Dear Boris: an open letter on transport to the Mayor of London

Boris Johnson
Mayor of London
City Hall

14th February 2013

Dear Mr Johnson,

I’m a non-driver – I have been all my life – so I have a strong vested interest in public transport.

Croydon's trams: An example of good public transport

Croydon’s trams: An example of good public transport

I use trains, trams or buses every day and I want to make sure they are frequent and reliable. I believe that public transport must be the primary means of travel in an area as densely populated as Greater London. And yes, I include suburban towns as well as the inner city’s busy streets.

The service provided is passable on most occasions, but there is certainly room for improvement in both the day-to-day management and the thinking behind it.

Let me suggest a few examples.


I understand you are seeking cash to buy extra carriages to increase the length of London Overground trains from four cars to five. I’m told this follows a substantial rise in popularity since the services became part of Transport for London.

I want to encourage you to build on this success and pursue your policy further by making a bid for the south London suburban network – all of it. I understand there has been talk about a transfer when the national rail franchises come up for renewal, but the matter is not yet settled.

Londoners in the north, east and west of the capital have numerous underground services to assist mobility. South London has very few and I’m told it would be forbiddingly expensive to build more. Enhancing the existing rail network and extending services, as you have on the East London Line, would be a cost-effective way to offer south Londoners the added convenience of additional rail travel.

You might also consider incorporating some of the lesser used lines into new tram routes. The existing tram network has been a huge success, despite the gloomy predictions of bus-spotters, who said it would become a white elephant. The network includes two formerly under-used railway lines – from Elmers End to Addiscombe and from West Croydon to Wimbledon.

I want you to stop flip-flopping and finish the tram line from Harrington Road to Crystal Palace; I want you to extend the network to Sutton; I want you to lobby for a new line from north of the River Thames to central Coulsdon. And I want you to champion the proper provision of park and ride facilities along each of the lines.

You must allow for as much off-road running as possible. Look at how cleverly transport planners did their job in central Croydon – close a piece of road here; appropriate a length of central reservation there; commandeer a little-used stretch of pavement; and “hey presto”, you have a light-rail corridor that is substantially separated from other traffic.

How many mornings have I zipped through central Croydon on a tram while strings of buses and cars sat stationary in rush-hour queues? How much money is the tram network saving south London employers compared with other forms of transport? How much more attractive does it make south London to investors?


The Boris bus: not as efficient or eco-friendly as Arnhem's trolley buses

Catching the Boris bus to parliament? Not as efficient or eco-friendly as Arnhem’s trolley buses

Being realistic, you will be a senior statesman snoozing in Parliament’s reformed second chamber before we complete a north-south tram link through south London. In the meantime, we will have to rely on buses, though I would urge you to consider trolley-buses wherever possible, rather than today’s noisy, smelly diesel-guzzlers.

Croydon’s twin town, Arnhem in the Netherlands, has a fleet of modern trolley-buses that are sleek, silent and emission-free at the point of travel. That would give your new low emission zone policy some much-needed street credibility

On busy roads buses need to be kept apart from other traffic. Bus lanes are the obvious solution, but they must apply seven days a week and enforced with closed-circuit television.

The northbound bus lane on Brighton Road, South Croydon, becomes a linear car park on Saturdays and Sundays – the two busiest shopping days of the week. For the convenience of a few dozen drivers, many bus-loads of central Croydon shoppers are consigned to the remaining lane along with all the other traffic. The whole queue moves at a snail’s pace.

I’m told you are to raise the height of bus stops in Greater London so passengers can embark and disembark as easily as we can on the tram. That will only work if you also teach your drivers to pull up to curbs properly.

Talking of driver training, could you also teach your staff to drive professionally? Accelerating and braking smoothly for the greater comfort and safety of passengers.

Cycling and Walking

Unlike you, I am not a cyclist, but I might consider it if we had a proper cycle network in Croydon. Mind you, I don’t know that anyone has seen you on your bike when you’ve visited us.

Cycling in Croydon can be perilous

Cycling in Croydon can be perilous

There’s probably good reason. At the moment there are disconnected sections of cycle track in Croydon, some not as long as a single bicycle, dotted all over the borough’s busiest roads. No doubt someone has added all these short stretches together to make some grandiose political claim about how green is the valley of the crocus or to qualify for grants from the European Union or central government. The net result is a series of death traps that should send every sensible cyclist scurrying for shelter.

I enjoy a walk, though not beside a busy road, but I would happily share a car-free route into or around Croydon town centre with the borough’s cyclists.

Croydon Council has been talking about walking routes around the town for some years – but talk is as far as it gets. Could a man of your calibre, with a well-known interest in cycling, prevail upon Conservative colleagues locally to stop talking and start doing? With luck, you might set a precedent.

And The Car

I have deliberately avoided going into detail about the car. Suffice to say that Greater London is a prime candidate for road pricing as well as for your proposed increase in exhaust emission restrictions.

And within the city region, a town like Croydon, with a serious congestion problem, must be high on a transport planner’s hit list.

I’m biased of course, but I think it might be good to prepare drivers for the inevitable additional cost of using a private car by offering them major improvements in their public transport provision.


David Callam

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7 Responses to Dear Boris: an open letter on transport to the Mayor of London

  1. ndavies144 says:

    Moving the South London Suburban services to TfL is surely a good thing, if only because they’ll then be run for the benefit of the people, not the benefit of Govia’s shareholders.

    However I’m not sure that much improvement to services can be made without a massive improvement to infrastructure. The Overground from West Croydon was possible because there was spare capacity through Sydenham, slack which could easily be taken up with the remodelling at New Cross Gate. Twelve trains an hour already call at Balham en-route to Victoria. Even if any more could be squeezed up the slow lines you’ve then got to have the space at Victoria to turn them round and send them back.

    Crossrail 2 would be the answer but only if it were to run on to the Brighton line, the current plans link it only to the South Western.

  2. Jonathan Law says:

    Pedestrians already seem to have to share the pavement with cyclists. When I was young you’d be expected to walk with your bike on pavement if there were pedestrians and you weren’t on the road, and at least cycle at a slow speed – wish we could return to that status again

  3. We in South Croydon have already pointed out to our Councillors that closing off rat runs and making islands of roads with calm traffic will drammatically improve the quality of life in Croydon at very low cost.

    Further, pushing as much through traffic as possible on to the main roads and prioritising its speed through Croydon will minimise these horrible trails of slow traffic just idling away as they queue up Coombe Road etc polluting our area but not getting anywhere fast.

  4. When enforcing things like bus lanes and cycle lanes (and maybe congestion charging/road pricing) all the signage and adverts should say something like: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… Keep Out of Bus Lanes. Fine £200”. This should help selfish drivers think twice when they do things like half-block a bus lane whilst sitting in traffic, causing a bus load of passengers to be held up when the bus lane ahead is clear…

  5. Excellent article David, agree with all you have to say.

    I hope in a future article you will go into detail on the car. I don’t know why we feel we can’t point out to motorists how destructive their choice of transport is. Why the taboo? Let’s have an honest discussion about the damage of mass motorisation in Croydon, sure it’ll get some people’s backs up but its a discussion we need to have, and have often.

    Jonathan Law: Do you think people in Croydon have become less considerate to others in Croydon in general? If so, why pick out cyclists in particular? If not, do you really believe cyclists are some sort of homogeneous group or race that has let its standards drop over the years? Perhaps you are just mindlessly discriminating against people on bikes?

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