s probably too early to provide a definitive assessment of this system, but I daresay I could get 900 words out of it another time.

Any useful road is ruined eventually. The War on Diesel ensures that the pollution side of things will eventually lessen, but it’s going to be many years before we’ve all gone electric. By that time I don’t think there will be any roads worth using anyway.

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Good For London?

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

Good for London?

Last year’s Christmas traffic was the worst I’ve ever seen it:  you could really feel the presence of 120,000 private hire cars, and the results of the year’s road narrowing.

I’d rather have Sadiq running London than the last chap, but if I ever had Mr Khan in my cab I’d still feel compelled to bend his ear about the traffic.  I’d ask if these new road modelling schemes are good for London.  I’d ask how he thought the Cycle Superhighway between The Tower and Westminster was working out.  Has it got London moving? Has it contributed to cutting harmful emissions?  I’d ask what he thought of the never-ending queue of traffic heading north on Blackfriars Bridge, and whether he thought the system at Blackfriars was clear and coherent for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians (if I were a cyclist I’d prefer it the way it was:  it’s too complicated and too dangerous).  I’d ask if he thought it was good for London to have traffic queuing all day to get past the extra set of lights on Birdcage Walk.   Other crazy road schemes I could mention are available, it’s endless.

Then there are the badly-thought out roadworks.  Tower Bridge was completely closed for nearly from October.  I’d ask the Mayor if it was good for London to close the bridge for long-term roadworks at the same time as even longer term roadworks closed Tooley Street eastbound in the same area.  On a smaller scale, how often do we see a huge pile of rubble surrounded by orange barriers blocking our progress?  It’s not acceptable to allow workmen to go off for the weekend leaving a set of temporary traffic lights guarding a huge hole in the road, as in West End Lane on the busiest Saturday of the year.  If you block a major thoroughfare you should be compelled to work around the clock until the job is finished.

Piccadilly Underpass is a strange one.  It’s often closed on weekend mornings, and was closed for a lengthy period earlier last year.  It was closed again with no apparent warning on one of the busiest weekends of the year, on the 10th and 11th of December.  Every time the underpass re-opens I’m keen to see what improvements have been made, but it’s the same grimy wall and the same poor lighting and lane markings. The outside has become nicer, but these closures have been about putting in huge illuminated advertising screens rather than improving the driving experience.  Talking of electricity, what’s being done to help the switchover to electric cabs next year?  I hear there’s now one rapid charging point in Central London!

Threats to close off streets to us have become constant.  It’s gone a bit quiet on Tottenham Court Road, but the Mayor is still keen on closing Oxford Street, and stopping us driving around Regent’s Park.  The proposed closure of Bank Junction resulted in taxi demos.  Closures are always accompanied by claims that it’ll make things safer, but this one seems to be about bus times.  Average traffic speeds have fallen from 10.9 mph in 2003 to 7.8.  Things moved faster when our ancestors drove horse-drawn cabs.

Next Christmas the traffic is likely to be even worse.  If TfL carry on selling private hire licences at the same rate there will be upwards of an extra 20,000 mini-cabs on London’s roads.  No doubt there will be a new programme of road closures and road narrowing too.

Traffic is the worst thing about London, and it’s the worst thing about our job.  It’s getting beyond the stage now where we can happily consider it an occupational hazard and work around it.  Whole road systems and whole areas are almost permanently congested.  The powers that be have knowingly created this mayhem.  It’s manufactured congestion.

The mayor thinks Brexit is harmful for London, but the one thing that is harming London is the road congestion that he presides over.  Too many people who run London fail to fail to accept that madcap road schemes are part of the problem, not part of the solution.  Businesses are more likely to desert London because their staff can’t move around the city, than uncertainty over Brexit.  If any banks do re-locate, I’ll look out for their stationary removal van on the Victoria Embankment.

Tower Bridge opened eight days early giving us an early Christmas present, and at around the same time, cabs were granted direct access to Tooley Street from Jamaica Road.  I hope the Mayor, and others controlling the streets, continue to see sense and halt the worst excesses of madcap road modernisation schemes and curb private hire licensing.  It’s the only thing that’s going to get things moving this year.

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Airport Expansion

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).
So the decision’s been taken and Heathrow is getting a third runway. Business experts say we need more capacity in order to compete with European hub airports. Experts have been telling us all sorts lately, and I’m sceptical. Anyway, if we need a new runway, I’m glad it’s Heathrow.
For as long as I remember, we’ve been told that airport expansion destroys the environment and devastates communities. But those captains of industry are saying we need more planes, and more space on which to land them on. Never mind that air quality will plummet, wildlife put at risk, and villages cut in half – this is good for Britain. I hear four thousand homes are at risk in the villages around Heathrow. The fuel aeroplanes use is at least as bad as the stuff our cabs run on – and I’ve heard no calls for electric capability here. Or a Congestion Charge.
Business people are also driving the expensive and damaging HS2 project – all to save twenty minutes on a journey from London to Birmingham. I thought we lived in a technological age. I didn’t think business had to be conducted face to face anymore. Surely most of it could all be done through video conferencing? Technology allows people to work on trains, so I’m not convinced HS2 is worth it. I’m sceptical about anything big business bods tell us: it never seems to be for our good, always for the benefit of big business shareholders, and for those high rollers jetting around the world on jollies. Concerns about community and environment always seem to be trumped by business concerns. I presume it’s the same business people who also said we needed to remain part of the European Union in order to compete. I still suspect they only want us in the EU so they can access cheap labour from Eastern Europe. Fracking is another controversial pursuit, and even if it proves to be clean and safe, you can be sure that the main beneficiaries will be the shareholders involved in the project. I notice that it’s started up north, a few hundred miles away from the bulk of Tory voters.
I’m not sure why Luton Airport wasn’t looked at for expansion, as getting to Luton from Central London isn’t too bad. Speaking personally, for last summer’s annual holiday I left a two-hour carbon footprint driving my diesel-powered filth cart to Gatwick. Luton would have taken me only twenty-five minutes, and I might have been able to do it on public transport. I’ve heard City Airport is a nice hassle-free airport to fly from, but I’ve dismissed it as an airport to use for my summer holiday as I imagine the nightmare of carting suitcases across London by tube and the Docklands Light Railway. I could make it to Euston and get a cab, but I know what dent the fare could make to my holiday funds should we encounter any flak. Stansted is a bit of a slog driving through Hackney and Walthamstow. Heathrow is closer and is reasonably accessible by road.
If expansion at Heathrow results in more passengers it follows that we’ll enjoy more custom too; but to some extent what we’d gain in increased custom would be offset by traffic congestion. We’ll lose some customers as extra congestion will put people off making the journey by road. This is why I would’ve opposed London City Airport or Gatwick. City Airport is closer to Central London than Heathrow, but the journey by road is a nightmare. It can cost the passenger just as much in money and time as the longer run to Heathrow if the Cycle Superhighway is in a particularly angry mood.
I’ve never understood why Gatwick is marketed as a London airport. It’s nearer to Brighton than it is to Central London, and on an average day it takes ninety minutes to drive there. On the rare occasion a customer asks me to take them for Gatwick I always explain that it’s going to be a long, horrible, and very expensive drive through some of South London’s busiest High Streets. I normally try to put them off and drive them to Victoria instead. The only thing that would make Gatwick viable for expansion would be if a motorway was built from Stockwell. I’d only support expansion of Gatwick if Streatham High Road was also expanded.
Birmingham was never mentioned in discussions. Experts say there isn’t the demand outside the south-east, but if HS2 is built we’ll be able to get from Euston to Birmingham Airport in about an hour.
So, most people agree that an increase in air travel is a bad thing, but the government have decided to support it anyway. Planes are Bad, Bad, Bad! That’s why we pay extra taxes to fly these days. Occasional holidaymakers like myself are charged extra taxes, but they should tax the frequent fliers and leave the occasional users alone. Mind you, we won’t see it in action for at least nine years. Call me controversial, but stuck in traffic today, I was wondering whether planes normally using City Airport could land on the deserted strip of the cycle superhighway at weekends?

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For Richer For Poorer

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine.  I like to cover the political spectrum, but this one would make Jeremy Corbyn proud):

During the EU referendum debate we kept hearing that the UK has the fifth biggest economy in the world.  I find that hard to believe as I watch hospitals closing, the police and fire service cut, mental health care slashed, and a myriad of other austerity measures brought in. We’re actually living in a world where department stores are sold for a pound.  If this is the fifth biggest economy, God knows what the fifth poorest economy is like.  And we don’t hear about the recession any more:  surely it’s not really over?

During our work we are uniquely placed to observe society from all angles.  Driving along Brompton Road and around Sloane Square we can see the wealth, but we can see it is in the hands of a lucky few.  We work here, but we know we don’t belong to this world.  Our world is where the NHS is overstretched, medical waiting times are increasing, and there’s fierce competition for school places.  Transport workers and firefighters have been on strike, and even junior doctors taken industrial action after changes to contracts were forced on them.  We’ve seen soldiers at Chelsea barracks moved to less fashionable Woolwich, far from Central London, and their barracks converted into housing and shopping.  Police and fire stations are sold off and boarded up, only to return later as blocks of luxury flats, ironically named something like “The Old Station.”  This is London’s Prime Residential Market, where those with money can insulate themselves from the things that affect the majority of us by going private.  Things are different where ordinary working people live.  I wouldn’t even know where to buy a yacht or a pot of caviar outside Central London (if caviar comes in pots; I’m more a fish & chips man myself).

I’m not wealthy, nor are any of my family or friends.  Most people I know have become less well-off and less secure over the past few years.  Wages have not kept up with inflation and temporary contracts have become the norm.  Self-employment status scams improve the employment figures, but zero-hours contracts equal zero security.

In transport, there’s only gloom and doom.  There’s gridlock and pollution on the roads, unrest on the tubes, and overcrowded trains (people will need to start sitting on the roof if things get much worse).  In our immediate world of private transport there’s a race to the bottom.  It’s not just taxi drivers who are feeling the pinch: mini-cab demos are almost unheard of, but Uber and Addison Lee drivers have recently taken to the streets to express their concerns over reduced pay and worsening conditions.

Sometimes it appears that things aren’t so austere. TfL seem to have the resources to spend billions on crazy modernisation schemes (that’s road narrowing to you and I).  The police still sit on motorway bridges all day and film people, and you still see pairs of them on horses clip-clopping around central London smiling for tourists’ cameras.  They’re tied up every weekend looking after people on demos and marches, and coning off the streets.  I don’t know who sanctions all these closures.  It’s probably not the Police’s fault they’re sitting in vans all day watching people shouting and waving placards.  No wonder the Police stations are never open to hand in lost property.

We read in Taxi recently how the LTDA was threatened by Uber, TfL and the Police for publicising sex attack statistics by private hire drivers.  TfL and the Police said they don’t have the resources to tackle crime by holders of private hire licences, but resources are still there to hassle taxi trade magazines.  Over 400 TfL employees are on over 100K year.  Nice work if you can get it.  TfL and the Police seem more interested in political correctness and PR than preventing crime. The Police objected to the LTDAs use of their trademark logo.  Are they a force, a service; or merely a brand these days?

The money is clearly there in the world’s fifth biggest economy, but much of it seems to be in the hands of a minority.  Public services are cut and the proceeds seem to be wasted on madcap road schemes, policing events that bring cities to a standstill, and protecting those in power against negative PR.

In London, we have a new mayor:  maybe he can redress the balance?  In the country as a whole we have to hope that the economy improves, so that we can all enjoy a bit more security.  I know I’ll probably never have enough money for a yacht, but a new cab would be nice, and a few more customers would help things along.

Blimey, that was about as left wing as I’ve ever sounded – eat your heart out Red ken!  Calls for hanging and flogging will be resumed in due course.

Copyright:  Chris Ackrill, 2016.

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Can London Take It?

(original edit of article for Taxi magazine)

If the government are to be believed and the economy is improving, it should be welcomed.  But can London cope with an increase in commercial activity at the same time as it reduces road space?

With more money around, there will inevitably be more people on the streets, and there will be more demand for places in to which to spend money:  ie. shops, bars and restaurants.  There will generally be more demand for road space and parking, and more pressure on an already overstretched public transport network.  There will be more road closures due to building work; so more lorries, skips, and more blokes in hi-viz vests standing in the road with lollypops.  We’ll frequently turn into a road to see it blocked by a giant crane.  Much of the current congestion is caused by buses, gawd bless ‘em, and we’ll need more of them once more people start moving around more.  They’re already nose to tail on Regent Street, and we’ll be sitting behind even more of them as they slowly negotiate the narrow streets of Notting Hill and Hampstead.  The bus stands on Pall Mall East and the top of Shaftesbury Avenue will be permanently occupied, and Ludgate Hill will be a slow crawl of tour buses – with no escape route at weekends due to the customary closures on surrounding roads.  There will be more vans and lorries making deliveries, more refuse trucks, and every busy junction will have a security van inconveniently parked on the corner of the road you’ve just turned into.

So what’s TfL’s response to all this?  It seems to be to reduce road space even further.  “East to West, the Embankment is Best” runs the old Knowledge maxim, but the river route from Tower Hill to Westminster is down to one lane in each direction, and looks likely to stay like that.  The future is already here in WC1:  In the last month we’ve seen the crucial westbound Tavistock Place, Tavistock Square, Torrington Place, route through Bloomsbury closed off to motorists.  All the good work making Russell Square two-way undone at a stroke, as it becomes the new Piccadilly Circus.

The authorities are making things as inconvenient for motorists as possible, but few people drive in London for fun.  They’re bending over backwards to encourage cycling, but they should be making it easier for those who really need it.  People are never going to have furniture delivered by bike.  An Amazon super highway would be of more practical use.

Do they really want permanently congested roads?  What about the harmful exhaust emissions that draw huge fines from the EU?  Eventually, electric vehicles will take over.  While initially encouraged with tax incentives, and congestion charge exemption, after a short period of time, the benefits will be eroded and electric car drivers will be in the same position as everyone else.  London will be left with the same congestion, just less pollution.  TfL won’t care about miles of traffic queuing from The Angel to get through Euston Underpass, or sat on the Cycle Superhighway watching the traffic lights change several times before moving an inch.  Lord knows what it’ll be like when Tottenham Court Road is de-commissioned, or Oxford Street pedestrianised.  Regent Street is already closed every couple of weeks for events.  Someone needs to decide whether London is a working city or an exhibition hall.  Is it fair to divert most of central London’s bus routes for American football parties or a toy shop promotion?

The green shoots of economic recovery should provide more cab customers, but the numbers of cab drivers are going down as fewer people are starting the Knowledge than are retiring.  The public needn’t worry, there are plenty of mini-cabs to take up the slack.  The remedy of our licensing body is not only to reduce road space, but also to flood the streets with mini-cabs.  Do we really need 80,000 of them?

Spare a thought also for the emergency services.  The London Ambulance Service has been put on Special Measures as response times are so slow.  I can’t say I’m surprised.

Those who are making the decisions to ruin London aren’t around at the weekends to see that it’s seven days a week misery.  Executives of powerful financial institutions aren’t normally around at the weekend, but I’m sure the head honchos will eventually threaten to pull out of London should the traffic become unbearable and affect the ability to conduct business.

I think madcap traffic schemes pose more of a threat to the taxi trade than Uber, and private hire are affected it as much as we are. Our customers will desert us if journey times get much longer. Poorly co-ordinated road closures with inadequate notification have long been a blight on London, but it’s the permanent anti-car “modernisation” that is ruining the lives of those who need to get around.  If we welcome an increase in commercial activity without addressing the issue of road space there are some miserable times ahead.  The best we can hope for is that once Crossrail is finished, some of the traffic will be able to more freely again.  I shan’t hold my breath though.

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