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27 August 2013updated 05 Oct 2023 8:28am

Boris’s vanity projects

The Mayor of London's left his stamp on the city. But how much will we thank him for it down the line?

By Alex Hern

The Mayor of London has a vast array of responsibilities, ranging from crime and housing through culture and environment. But the most visible, by far, is transportation. It’s an area which affects every Londoner on a daily basis, and one where the Mayor has a huge prerogative, frequently unconstrained by central government or the local boroughs.

As a result, it’s unsurprising that the Mayoral elections have been fought largely on the transport record. From Boris’ 2008 attack on the western extension of the congestion charge zone to Ken’s sally in 2012 over Tube fares, travel is the battleground where the winner is decided. The rest of the Mayor’s portfolio only really gets a look-in from the wonkiest of wonks.

In his five years as London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson has had the chance to leave his mark on the capital. Some of those attempts have been successful. Some, not so much.

Subsidised travel for men in suits

The first of Johnson’s big branded pushes was the introduction, in the summer of 2010, of the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme. The bikes rapidly became known as “Boris Bikes”, and were almost immediately popular – as well they should.

The biggest failure of the scheme, really, is that it took so long to happen. For all that Ken Livingstone points out that he was also planning on introducing a bike hire scheme, similar schemes had been in place for well over a decade on the continent by the time London got a cycle hire program; even Paris’ Vélib’, the most direct inspiration, was three years old in 2010. For all that cyclists need to continually battle for recognition in the city, it is naturally quite bike friendly, with lots of narrow streets, medium distances, and slow-moving traffic. The exceptions (deadly spots like Bow Roundabout or Kings Cross) really do prove the rule.

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In other words, the success of the Boris Bikes can’t just be measured based on whether people actually use them. That would be like Thames Water declaring they must be a good water company because of at all the people who choose to use water in their baths. Instead, the question is whether the hire programme lived up to the aims laid out for it at launch. In two key areas, it really didn’t.

The most obvious problem is cost. Johnson’s transport manifesto called for the scheme to happen “at no cost to the taxpayer”, like Paris’ scheme before it. Across the channel, advertising company JCDecaux paid the scheme’s startup costs – $142m – and also provides maintenance for the bikes and stations. In exchange, it got to erect 1,600 billboards, from which the city gets a portion of the revenue.

In London, Barclays got the sponsorship (hence the delightful baby blue of the scheme, which is likely to stay the official colour forever). But the bank is paying just £5m a year for the sponsorship, which expires in 2018. That’s less than a fifth of the cost of setting up and running the scheme until 2016, according to the BBC – who also reported that the commercial value of the sponsorship was somewhere between £9m and £15m a year.

So hundreds of millions of taxpayer money have been used to pay for the cycle hire scheme, contrary to Boris’ bid in 2008. And that subsidy has overwhelmingly gone to the sort of people who need it least. The Guardian‘s Tim Lewis, writing in 2011, described the typical user as:

overwhelmingly white men aged between 25 and 44, many of whom earn more than £50,000 a year.

Those statistics won’t have been helped by the doubling of the fares, from £1 a day to £2, £5 a week to £10, and £45 a year to £90, leaving a single trip on a bike more expensive than hopping on a bus. And while an upcoming expansion to Southwest London is partially aimed at encouraging “trial and take-up by a wider demographic”, that’s hindered by TfL’s policy of insisting that local councils pay for part of the cost of expanding into their areas. Jonn Elledge reports that:

The eastward expansion cost Tower Hamlets £1.9 million; the latest round will cost Lambeth £200k, and Kensington & Chelsea £400k. Wandsworth and Hammersmith, meanwhile, are paying up to £2 million apiece.

The figures were uncovered by MayorWatch over the course of last year (See here, here and here). Elledge asks:

What if an inner borough, with a Labour council and no spare cash, were to reject the idea of co-funding one of Boris’s pet projects? Would we end up with a hole in the scheme forever more?

The cycle hire scheme is rightly popular. But without some effort, it could end up being a permanent subsidy for besuited men cycling from Waterloo station to their offices in the City – and it deserves to be so much more than that.

Soaring majestically from nowhere to nowhere

Where the cycle hire scheme was always guaranteed a modicum of success, Boris’ second major project was not. The cable car – officially the Emirates Air Line, semi-popularly the “Dangleway” – seemed questionable from the off.

The cable car links the O2 Dome, on the Greenwich peninsula, to the ExCel exhibition centre by Royal Victoria Dock. Sort of. It actually links an area six minutes walk away from the western entrance of ExCel and another area about four minutes walk from the O2. That’s almost a secondary consideration, however, when one considers the reasons why people might want to make the journey in the first place.

There aren’t any.

For one thing, the link actually replicates a pretty strong connection which already exists (one stop on the Jubilee line then one stop on the DLR). But more importantly, there isn’t much of a reason why people would be going from an arena/shopping mall/cinema to a conference centre.

There was such a reason, back in the summer of 2012. Both the O2 and ExCel were Olympic venues, and it was to be expected that a fair few people would be travelling between them. With the Jubilee line between Stratford and central London likely to be rammed tight, alternative river crossings were crucial. And, as expected, the cable car was heavily used during the weeks of the Olympics. But after that, usage dropped off sharply:

50,000 passengers a week is roughly equivalent to a good-sized bus route, and a tiny fraction of the total capacity of the cable car. And, as the seasonality makes clear, the vast majority of those using the link are tourists, who treat the car as an attraction in its own right; hence the spikes in ridership during school holidays and the summer months. Excluding engineering, the all-time low currently stands at just 14,755 riders in the week ending 2 February.

As well as the problem of going from nowhere to nowhere, there’s a further flaw in the plan to get people in the local area using the cable car: it’s really expensive. The cheapest possible tickets, bought in bulk and paid for in advance, are £1.60 a trip; the Oyster single fare is £3.20, twice the cost of a bus journey. Travelcards are not valid at all. Unless you live in Millennium Village, the housing development by the dome, and work in ExCel, you are probably going to find some other way to get to work.

None of this is fully wrecks the case for the cable car, though. Building something which encourages tourists to come to a relatively deprived part of London has value, and if the project pays its operating costs with those high fares, then it might be worthwhile. Locals can continue to use the Jubilee line to cross the river, with tourists safely tucked away in big capsules. (More importantly, the cable car provides a way to get bicycles across the river between the Woolwich and Greenwich links, which is genuinely rather useful)

But there’s a cost:benefit decision to be made. Initially, Emirates Airline were supposed to fund the entire thing; as Johnson said in 2010:

The aim is to fund the construction of the scheme entirely from private finance and discussions are ongoing with a number of private sector organisations that have expressed interest in the project.

In the end, Emirates put in £36m on a ten-year sponsorship. For their money, the airline got to name the cable car after themselves, make its official colour Emirates Red (likely to stay that way even after they’ve stopped paying), and impose some pretty questionable requirements on the Mayor himself. But in the end the money wasn’t enough to build the project, let alone run it. Mike Tuffrey, the Lib Dem London Assmebly budget spokesman, told Mayorwatch in 2011 that:

Transport for London admit that this sponsorship deal only meets 80% of the construction cost. This leaves many millions of pounds worth of funding to be found from TfL’s budget.

The total cost of the project is £60m, of which £45m is construction. Given the Mayor needed to promise it would be “entirely” funded from private finance to get approval, it seems unlikely that the final price tag represents the best thing that public funds could have been spent on.

The route master

The Boris Bus – also known as the New Bus for London (its real name), or the New Routemaster (not its real name) – is the most blatantly populist of the Mayor’s transport projects. Perfectly combining London’s deeply felt, if irrational, love of the old Routemaster buses with London’s deeply felt, if irrational, hate of the new bendy buses, he promised in the run-up to the 2010 election to scrap the latter and replace them with the former.

(Bendy buses had some genuine flaws, particularly around fare evasion and manoeuvrability, but also made a great deal of sense for a few routes in outer London. For instance, the 207, a long route running from Shepherds Bush to Hayes, has few corners, and several stations where almost the entire bus is emptied and refilled; the three doors sped up the process considerably. In addition, despite Johnson’s claim that “there are many cyclists killed every year by them,” there hasn’t actually been any cyclist killed by them in London ever. Nonetheless, the bendies are no more, the last one in London having been removed from service in 2011.)

Since the Routemaster is actually a rather terrible bus, inaccessible, polluting, slow and unsafe, it wouldn’t do to actually use them widely on London streets. And so the competition to design a Routemaster for the 21st century was launched.

This next part may be familiar. At Mayor’s Question Time in 2009, Boris was asked how much public cash would be required to pay for the New Routemaster. His response:

I imagine the cost of the development of that new bus will be borne by the industry… If you look at the current cost of a bus… £250,000, roughly speaking, buys you a new bendy bus. We think we can get a wonderful new bus for London which will be considerably cleaner, greener, lighter, exactly what this city needs… for much less than that.”

Even at the time, that wasn’t strictly true. TfL had allocated £3m to build the bus, and as the Guardian‘s Dave Hill points out, if the new buses cost more to run, that would inevitably be reflected in the contracts TfL had to sign with the bus companies.

In the end, the R&D for the bus came to £11m, paid for by London. With the design finalised, TfL placed the initial order for 600 of the buses, at £212m. That makes the average price of the bus £354,500, not only considerably higher than the £250,000 Boris promised, but also around £50,000 more expensive than the average hybrid bus running on London’s streets.

But that £50,000 difference will be amortised over the expected 14-year lifespan of the buses. It’s a lot, but comparatively little per year per bus. The real bulk of the cost comes from something which TfL is looking increasingly shifty about: the “conductor”.

The original Routemasters were operated by a driver, who was isolated from the rest of the bus, and a conductor, who checked tickets and guarded the rear platform at the back. This two-person operation was standard at the time, but over the intervening years, the driver/conductor model became outmoded. It was too expensive to have two members of staff on each bus, and once a bus was full of standing passengers, the conductor couldn’t manoeuvre to do their job anyway.

But the New Bus for London returns to the model, because an open rear platform needs someone supervising it most of the time. And those conductors, the Guardian reports, “cost about £62,000 for each bus” each year.

But strangely, TfL doesn’t actually call them conductors. Instead, they’re advertising for “passenger assistants.” The reason why becomes clear when you discover that they are not actually employed to check tickets. Yet with three doors, all for entry and exit, the bus is open to exactly the same problems of fare-dodging as the old bendy buses were. TfL has been insistent that the new buses aren’t a “replacement” for the old, despite that being Boris’ implication for years; but it’s probably a good thing, since it’s looking less and less likely that they could hold up as such under scrutiny.

Boris Johnson clearly wants to leave his stamp. By the time he leaves office, he’ll have 600 buses, 8,000 bikes and a cable car dotted around the city, all closely associated with him. Thanks to them, he’ll stick in London’s collective memory for decades. But unless the problems with each of them is sorted out, that may not be the blessing he thinks it will be. For the bikes, fixing the problems is more than possible; a tighter focus on price, on availability in poorer areas, and on making sure that the next sponsor pays a fair share of the costs could well be enough. For the cable car, the best thing to do may be to cut the losses and focus on its potential as a tourist attraction. And for the buses… fourteen years isn’t that long. At least we don’t have to buy any more.

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