March 25, 2015 - From the March, 2015 issue

What Can London Learn from & Teach LA Regarding Urban Transport/Mobility?

Ben Plowden, Surface Transport Director of Strategy and Planning at Transport for London, joined fellow mobility experts at the LiveRideShare Conference in Downtown Los Angeles last month. Plowden sat down with TPR during his visit to share his experience negotiating between a mix of uses for London’s road network. He highlights success there prioritizing livability. Plowden noted that his time in Los Angeles educated him to the progress LA is making toward increased transportation options—from the sharing-economy to public transit. 

Ben Plowden

"If it can be made to work in LA—the kind of city based around the automobile—then it really can work anywhere in the world. Coming from an environment where the ability to do stuff is relatively straightforward, I’ve been impressed by how much has been achieved in an environment much more complicated to negotiate.” -Ben Plowden

Ben, what brings you from London to Los Angeles in March, besides good weather?

Ben Plowden: Just before Christmas I met David Bragdon, who runs TransitCenter—a philanthropy in New York—to speak about transport in London. He contacted me afterward to say a variety of local organizations were organizing LiveRideShare, looking at shared mobility for the City of Los Angeles.

I came today to talk about what we’ve done in London—but I couldn’t come to LA for just a day because that would be a lot of carbon-per-minute-speaking. David Bragdon said he’d fix me up beforehand to meet some city officials and advocacy folks in Seattle and Portland.

I’ve been really impressed in each city by how much is going on—as well as the dedication and commitment both inside and outside of government, given the complicated environment in which they are seeking to operate and improve sustainable transport choices. 

Elaborate on London’s policy and investment experience with incenting LiveRideShare.

London has the good fortune to have been given a structure of government in 2000, by an act of Parliament, that includes an elected mayor who is also the chair of the Transport for London (TFL) board. (He doesn’t have to be, but so far both mayors have chosen to exercise that role.) We think the organization is among the top two or three in the world in terms of the extent to which it is responsible for all aspects of transport in the city. There is no aspect of transport in London that we don’t fund, regulate, license, influence, provide, or contract for.

That gives us a huge advantage in making sure that customers get seamless service.

We have a single ticketing system for all public transport. When you get off the railway, there’ll be a bus waiting outside. We have a website with a journey planner on it. We put all of our operational data into a dataset store for app developers to use.

The Olympics in 2012 tested our ability to function as a single organization rather than multiple organizations. If we got it right, everybody would applaud us. But if we got it wrong, we would have to hang our heads in shame. It was an important forcing experience for the organization because it was the first time we had a single objective across the whole business. As it turned out, we got it right.

Elaborate on your professional charge within Transport for London (TFL).

TFL has corporate functions like human resources, legal, finance, property, and premises, and then two main operating businesses.

There’s Rail/Underground—anything that moves on a railway in London, with some exceptions being the national rail lines coming into the city and some of the suburban lines. We run the underground system, we run the Docklands Light Railway out from the City and into East London, and we run a tram system in southeast London.

I work in Surface Transport—essentially everything that happens on the road network and the river. We are operating about 5 percent of the road network by length, which accounts for 30 percent of the road network by traffic volume, with the 33 boroughs responsible for the rest.

Crucially, we are also the Traffic Authority for the whole city. Any traffic signal that you see in London is owned and managed by Transport for London. In my building, south of the river, a control center functions 24/7/365 to manage traffic in real time for the whole city.

We are able to influence or direct all of the transport in the city. As far as we know, there aren’t very many other city transport agencies for whom that is true. Our job is still very challenging, but it’s significantly easier than when you have multiple agencies competing.

To better appreciate the scope of your responsibilities, what’s not included in TFL’s mandate? 

We don’t influence or manage the motorway network—the equivalent being your interstate network. It comes a little way into the city boundary, but quickly turns into what we call an A-road, and that becomes our responsibility.

The national long-distance railway network coming into the main stations like Paddington, King’s Cross, Waterloo, and most of the suburban over-ground heavy rail network, are run through franchises that we don’t own. But increasingly we are willing to take over the franchises and operate the suburban rail network, too—because in parts of London where there is no subway, that is the principal rail network. We want to bring that into our ticketing system—the Oyster system.

Apart from that, we oversee pretty much everything else.

It appears that TFL and your offices do not oversee taxi/livery or the new app-driven, private-sector transportation network companies like Uber. 

No. The national government and mayor have encouraged us to make most all of our operational data available in a form that can be turned into apps by developers, inside the “data store” section of our website. A lot of the apps you’ll see in London draw our data off and turn it into something you can use on a hand-held.

We regulate taxis. In order to become a black-taxi driver you must pass a test called the Knowledge, which we administer. Then you and your vehicle will be licensed by us, even if you operate a “private hire” vehicle. 

How has Mayor Boris Johnson leveraged his jurisdictional responsibility over transport to reshape LiveRideShare in London?

The mayor sets the strategic development framework for the city as a whole. For developments over a certain size—for example, a certain number of housing units or a physical scale—the mayor is the planning authority for the decision. He also produces a document called the London Plan, which determines and influences where new development will go.

There is a huge amount of growth underway in East London, where there is a relatively large amount of former industrial and commercial land no longer used for those purposes. If we’re going to have all these businesses and people come to London, we need to put them where transport is, or put transport where the people are going. The mayor is able to influence this through his strategic plan and our investments. That’s the urban-planning Holy Grail: doing both the strategic development and transport investment.

In the short term, that means you’re providing bus service to the new developments, because you can turn them off and on relatively quickly while you find the money and right-of-way for rail investment. That could mean extending the light rail system or adding to the overground network.

We hope to plan investment and new infrastructure—as well as operating services day-to-day—in a way that is supportive to current patterns of economic and social activity, but also supports new patterns of economic activity.

What are London’s transport/livability priorities going forward?

The big challenge for London today is that demand on the road network, in terms of volume of traffic, is starting to pick up again after the 2008 crash. A growing amount of traffic is trying to use a city network, which is essentially fixed. There isn’t much appetite for major new highway capacity being built in the city.

We also have increasing competition between different uses of the road network. If you get a crossing outside your kid’s school, I can’t drive my van as fast after my drop-off. If you get a bus lane, I can’t drive my car there anymore. There are a finite set of assets, both physical space of carriageway—in particular curbside space and parking—and a certain amount of capacity in the junctions, into which you are trying to shoe-horn a whole lot of different stuff. Not all of it is consistent.

The real challenge for us is trying to work out the optimal use of the road network overall, and of a particular location at a particular time of day, for the social and economic health of the city.

We did a very important piece of work with the key road stakeholders about 18 months ago called the Roads Task Force. At the mayor’s request, we brought all of the people who normally talk to us bilaterally—all of the different lobbies—and underwent a process to come up with a solution for managing and operating the network. That hadn’t been done before! It produced a very interesting conversation. People left the room still thinking their interest should come first, but at least understanding that there are multiple users of the network.

The politics of increasing rail capacity are less complicated. We’re building Cross Rail—a $25 billion east-west rail line through the city center, a large part of which will be in tunnel. That’s predominately an engineering challenge because it’s underground, and as long as you don’t have tunnels that collapse and ruin people’s houses, it’s less complex.


But the road network is a highly contested space. What you spend money on and who you prioritize constitute the single biggest challenge right now.

There is a particular issue around road safety—particularly pedestrians, cyclist, and motorcyclist casualties. As the network gets busier, the long-term trend is down—but in the last couple of years you’ve seen quite a large number of high-profile collisions. 

How are you adjusting your priorities and allocation of resources given the changing nature of London’s demographics?

My colleagues in the corporate research team produced a very interesting piece of work called “Drivers of Demand.” The question that they posed for themselves was why car use in London is declining. Is it because of policy and operational investment? Is it a demographic fact? The answer is that it’s a combination of factors: substantial improvements in the bus network; the growth of cycling; and maintenance in levels of walking, which is rising, but only proportionally to population rise.

The growth of younger people moving into the city also has an impact. If they could even afford to own a car, they couldn’t afford a place to park it. They cycle, they have a fantastic bus network, and everything they need is on their smart phone. There is no interest in owning a car for the sake of owning a car. From a functional point of view, if they have to hire a car they can, or take a taxi or streetcar.

We’ve had a large in-migration from Eastern Europe, where the expectations around owning a car are very different. These are people who used transit in their country of origin.

It’s a mixture of deliberate acts of policy and operational investment, demographic change, and growth in population, along with what we’ve done to make it easier to get by without a car.

The Thames is also under your jurisdiction. In Los Angeles, we currently are re-thinking and re-envisioning our Los Angeles River. Address how the river plays into your work.

For certain journeys—like west-to-east, the way the river flows—it’s a particularly convenient form of transport.

A strategy committee is looking at how we can increase passenger use on the river. That includes increasing the quality of the river piers and ports where you get on and off; integrating those piers into the surrounding streetscapes through wayfinding and signage; and making sure the ticketing system is fully integrated. We’re doing a whole set of things with the private river operators, who own and manage most of the physical infrastructure.

There is also an interesting question around whether we could have more freight on the river. You’re never going to have supermarket deliveries by barge. But, for example, construction materials for the Olympics came by river.

There is a major project underway called the Thames Tideway Tunnel—a new water main under the River Thames. A substantial proportion of the spoil from that has been taken out by river, as well. For low-cost but high-volume freight and waste, there is an interesting role the river could play to move things around without having to put it in trucks. 

Often at conferences on ride-share and transport, the focus is on transport alone without considering the interface with land-use and quality of life. London is led by a mayor with responsibility and authority for the integration of it all. How does the mayor’s broader authority impact your approach to addressing issues attendant to LiveRideShare? 

In terms of the policy framework and the decision-making, the two processes are integrated. I think it’s a huge advantage.

The mayor’s land-use plan provides the framework within which the local planning authorities set their strategic plans and development decisions. He can decide to allow or not allow certain major developments. He can now also “call in” decisions that would otherwise be made by the boroughs that he regards as being of sufficient strategic importance to make the decision.

Crucially, to support growth in existing areas and particularly growth in East London and outer London, where the land is, he can direct the activity and the spend by determining where capital investment goes and where operational service goes.

Docklands was a classic example of a major industrial area that essentially was overtaken by the growth of the deep-sea ports on the coast. The Thames was no longer deep enough to move the size of freighting activity that was going on for those international shippers. You had a large area that previously employed thousands of people living quite close to the docks that essentially became redundant. This didn’t happen overnight. But by the ’70s and ’80s, this was a large area of derelict land very close to the center of the city.

The Greater London government was very keen to develop this out to the major financial and growth area. The Canary Wharf Group began the process of developing out Canary Wharf. Initially people got in and out of Canary Wharf primarily through the Docklands Light Railway, along with one main road that connects the City to the Docklands. The DLR was clearly not going to be adequate to sustain the amount of growth planned. So we built the extension of the Jubilee Line out to Canary Wharf and all the way to Stratford, where the Olympics took place subsequently. That unlocked that whole development.

Now only 6 percent of people who go to Canary Wharf go by car. The rest go by transit or, increasingly, by pushbike.

That was a very good example of a large amount of available land, of high potential value given its proximity to the rest of the city, but not connected in a way that will give you the growth. Now Canary Wharf and the City of London are the two main financial centers in the area. 

Where do you and others in London’s leadership draw inspiration for implementable ideas and projects? Is it from Europe? The US or Asia? Or is the UK and London the font of your work?

We’re admirably modest!

People are doing interesting stuff all over the world. Why do we have CycleHire in London? Because they had it in Paris.

We’re working with the private sector to put in Autolib’, which operates in Paris. It’s an EV-based pick-up-and-go car-share service.

Looking at New York’s Times Square project, we’re doing similar things. In a sense, London and New York aren’t really in competition because jobs are either in one place or another. But nonetheless, the civic authorities are looking at what the other is doing. It’s interesting to consider how cities are competing in a benign sense, such as innovation around technology.

We’re Hoovering stuff up from all over the world, and we’re not proud at all. If it works and it can be adapted into another context, we’ll use it.

Ben, to draw this interview to a close, your experiences in Los Angeles have included riding bicycles, as well as meeting with civic entrepreneurs. Is metro Los Angeles, given your adventures here, now actually on your and London’s map of the world?

I’m genuinely impressed with what I’ve seen in Los Angeles. I’ve never been here before. It’s clearly a crazy-energetic city with loads of people thinking of new ways of repurposing it to make LA fit for the 21stcentury in a knowledge-based and experience-based economy. Los Angeles has huge resources in terms of population and economic vibrancy.

Some very interesting things have been true in LA, as well as in Portland and Seattle: the convergence of demographic change, where people are moving back into the city center, with the kinds of industries that depend on proximity and density, like tech and bio-science.

In Los Angeles, those factors combine with the amazing achievements of advocates and city authorities to put in new transit, bike lanes, and carpooling. This allows people who own a car out of functional necessity, rather than a particular commitment to the car, to start thinking they don’t need to have their own. They can choose from a variety of options to do what they have to do without a car in the driveway or at the curb fulltime.

If it can be made to work in LA—the kind of city based around the automobile—then it really can work anywhere in the world.

Coming from an environment where the ability to do stuff is relatively straightforward, I’ve been impressed by how much has been achieved in an environment much more complicated to negotiate. Here, there are many more layers of government and agencies involved. Transit extensions in this context are really impressive.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.