Uber and London Airport – One Current and One Future Court Case

Uber have been appearing in court to appeal the loss of their licence to operate in London. The magistrate’s decision will apparently hinge on whether they are “fit and proper” persons to operate a taxi service, and with the weight of evidence about past failings, whether they have changed their management or the way they operate. A decision should be delivered in a few days.

It would seem unfortunate if they are not allowed to continue as it has proved to be a very popular service with many users, although no doubt competing firms would no doubt fill the gap rapidly.

A legal battle is now in prospect after Parliament voted yesterday to progress the expansion of London Heathrow Airport with a third runway. Local west London borough councils and the Mayor of London are queuing up to join a threatened legal action against the development on the grounds that it will be unable to meet environmental regulations.

An application for a judicial review looks likely from at least Hillingdon, Richmond, Wandsworth and Windsor & Maidenhead with support from Mayor Sadiq Khan. Hillingdon have already reserved a budget of £200,000 for the case.

Some readers were surprised by this writer’s previous comments opposing the expansion of London Airport. A good letter by Dr Sally Cairns in the Financial Times summarised the reasons very well – here’s a part of it: “Heathrow already subjects more than half a million people to significant noise annoyance; generates more than 30 million car journeys a year through a busy part of London with air pollution problems and is the UK’s biggest point source of carbon dioxide emissions. Objecting to Heathrow expansion is not about nimby-ism – it is about the lack of evidence for the benefits, and the strong likelihood of high social and environmental costs”. The letter writer gives an address in Wokingham, but it was painful to watch BBC TV News last night with some of the residents talking whose homes will be demolished as a result. That’s if it ever happens. In the meantime, they are stuck in limbo and probably for some years, being unable to sell their homes.

Note though that the air pollution problems around Heathrow are caused to a large extent by aircraft. Cars and goods vehicles do contribute but are getting cleaner very rapidly with electric cars now very viable for most drivers. Electric aeroplanes of any size are a long way from reality and the growth in air traffic is a major problem for toxic emissions.

The legal and other delays, such as the likely reluctance to fund the enormous cost, could mean years wasted when other solutions to increased travel demand are available and could be progressed more rapidly. The disruption caused by the expansion of road capacity to serve a larger airport and the need to divert the M25 into a tunnel will be a major problem for road traffic during the lengthy construction period.

Many factors mitigate against expansion of Heathrow, despite the apparent commercial benefits of doing so.

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Smart Motorways Not So Smart

Anyone who drives around the M25 will have noticed that the speed limits set on the overhead gantries appear to bear no relation to the traffic volumes. Speeds are often set at 60, 50 or even 40 for no obvious reason. Other “Smart Motorways” across the country show the same problem, and the result has been a large increase in the number of people fined (or diverted to speed awareness courses) for exceeding the set speed limit. The number of infringements doubled last year according to the Times.

The justification for smart motorways was that they can reduce congestion by smoothing the traffic flows and help to maintain safety. The speed limits are set partly by automated systems that measure the speed of traffic, but apparently they are also set “pre-emptively” by staff where known congestion is likely to occur at busy times. But as traffic volumes can be unpredictable this sometimes results in lower speeds being set than is appropriate – you can frequently see this around the western side of the M25 around London airport and on the eastern side near the Dartford Crossing.

In addition it is known that the odd particularly slow moving vehicle can result in the speed limit being reduced by the automated system. In other words, the “smart” system is not at all intelligent.

However Highways England is now undertaking a comprehensive review of variable speed limits on motorways. Surely it would be better to simply have an advisory system to tell drivers that there was congestion ahead so that they can slow down and avoid the “stop/start” problem that reduces traffic flows?

At present you have a dumb system instructing intelligent humans (which they mostly are) with the result of needlessly slower traffic speeds and drivers being caught out by unexpected changes in the limits or signs they may not have seen or noticed.

Roger Lawson

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Proposals to Improve M25/A3 Wisley Junction

Anyone who regularly travels around the western side of the M25 will know that the A3 junction near Wisley has been a congestion hot spot for many years. Traffic joining the M25 from the A3, or leaving it to get on the A3, results in traffic jams. Likewise queues can arise on the A3, partly because the roundabout at the junction contains traffic lights. Highways England have now published their preferred proposals to improve the situation.

There was an informal public consultation which considered several options, but Highways England have revised the one which proposed simply a larger roundabout so as to try to meet environmental concerns (RHS Wisley Gardens are very close by and there are ancient woodlands near the roads). That is the one they are proposing to put to a formal public consultation in early 2018. Prospective completion date might be as late as 2025.

More details are present here: https://highwaysengland.citizenspace.com/he/m25-junction-10-a3-wisley-interchange-improvement/

Comment: This junction is well overdue for improvement so the reaction of most motorists is likely to be that the sooner this is implemented, the better. The proposed solution does look like a reasonable compromise although the details of the traffic modelling would have been helpful. Perhaps we will see that in due course. Will the suggested design actually cope with the likely additional traffic flows around the M25, particularly if Heathrow airport is expanded? The proposed solution may provide only temporary relief and there will be considerable disruption while it is constructed.

Roger Lawson

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Heathrow Airport and Environmental Pollution

The Government has backed the construction of a third runway at Heathrow despite widespread objections on environmental grounds. Zac Goldsmith, who stood for the job of London Mayor, has resigned as an MP as a result. Both he and elected Mayor Sadiq Khan opposed that development.

It will bring major challenges to the road network because the new runway will have to run over the M25. So that will likely have to be moved into a tunnel. In addition the western side of the M25 is one of the most congested parts of the UK road network already and the extra traffic generated by Heathrow expansion will make that even worse. So widening of both the M25 and M4 is probably required. The costs of those improvement could be over £3 billion and it could take over 6 years to implement with no doubt a lot of traffic disruption while it is being built.

In addition the extra aircraft movements and more traffic will have negative environmental impacts in both air pollution and noise.

Comment: this is surely one of the worse decisions ever made by a UK Government. There were a number of better alternatives for airport expansion, including the encouragement of the use of other regional airports. Why does the whole country find it necessary to travel through Heathrow when smaller airports are altogether easier to use?

Roger Lawson