We meet Sian Berry, the Green Party candidate for mayor, in a small cafe on Kentish Town Road. Having served as a councillor in Camden and worked as a campaigner for the Campaign For Better Transport since June 2011, it quickly becomes clear that transport is a topic she feels more than comfortable talking about. We begin by asking her what she feels has changed since she last represented her party in the 2008 mayoral race.

“Well since 2008 we’ve had a mayor, Boris Johnson who’s really not, I don’t think, made the effort to plan for the future of the city properly.” She says.

“There’s a lot of things he’s doing that, as far as I can see, mean being buffeted around by lobbyists, not really getting to grips with housing developers or implementing the London Plan. He’s often calling in developments to approve them which local councils have already rejected, which I think is outrageous.”

We ask her what she feels, in transport terms, have emerged as the key transport issues in the same time.

“The air pollution side of things has become much more… well, all the parties are taking notice.” She says.

“So for ages we’ve all been running around saying: ‘The air is illegal. You should have achieved these targets by 2010! Here’s the law. It says you need to do it as soon as possible so why the heck are you expanding roads and airports? Why are you contracting the Congestion Charge?’ All of these decisions, arguably, are illegal decisions that the government are making, that Boris Johnson is making. And now people are starting to accept that this is true and that they have to make a proper plan.”

“I mean, this road?” She continues, pointing out of the window at Kentish Town Road. “Two and a half times the legal limit for air pollution. There’s been a lot of community work going on. Measuring it in local areas, raising awareness in bits and pieces of London, but now it’s becoming a London-wide alarm.”

That the situation has become so serious, she points outs is obviously a negative. That it is something now receiving wider attention is not.

“That’s a good thing, from the point of view of getting something done.” She explains, before giving an example. “I mean, the government have been trying to get London to relax its parking standards. Air pollution is a very good reason to argue against that. As well as things like new roads and the Silvertown Tunnel.”

You reduce the need to travel by putting things in the right place.

Addressing the issue of air pollution and congestion, she stresses needs more than simply looking at roads and traffic levels in isolation.

“It’s about integrated transport planning.” She says. “That’s very much something that’s come from my work at the Campaign for Better Transport and from working with CPRE [Campaign to Protect Rural England] and various other big transport NGOs on this. We all agree. Reducing the need to travel… you’ve got to do it in the right hierarchy.”

“You reduce the need to travel by putting things in the right place,” she explains, “concentrating your development around existing transport links. Where you put new developments in place you make sure they’ve got public transport links. You also make sure they’re self-contained communities where you make sure people can walk and cycle to essential services. All of that stuff needs to be brought into London’s new plan and its infrastructure plans. We’ve got a good chance now to do, and change, that.”

“That’s something Boris Johnson’s not been particularly good at.” She continues. “I mean, last week he announced again the road tunnels plan, which he keeps half announcing and reannouncing. They would be an absolute disaster, not only being potentially a ‘predict and provide’ bit of transport planning, but sucking up money that you could be spending improving outer London bus routes, outer London trains, cycling or walking provision all over London.”

The need to look outside of the centre is something that she feels has been missing, both in the last four years and in some of the current proposals from
other candidates.

“In the last four years [the mayor’s] got miles better on cycling investment, and the actual things they’re investing in have got better as well – and that’s largely thanks to the cycling campaigners who ran an amazing campaign in 2012 to make sure we were all signed up to segregated routes and Dutch-style infrastructure.” She says.

“But if you look at where [investment] has been it has only really been in the centre of town.”

“And the Congestion Charge is only in the centre of town.” She continues. “I mean, even Caroline Pidgeon is still only proposing an extra bit of congestion charging around Heathrow, for the Ultra Low Emission Zones to be extended in certain parts of London.”

“And the workplace parking levy,” she laughs, “which is something that the Campaign For Better Transport invented a couple of years ago and Nottingham implemented – we’ve got good links in Nottingham with the Greens there working on that scheme – she’s only proposing that for the very centre of town.”

“But if you actually look at where the work-place parking spaces are, where the ones are that could most easily be retired are, where people are maybe driving to work out of habit or because they have a parking space, not because they’re absolutely car-dependent. Those places where we’d get the most benefit of that are often outside the centre of London. Work-place parking in central London is already going down for obvious land use reasons and the fact that most people using central London don’t have a car. So there’s a gap there, there’s something a bit timid about what Caroline’s proposing and there’s just a massive gap in what Sadiq and Zac are talking about. Because they’re not talking about doing anything to reduce traffic from a demand perspective and their planning policies are deficient as well.”

Again, she emphasises that tackling London’s road problems needs more than just simple thinking. Nor is it just about cars.

“London’s traffic has been going down for twenty years and now it’s gone up. The rise we’ve seen in the most recent year is two per cent! Two per cent! I mean we have to ask, how in one year, do you get two per cent?!

“The only real type of vehicle that’s going up is vans.” She continues. “Yes, and leisure trips, but commuting is not so we can keep on the same track with commuting and keep providing more capacity on the Tube, encourage better work balance and keep commuting down. But the threats are vans, and internet shopping and so we need consolidation. Have you seen the latest figures?”

We admit that we haven’t. Pulling a pen from her pocket, Sian opens up her notepad and begins sketching. The resulting graph gives a rough idea of the growth of van traffic, showing it curving upwards as a proportion of all road usage.

“Now this is very rough, but extrapolate that…” She says, and continues the upwards curve across the page.

“Now that extreme is not going to happen, obviously,” she says, “because we’re talking about a logistics industry here. So, at some point on this curve the industry is going to go ‘oh! consolidation!’ just based on market forces. But we’ve got to worry about where that point comes and we can do much more to incentivise it, and put practical things in place for that.”

More effort, she says, also needs to be made to manage heavier freight traffic, particularly at peak times.

“Again, predict and provide isn’t the answer to this.” She says. “We have to have demand management. But the freight industry are up for solving this. They would love to keep their HGVs out of the city in rush hour, but there’s lots of planning agreements that say they’re not allowed to deliver before 8am and that’s a real issue. You need someone with the political will to go about renegotiating planning agreements.”

“Shops aren’t going to mind.” She continues. “But local people are going to mind that you’re having deliveries early or late at night. I mean, I used to live opposite a Sainsbury’s and the rattling of the cages was awful. But these are all addressable problems. Quieter cages, electric engines, a lot of the reason those engines are running is for refrigeration and that can be dealt with. We can do more with that and we can get the consent to change those planning agreements and then we’ll have real reason to spread that freight traffic out and not have it all in rush hour. And that’s great for safety as well!”

“They’re not against this, the freight industry, but again they’re not yet putting forward their own solutions to it either, and we need to work with them on that.”

Predict and provide isn’t the answer to this. We have to have demand management.

Returning to cycling, Sian argues that it’s not just the schemes themselves that need a look, but also the models we use to assess what’s worth doing and what isn’t. There are some positives in London here, she feels, but there is still room for improvement as well.

“TfL are better than the Department for Transport, they look more at the strategic case for cycling, for example.” She explains. “For the Cycle Superhighways, for example, they had a benefit/cost calculation done according to the DfT methods which showed something like a £200m net loss because of driver time increases and bus times and things. But TfL were able to get past that. They were able to say ‘no, the strategic case outweighs this’. That’s a good sign.”

“Another one of the problems we have with the current model, both at the national level and London level is that there’s lots of old, proprietary software. That’s a real issue because it means the data can’t really be opened up. So the cyclists, who were TfL’s allies on the Cycling Superhighway along the Embankment… I mean, we had meetings and we talked to the modelling people and talked about modelling, but they just were not able to open up their model, give us a copy, let us fiddle with some of the assumptions and make the case properly.”

“London could make its own traffic model.” She continues, with enthusiasm. “We’ve got loads of scope to feed in origin and destination data… route data from people’s mobile phones – with their permission of course! – but there’s loads of apps we could use that would give us much more fine-grained data to feed into a new model.”

From a transport perspective, hearing a candidate talk about traffic modelling and investment hierarchies is something most would consider a good sign. We
ask whether she considers the fact that she can do so to be an advantage.

“I think definitely.” She says. “And I’ve had to, in my job and as a councillor, because Camden is working on some excellent schemes to remove road space. Also I think the fact that, as a campaigner, I’ve had to fight through all the detail of this means I have a much deeper understanding of how this all works.”

“And it’s not just the technical understanding.” She stresses. “It’s the understanding of the best way to get the schemes through the planning system as well. I mean, my job as a road campaigner has largely been trying to stop schemes going ahead, trying to argue why a bypass won’t help, but will just increase traffic in the end. But from that I have quite a good understanding of how local communities should be consulted and how they react when they’re not, and how to go through that process.”

It’s that second part, she says, which is just as important as the first, explaining that when communities aren’t engaged with properly it can damage the way they think about schemes.

“A good example of that was Walthamstow [Mini-Holland Scheme].” She says. “There, there was an overemphasis on benefits to cyclists, with whom most drivers don’t identify – although obviously quite a few drivers also cycle. But all drivers and pedestrians will support the amount of the money, up there, that’s being spent on pedestrian improvements and improvements to the town centre, because those are things that’ll improve the local economy. Those are things that are genuinely happening up there and much more should have been made of that.”

Her emphasis on community engagement, we suggest, seems to indicate that she envisions a mayoral administration as much collaborative as dictatorial, at least where cycling and walking are concerned.

“Completely.” She says. “And, I mean, that’s where Andrew Gilligan, the Cycling Commissioner, has been useful. Because the mayor themselves is always going to be very busy. And it’s understandable why TfL’s people might be as well. What we need, like Andrew Gilligan has been, is an expert cycling and walking person at a London level who is a political appointee. Someone who is out there speaking and negotiating with boroughs, and getting
the boroughs on board.”

“The other thing about the next phase of these schemes is that we have to send them to where people want them. And the big Mini-Holland Schemes where it’s all within one area, all done at once, and where every bit of the scheme has to be done? Perhaps that’s not the best way. We might want to start by seeing which communities want them and getting some really good schemes done, so then the other communities come round to the idea.”

Dealing with pollution and London’s road space, however, isn’t the only issue she sees the city as facing. Rail and bus fares, and their impact on people’s daily lives, is something she feels also needs serious attention.

“Five of the poorest boroughs are now London boroughs,” she sighs, “and that’s not how it used to be. The flat fares policy? That’s the motivation for having that. Because it’s just not fair. You’re forced now to live further out and suddenly you’re in zone five or six and your fares have now gone up astronomically. I mean, the difference is huge and the very least we can do is reduce those differences.”

The result of this thinking is a proposal to reduce the number of zones within London to four from next year, and to bring in a flat fare structure by freezing outer London fares whilst inner London fares are left to rise with inflation.

“What I really wanted to do was introduce a flat fare,” she explains, “so I got the data off TfL and we ran a model year by year. And you can get down to every journey that includes zone one being one fare by 2025. I think you still have to include a discount for avoiding zone one, but I’d rather not have a zone though – and obviously we don’t have to make a decision on this stuff now – but what we might want to look at is asking people simply to avoid certain stations. A ‘Monopoly’ option where it’s easy to remember which stations to avoid.”

“Because some zone one stations aren’t interchanges and are not so busy, and it’s a bit arbitrary when the real priority is to be able to say ‘look, if you can avoid Victoria you get a discount’.”

Redefining the zones is certainly one of the more radical proposals put forward by any of the major candidates. This is something that Sian is happy to acknowledge, but says that challenging the traditional thinking is important.

“TfL are very wedded to the zone system, and they have been for years.” She says. “No one’s even thought of changing it. So to have someone come along and say ‘why not change it?’ Well, they could have found that incredibly challenging and just said ‘no’. But I had a really excellent meeting with them where we discussed the possibilities, and they’re just far more open than they used to be to new ideas.”

She also stresses that any major fare policy changes are something that must also be approached pragmatically and over time, not rushed into. This, she feels, is something that separates her own approach from the immediate fare freeze advocated by Sadiq Khan.

“We – and I mean all the other candidates – are right to point out that just doing that is a dangerous policy.”

She says. “I mean, we’re taking a hell of a lot out of the farebox in my plan, in the end. But I know why and I know the principle by which I’m going to raise more money from drivers in order to get it back. And that’s an integrated policy. We need policies to deter drivers and to reduce demand for road traffic, so we can comply with the legal rules and avoid gridlock, and the best way to do that is with some kind of charging system. And a by-product of that, almost, is a load of money that you’ve collected.”

“And the only way that is acceptable to people,” she continues, “and we know this from all the polling, from all the discussions with drivers, is by spending it on transport alternatives. So spending it on cheaper fares for outer London seems the obvious thing to do. I mean, I talk to people in outer London and one of the reasons they want to keep their cars is because of the cost of going into town and because it’s £8, £12 to go in and out again. So it’s about having a long-term plan and making a statement about direction of travel. Saying ‘over eight years your fares are going to go right down’ and then that’s a real incentive to change. And it’s a long lead time as well so they can make plans. It’s not just tomorrow, and that’s really important.”

“And I think that’s really important, having that long term plan.” she says, with a sigh, “Not just bribing people on the eve of an election with promises that you might not be able to keep!”

“TfL might turn round to Sadiq Kahn and say ‘you haven’t got the money for this’,” She laughs, “and I’ve given TfL my spreadsheets and they haven’t said
that to me!”

Alongside flat fares in Sian’s campaign literature sits the concept of the ‘ONE Ticket’, which would represent a switch to fare calculations based on origin and final destination, rather than mode or points of interchange. She admits that this has proved a more challenging part of her fares policy to define.

“TfL have been a bit resistant to this.” She says. “I talked about one-hour tickets in 2008 and at that point there were still paper tickets, and they were just ‘we’re not introducing that. It’s too complicated’. But now it isn’t so they are actually open to ideas.”

We suggest that to a certain extent opportunities to interchange without penalty already exist between many stations that are physically close to each other, thanks to the existence of Out of Station Interchanges (OSI) within the Oyster system.

“They do,” she acknowledges, “but they’re not promoted. Indeed originally I thought ‘let’s just increase the number of those and publicise it’ but the ONE Ticket turns out to not be as expensive as we thought. So we thought ‘let’s just make that about everything you do’ – about origin and destination. Because I think that the new Oyster back-end system, when it comes in, will be able to allow you to change between buses. And intelligence and algorithms used to work out that you’re on the same journey can be used across all modes. So we’ll do origin and destination.”

“As long as you’re not taking a cheeky return!” She adds, laughing. “And that’s why calling it a one-HOUR ticket would be difficult, I think. Because when Tufnell Park is open I could get on at Tufnell Park and pop down to Camden Town, go shopping and pop back again within an hour. And I don’t think that should be free! That’s a return trip! Time and direction is crucial!”

Given the level of changes she envisions, we ask whether there has been a temptation to scale her proposals back, if only to avoid the tired accusation that Green Party proposals can be too ‘blue sky’ and won’t stand up to scrutiny.

“Argh!” She laughs, with a hint of frustration, “But because of that attitude we know we’re going to get that scrutiny! So we think everything through twice as much as the other person!”

“And partly that’s also down to the people we have on the campaign. We’ve got Jenny Jones and Darren Johnson who have long experience on the Assembly and they’ve also got some amazing people on their teams. Tom Chance, who’s our national spokesperson is also a bit of a scientist, like me, so likes to make sure things are right before we put them out.”

“We want to be able to put things out with confidence as well as knowing that we need to. So it’s all good.”

We point out that even with careful thought, radical change, however beneficial, by definition makes future costs. It also makes it difficult to predict exactly where that investment might be needed.

“You’re right.” She says, and once again stresses why this makes effective transport modelling so important.

“There could also be lots of places that people now want to use that we didn’t realise needed the investment sooner.” She adds. “But it’s about being really engaged with TfL I think, and hopefully, as mayor, I’d get on with them quite well!”

“I mean I’ve talked to them a lot – on river crossings, on Cycle Superhighways – and I’ve known a lot of people there as both an adversary and as an ally. And I think I do understand pretty well where they’re coming from. So I don’t think I’d be at all ham-fisted about it the way that Boris has been, for example, with the New Bus for London. I mean, he just imposed that upon them. And the Garden Bridge! I bet they’re DELIGHTED about having £30m of their money promised to that when it has no transport benefit.”

Ultimately, she says, it’s going to be important for the incoming mayor to be flexible anyway. Having a framework of ideas but still recognising the need to adapt them to changing circumstance is a strength, not a weakness.

“It goes back to consulting the public and putting forwards ideas.” She says. “You’ve got to put things forward at the right time, and at the right level. Flat fares policy? I didn’t talk about that until we knew it was possible. We haven’t specified every detail of what the fares would be at every stage, because that would be silly. You’ve got to be a bit flexible to how people react and, indeed, to other forces. I mean, if the government decides to cut back our grant completely then at some point we might not be able to afford to do it quickly. The assumptions in the calculations are around inflation – which is suspected to go up quite a lot, in fact, if you look at the ABR forecasts, which is what we used. But if it isn’t as high as that then obviously the centre won’t catch up as quickly as the outside. It also makes some assumptions about passenger growth.”

This thinking extends to other aspects of transport policy, she says, as well.

“I understand why some journalists can get a bit frustrated at the fact that when they send us a set of questions asking exactly what’s going to happen in 2019 under this exact set of circumstances that we can’t answer that.” She says. “But we deliberately can’t, in a way. We can put it forward in the right level of development for a manifesto, we are putting it forward to see the public’s reaction and we are putting it forward for further development.”

“There are simply aspects where I don’t want to decide now. I’d rather wait and see how it goes, or talk to people first. And I think we’re putting it forward at the right level of detail. And, you know, I can explain in detail why I don’t have the number, or where I do have, but I don’t think it’s a robust number and therefore I don’t want to put it out.”

We finish by turning to the subject of housing. Given her clear belief in the need for integrated transport, we ask, how does housing fit into that mix?

“Obviously we’ve got brownfield sites, and everyone is talking about TfL’s massive estates.” She says. “They’ve just signed a deal with 14 massive property developers. And I think they want everything to be like King’s Cross, but I’m not sure that’s the right approach. I think what we need to be doing a lot more is using the smaller sites better. The big companies also tend to do things much slower, I mean King’s Cross has taken years and years and years. Getting a massive masterplan through, especially when you’re knocking down some things, takes a long, long time. So with smaller sites, if you give them to smaller developers, give them to co-ops, self-builds, councils, people who have people queuing up to live there or people who want to live in the houses, then they’re going to get them done quickly and be less controversial. So I think a small-sites policy has to be a big part of the mix.”

“Long term we also need to have a discussion about the green belt and one thing Zac Goldsmith’s been saying is that it’s okay to go out and use some of the green belt, as long as it’s near railway stations.” She pauses and laughs. “And okay… that’s transit-oriented development, I suppose, so it’s not completely wrong. But it’s too soon to be doing that before we’ve made the most of the brownfield sites. We’ve got to stick to the planning principle that
we know has worked and has reduced traffic over the years – which is town centre first and increasing densities in walkable distances. Not just public transport distances.”

She goes on to suggest that green belt development is also too simplistic because it can fail to take into account the impact such development might have on public transport further down the line. But there are also, she stresses, some other issues that are often overlooked.

“You have to think about what goes into, and is around these developments.” She says “If you’re not near the hospitals, and if you don’t build cultural venues – and Darren Johnson’s done some really good work on music venues – then you get whole areas like Nine Elms being built with no music venues whatsoever, hardly anything for culture, hardly anything for social life and so suddenly you’re generating loads of trips there. I mean, I mentioned the growth in leisure trips before. There’s a real danger that we end up concentrating all our leisure and shopping opportunities in one place and we kill our local high streets as well.”

“And we address that at a local level. But at a London level we’ve got a clear transport planning reason to encourage it as well. It’s not just about diversity, or heritage, or preservation. It’s about what city we build for the future.”

That future city, she stresses will need to be built on integrated transport and community, and borough, engagement, but will also need a mayor who accepts that it is impossible to have all the answers now.

“It’s un-politician-like not to just pledge everything and promise everything isn’t it?” She laughs. “I’m saying ‘we can do that’. You’ve seen the language I use about fair fares – ‘doesn’t everyone want to do this?’ And hopefully that’ll get taken up.”

“I mean, hopefully, this will be everyone’s policy in the next election!”

What’s really good about us Greens, I think, is that we raise good ideas and we put things forward that other parties can take up.

We suggest that her openness about her desire to see her proposals appear in future manifestos by other parties is somewhat unique.

“Yes.” She, laughs. “Well, what’s really good about all us Greens, I think, is that we raise good ideas and we put things forward that other parties can take up.”

She says. “We’re not belligerent about it. Now if I was to be all belligerent and say ‘flat fares?! – you’re never going to do that!’ or ‘you’re all going to think that’s awful’ then other people wouldn’t react well to that, and they’re never going to think about doing it. But if you say ‘this is a great idea, don’t you want this?’ then you can keep pushing for it, keep studying it.”

From her final statement, however, it becomes clear that this openness is about promoting real change, not just ideas.

“There are stories,” She says, growing serious once more, “about people who have really low-level jobs, who are cash poor, and can’t afford to get the Tube or a Travelcard. They will get on one bus and stay on it, for the entire journey, even though it goes completely out of their way, because of the reduced cost.”

“And that’s just…” She sighs and looks up, with determination in her eyes. “That’s just unfair. That’s just… We can do away with that with our policies.”

LR Magazine issue three

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Written by John Bull
John Bull is the Editor of London Reconnections. A transport journalist and historian, his writing often focuses on the political or strategic challenges facing London's transport network and beyond.