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A 20/20 perspective of TfL at 20
28 October 2020
They say a week is a long time in politics — and perhaps never more so, than now. But as TfL celebrates its 20th birthday it’s somewhat comforting to look back at what’s been achieved during its time.
As a transport sector ‘veteran’ in London I clearly remember the days before TfL. This in itself is something of a surprise for many of my colleagues, for whom TfL has always existed. A constant, cohesive and consistent approach amidst the changing political, social and economic landscape.
I’d actually started working in transport long before 2000. I started a transport apprenticeship with the GLC in 1977 and then moved on to Hammersmith & Fulham Council. In 1985 I joined the very progressive transport planning team at Camden Council and started to relearn the links with land-use and spatial planning. This following year the GLC was abolished and – although the London Regional Transport Group existed — planning was very fragmented across the 33 local authorities, to say the least. London Buses Limited had been formed to manage the bus network and London Underground Limited the Tube network. Overall transport strategy control lay with each of the individual boroughs and neighbouring boroughs aften had different objectives and politics.
It’d been the intent of the government at that time to move powers away from a regional transport authority approach, and that had succeeded. But as a consequence a landscape that was really tough to navigate had emerged for everyone, not least developers. Projects straddling Camden, with its Labour council, and Westminster, with its Conservative leadership, became battlegrounds with each borough bidding for local funding and heading in its own direction. Whilst some boroughs championed the ‘freedom of the motorist’ others took the polarised opinion.
A need for a strategic approach
Around the same time the development of Canary Wharf was underway. The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) had been created by Government in 1981 and its work was starting to sow the seeds for a return to a more regional, strategic approach. The overruling of Tower Hamlets planning by the LDDC heralded an ambition that better decision making and land use proposals could only be achieved with government intervention and transport strategies that set out a vision for a wider geographical area, beyond local authority borders. The GLA Act of 1999 not only paved the way for Ken Livingstone to take his place as the first Mayor of London but crucially lay the foundations for TfL to be established to provide a London-wide transport agenda.
What this meant in practice was a return to a clearer strategic framework. But it wasn’t without its challenges. I would define the first eight or so years of TfL as ‘bureaucratic’ and ‘hard to get things done’. The Mayor’s first transport strategy in 2001 – on the back of his election manifesto to ‘Get London Moving’ — was met with great celebration. But it was difficult to move forward as each of the eight or nine modes of transport was dealt with separately and often resisted common objectives.
Time for transformational change
For me, the transformational change came in 2008. Michèle Dix had taken the reins as managing director for planning; with responsibilities for the future transport needs of London, coordinating local plans and developing major transportation schemes. Case officers were introduced and things finally did ‘get moving’.
The recession was really biting but TfL started to make themselves much more ‘open for business’ for development. As an organisation that had been through a period of learning and realisation it was clear that investment and development were good for London and that TfL could be a very important and proactive partner in this approach. The establishment of the TfL Property Group has been, undoubtedly, one of TfL’s greatest marks of maturity, particularly with its cohesive links to the mayor’s strategy on social and affordable housing which would have been unachievable with the previous ‘patchwork’ planning approach.
Successes to celebrate
And despite a shaky start – from my perspective at least – there have been very many successes in the last 20 years. A strengthened bus network which, with tracking technology, now allows people to use buses in a completely different way than they did in the past. An upgraded and modernised Tube, with temperature-controlled trains, increased frequency of services and improved capacity of up to 40% on some lines. A clear and understandable strategy and a clear framework for everyone to work within. The ‘tall buildings’ and section 106 approach that Ken Livingston adopted, which levied income for the Tube network upgrades, fed through to the proactive approach taken to forming the GLA Opportunity Areas; showing the regeneration world what’s needed from a transport perspective and helping investors navigate what the public sector is looking for in areas such as Earls Court, London Riverside, Battersea Power Station and – of course, arguably the most successful of all to date – the Olympic Park.
Personally, I believe that TfL’s runaway success has been the London Overground. By taking over the many suburban lines and developing them as one, TfL has radically expanded the network and increased train frequency. The regeneration impact on London, in areas such as Shoreditch, Surrey Quays, Denmark Hill and Dalston, has been phenomenal and the increase in ridership nothing short of astronomical.
Challenges ahead for the next 20 years
Of course there are challenges ahead for TfL. Some GLA Opportunity Areas are still not working as intended and hugely overdue upgrade work on the Piccadilly and sub surface lines are needed to make the London Underground a truly world-class system. And the biggest challenge of all? The impact that Covid-19 has had on the farebox. But even here there are echoes of the previous 20 years. One of Boris Johnson’s challenges as London Mayor was the impact of the 2007 – 2009 recession, which saw the cancellation of projects such as the Cross River Tram. Instead cycling and Cycle Superhighways were championed and have started the irreversible process of London now becoming a cycle-friendly city. An upcoming change to the Highway Code, which makes the ‘more-motorised’ vehicle responsible for any accident, is one of Johnson’s legacies which will make London a safer place to cycle where the car driver will always be at fault for a collision with a cyclist except for in exceptional circumstances
An increased focus on active travel may become a factor of necessity, as it was in 2008 – as capacity and finances become short – but Sadiq Khan’s excellent transport strategy of April 2018, with Healthy Streets Assessments and Vision Zero, sets fantastic targets to aim for. Notably to achieve 40% active travel over the next 10 – 15 years. I also hope that our current economic climate and impact on public transport ridership prompts a long-overdue change on road user charging, with a move to more progressive charging structures which take control of our streets and potentially hold the key to recovery for both public transport – and TfL.
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