Paint, power, priority and priorities

It’s amazing what a lick of paint will do in the right place. I say this partly because our kitchen could do with a refresh and partly because of the launch of the King Street pilot in Toronto.

In the pilot King Street is seeing a huge priority shift in favour of public transport, with cars only able to use it for short (ie. one block) periods before having to move off. This leaves the rest of road free for public transport. The early results show large drops in commute times for public transport users, although there is much more time to see if this continues.

So there you have it, new roads or rail aren’t necessarily required to improve public transport travel times. Just change the roads around to favour whatever public transport is already using the streets. So why aren’t we seeing similar approaches tried everywhere? Well, to get into that we have to look at what it would mean and what the political risks are.

But let’s first have a think about why this is important. Many of our city centres are clogged with poisonous fumes, many are difficult to cross with any form of transport. Large, often multi-storey sections of city are used for the storage of wheeled lumps of metal and plastic that lie unused for much of the day, whilst often buses are half empty outside of peak hours.

I don’t think changing prioritisation is something unknown to policy makers or politicians. They know it is possible, in the right circumstances. They probably also know that in the long run it is likely to do some good and convince some people to change from car to public transport (the elusive prize of “modal shift”).

The first part of answering the riddle is that giving priority to one group of commuters (in this case public transport users) takes it away from another. All the economic theories about whether one group can “compensate” another through a change in policy won’t apply when you have a swarm of angry motorists (and their well organised lobby groups) making a path to your door.

Yes, the changes would hopefully convince some of them out of their cars, but in the meantime they are going to be unhappy and quite likely vocal about it. In Britain it has been a couple of years since the tabloids have unilaterally declared that there was a war on motorists, but I am sure with the right cajoling they could reopen hostilities. It would be a fearless politician who tries to unleash major prioritisation changes on an unsuspecting populace, but even with years of warming up quite a few people are still going to be upset about it.

The second issue is that while there are many people who feel they cannot live without their car, there really are some who actually can’t. People with certain disabilities, those whose work involves deliveries, those transporting raw materials and tools, people with caring responsibilities who may need to leave work in an emergency. Taxi drivers (of every description) might feel that they are a form of public transport. All these groups will be caught up in any de-prioritisation of the car. There may be a way to try and work with these groups to provide them with exemptions, but each time you do that you put more traffic on the restricted roads and lessen the overall impact of the policy.

Thirdly, especially from a European perspective, many of our roads weren’t designed for multiple lanes of cars. They weren’t even designed for cars, but for carts or pedestrians. Especially in city centres, it is hard to imagine road widening taking place if it will destroy buildings.

Add into this that almost all of our cities are built straddling rivers (because: history) then you have a real problem.

I grew up in Worcester, with one four lane road bridge in the city. If you don’t cross that bridge you can travel 2 miles south or five miles north, on essentially local roads, just to get to the other side of the river. The road layout means it’s pretty hard to see how some people travelling across the river won’t have to pass by the Cathedral in all its splendour. This means whatever happens with priority and prioritisation, cars are still likely to be getting close to the city centre when traversing the city, even if they are not travelling into the centre. They will still have to cross the bottleneck that is the road bridge and that is effectively that.

Just as the rivers present an obstacle, so do the actions of previous decision makers. I live in Leeds, where someone a long time ago decided to build a motorway into the heart of the city centre. We also have the shortest numbered motorway in the country right in the city centre. Indeed, if you are travelling from east to west, north to south or vise versa, you are most likely to get pretty close to the city centre. No lick of paint is going to take the roads away and even with lane priority for the buses that use the motorways people are still going to want to travel in large numbers close to the city centre. Better public transport that doesn’t travel to the city centre may be part of the solution to that, but that would require us to be able to direct public transport where to go.

Which leads me onto the next point and the need for public transport priority improvements to be matched with decently directed and quality services. People won’t be nudged into moving out of their cars if the public transport is slow, liable to break down, doesn’t go where you want or is not very pleasant to sit on. For much of the UK that just isn’t happening and the growing consensus is that local democratic control (and perhaps higher subsidies alongside this) is the only thing that could improve this.

Finally, there’s nothing truly exciting about changing priorities for most people. No-one apart from us policy geeks are going to remember the politician who decided to repaint the roads, no matter what impact it makes.

There’s even a school of thought, connected with my previous point, that says you have to wow the middle class, middle income commuters out of their cars with something exciting. Trains excite people more than buses, trams even more than that and don’t even start people on undergrounds or monorail (monorail monorail!). But all of that comes at a cost (exorbitant in some cases) that is not only financial. Roads have to be dug up, viaducts built, stations expanded, tunnel diggers bought, buildings knocked down, land purchased.

Hopefully what I’ve described isn’t enough to turn anyone off road reorganisation, but has laid out why it isn’t as easy as it might appear.

Let’s take a second to look at a case where it most definitely did not pan out. York is one of those historical cities with a medieval street layout, a large river and a set number of bridges in the city centre. It has issues with pollution and slow travel times for private and public transport travellers alike. The council, much like Toronto are currently doing, decided to pilot a scheme where one of the bridges -the one with the highest level of bus use- would effectively become a bus only bridge. It wasn’t just paint, they paid out for some number plate recognition cameras and signs, which meant people received notifications and (eventually) fines for driving through in their cars.

What happened next is most likely seared into the collective memory of every transport planner in the country. It became the single most important issue in the city, dominating press coverage for months. Many people received fines, some without knowing they had broken the rules, some out because they found themselves funnelled into a route that they couldn’t get out of, some out of intransigence. The council lost legal battles to enforce the fines and it eventually became such a millstone around their neck that they ended the pilot. It weakened the ruling administration in the council and strongly contributed to it’s eventual loss of power.

So, upsetting motorists is a difficult sell. It needs careful management and early and clear engagement with the public. You need to be able to show that the majority of the public want better public transport and you have to try and deliver the results early and aid a quick modal shift so that full public transport is passing three quarter empty cars.

Crucially, to my mind at least, you have to be able to present any changes as part of a package that looks wider than a single street or improvement. If X or Y road is effectively closing to cars what will happen elsewhere? What public transport improvements can you lever in at the same time?  Who gains from increased use, a private company or local services? Can investment be made in out of centre parking? And also crucially, how will the needs of people who genuinely need to use their cars be met?

This is an issue many councils in the UK are going to be looking at. Hopefully all eyes are on Toronto, but it will be important to learn not only what they did on the road, but how people reacted to the changes and how the public can be convinced to accept re-prioritisation of the roads for what is clearly in the interest of everyone.

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