The British are more in love with their cars than any other European nation, the Commission for Integrated Transport revealed last week. In Italy, which contrary to the car-mad national stereotype is the European Union's least car dependent member, the automobile accounts for some 75% of passenger miles. Just over 80% of French and German passenger miles are by car. But in the UK, the number soars past 85%.
The recent fuel crisis has emphasised that the right to drive is a political hot potato. So when London mayor Ken Livingstone says he wants to reduce traffic congestion in the capital by 15%, he is clearly squaring up to a tough challenge.
Livingstone was elected last year, largely on the strength of his promise to improve London's transport. Key to his plans is the introduction of congestion charging - making people pay if they drive into the most clogged areas at the centre of the city. But Livingstone is under no illusions that charging alone is enough to free up London's near grid-locked streets.
A raft of transport improvements, backed by a budget of £217M that is expected to rise significantly this year, is being managed by Livingstone's traffic executive, Transport for London.
Transport for London was formed alongside the Greater London Assembly in 1999 by Act of Parliament. It is widely seen as a test bed and potential blueprint for other municipal transport agencies.
Livingstone heads both organisations, as mayor to the GLA, and as self-elected chairman of TfL. The organisations are interrelated but discrete, with the Assembly scrutinising TfL's plans and approving budgets, but with no powers of authorisation or veto. All executive responsibility lies with Livingstone.
Interim director for street management Derek Turner describes TfL as 'like a local authority'. It amalgamates a range of transport organisations.
For example, TfL Street Management, the most fully evolved of the agency's divisions, combines the traffic director for London; the traffic signal control unit, formerly part of the Highways Agency; the Highways Agency London office; and the public carriage office. It also brings together disparate fragments of transport infrastructure and budgets and contracts have been novated to TfL with changes of ownership.
TfL owns 512km of 'red route' highway and 38km of entry routes, and has taken on board 250km of borough roads. It has incorporated the recently extended Docklands Light Railway, widely hailed for providing reliable service and being well connected with other transport routes.
The service will continue to be managed by Docklands Railway Management. Croydon Tramlink, Victoria Coach Station, the Woolwich Ferry and all other river services are now also under TfL. The organisation is negotiating terms for assuming control over London Underground, likely to take place in spring next year. And TfL will play a central role in developing future light rail schemes.
Although TfL does not have any direct say in the running of urban rail lines, which fall under the remit of the Strategic Rail Authority, it will be offering guidance - the mayor and so TfL carries the mandate of 6M Londoners.
It expects to be a powerful voice.
Implementing change in the city's rail infrastructure will be a relatively long term process, says Turner: 'We all know how long the Jubilee Line Extension took to deliver.' While TfL will look at the potential benefits of new metro and light rail schemes, it is also looking for fast results.
Livingstone and TfL are pressing ahead with schemes to improve bus services, increase the number of journeys made by bicycle and encourage walking. Work to improve basic public transport performance is essential if the mayor is to win hearts and minds in the battle to get Londoners out of their cars.
Interim manager for street management Derek Turner describes TfL as 'an intelligent client organisation'. It wants to pursue best value in its procurement and will be looking to partner with its consultants and contractors in future. TfL is also keen to measure performance.
Nearly all projects will be advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union.
TfL has inherited consultant and contractor shortlists from many of its constituent organisations and Turner is keen to maintain existing relationships while developing new contacts as well. The body is watching procurement models being developed by other public sector organisations with interest.
Much of TfL's procurement will require operation and maintenance as well as design and installation. Term contracts are favoured, such as design build finance operate, and the managing agent and contractor model being pioneered by the Highways Agency (NCE 18 May).
Turner is not ruling out use of the private finance initiative, but is doubtful that projects could be brought to fruition fast enough to fit the four year cycle of mayoral elections.
Derek Turner, interim director for street management, TfL: 'The mayor is concerned that in the past transport organisations have been remote, monolithic and not customer focused. It's been boys playing with their train sets.'
The 512km of red route highway in TfL's care amounts to only 5% of London's roads, but carries nearly a third of all traffic. Bus use is going up by 6% a year, says Turner. TfL believes the uptake rate can be accelerated further by cutting journey times and increasing frequency along these main arteries.
While buses already have priority on red routes, motorists often drive and park in bus lanes. In the next 18 months TfL will be clamping down on drivers who transgress. About half the red routes are covered by cameras capable of reading number plates which, linked into a central computer system, enable automatic fining.
Drivers are currently hit for 'a derisory sum', says Turner: £20. But even so, repeat offences are few.
Parliament is due to debate a £60 fine, and TfL's London Bus Initiative will see lane enforcement cameras in place through London by March 2002.
Lane enforcement will cost £10M and another £60M has been earmarked to improve 27 routes with the introduction of new buses and improved passenger information. Additional funds will be put into giving buses priority at junctions and installing 'smart' traffic lights that will minimise waiting time on red. Work will also involve moving bus stops and road crossings 'so they are where people need them to be'.
Turner observes that decades of poor planning for buses has resulted in mis-matches between different transport modes, bus stops and crossings, and between bus connections that deter travellers.
To the end of freeing up road space for buses, TfL is looking at options for restricting daytime HGV movements. It is keen to put freight on the Thames where possible.
'Did you know that 15% of vehicles in London's rush hour are cycles?' Turner queries. There has been an upward trend in the number of journeys made by bike in the last three years, and TfL is encouraging this with plans for 1,000km of cycle lanes off the main roads. TfL has already introduced 187 new crossings and is working to increase the number of cycle stands. Future work will amount to 'tens of millions of pounds', says Turner.
TfL is consulting Parliament on congestion charging later this year and is to put out a draft document for public consultation next spring.
'The Mayor sees congestion charging as the most important thing on his agenda, ' comments Turner.
An area of central London bounded by Marylebone Road, Euston Road and Pentonville Road to the north, Tower Bridge to the east, Elephant & Castle to the south, and Victoria to Marble Arch has been identified for first phase charging. No model has yet been selected, but Turner says TfL is interested in introducing an area licensing scheme. This would involve motorists paying £5 for registration on a computer database before entering the charge zone. Entry would be logged by cameras capable of reading number plates.
Unregistered cars would be logged and the drivers billed, plus penalty, by post.
Congestion charging will cost £250M to set up over three years.
But Turner is looking at additional revenues of £200M from congestion charging, which TfL will plough straight back into further infrastructure improvement. TfL's greatest challenge in getting the system up and running, he says, is the twisted 18th century urban street system in London. 'The US grid system makes it far easier to monitor traffic than in London, but it's not an insurmountable problem.'
Charging will contribute dramatically to achieving the target of a 15% reduction in congestion. It is estimated that 10%-12% of road space will be released, says Turner. Revenue will be hypothecated back into enhancing bus services, which will claim part of that freed up space.
But TfL is also looking to invest in improving the streetscape and the lot of pedestrians who use it.
It has just taken on the £25M scheme for partial pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square from Westminster Council.
Other remodelling projects are likely to follow.
Turner has also identified major repair and maintenance work to be carried out on its newly acquired infrastructure. Blackwall and Rotherhithe Tunnels are in need of attention, as are several of the Thames bridges and bridges on the A40.