London’s (gonna be) burning

No, no, no listeners! I’m not calling for mayhem or trying to organise socially-networked insurrection.

I’m just paraphrasing today’s front page article in the Guardian.

Looming London transport crisis ‘risks sparking riots’, says TfL chief | The Guardian

London could see riots again unless more trains and buses are provided at affordable fares for the poorest communities as the population soars, the city’s transport commissioner has warned.

He said the city will face “overwhelming” overcrowding on its congested transport networks by 2030 without urgent progress on new rail lines.

“London’s poor don’t live in Harrow Road, they live in Enfield and Tolworth and if you can’t get them to jobs they want, your city’s going to be in a bad way: it’s not going to progress and contribute to national economic growth,” [head of Transport for London, Peter] Hendy said. “The stakes are pretty high. If you’re not able to increase transport capacity, and people find accessing work impossible, you risk social unrest. You can expect trouble.”

Read the whole thing. You rarely get to enjoy quite so rich a mix of unconscious irony and unusual candour, even in the dear old Grauniad.

Maybe its something to do with the fallout from the referendum but all of a sudden we’re dropping the euphemisms and talking about people in honest four-letter words. Not ‘socially and financially disadvantaged householders’ or whatever. Poor people. And that’s good because once you start calling the poor the poor you can also start calling the rich the rich. Then you can begin to have a proper debate about trying to spread the wealth around a little more evenly, rather than indulging in hand-waving about transit investment corridors and strategic regeneration plans.

Unfortunately that’s where this promising story goes off the rails. I mean, instead of threatening fire and brimstone unless the rest of the UK’s taxpayers stump up billions to buy the capital a load of new rail and tram networks, wouldn’t it be cheaper and quicker to move the jobs to where London’s poor people already are?

Yeah, but that wouldn’t work, would it? They’re not the kind of jobs you can relocate. They’re cooks, bar staff, cleaners, ticket collectors, doormen, domestics. The people who lived in or around and between the well-to-do classes in imperial Rome or Victorian London. Ugh …such a primitive arrangement. The modern way is so much better: we simply allow poor people to ‘find their own level’ geographically-speaking, by moving to where they can afford to buy or rent a place. Like Tolworth.

Of course the big downside to this approach is that it makes it harder and harder to get everyone into the centre to do their jobs and then get them all out again. Go down that tunnel and you’re going to get – and Mr Hendy does not flinch from using the word – ‘overcrowding.’ Lest we miss the point, he mentions Mumbai and Rio de Janeiro as the kind of hell-holes plagued by fare price riots that London is en route to becoming (unless the rest of the country subsidises ticket prices, infrastructure, etc, etc).

This story has ‘exercise in trying to sustain the unsustainable’ written all over it. As the global economy goes through the transition from fossil energy to renewables, we’re entering a long stretch where we won’t have the capital or the juice to keep on pushing people further and further from their jobs in the expectation that we’ll simply build costly and complex transportation systems to ship them back in again every morning.

Perhaps that is what Mr Hendy is really trying to get people to understand. After all ‘poor’ is a great dog whistle word for getting the attention of folk for whom these issues are usually, shall we say, ‘remote’. He does say:

“But if the poor are not living in Tower Hamlets, Stockwell, Hackney and Southwark any more and all the places where people on low incomes used to live, they are living a long way away and a future mayor is going to have to make sure they can afford to get to work.”

So, hey son-of-Boris. Like maybe stop allowing the developers to push them out, man? Could we, like, try that?

But if Mr Hendy is serious, it goes to show how hard-wired our leaders’ imaginations still are to the cheap energy paradigm. As the saying goes, to a hammer every problem looks like a nail. If London’s problem is that its poor people are increasingly in the wrong places, perhaps it’s a pretty dumb idea, in a world where transport is only going to get more and more expensive by historical standards, to ask a transport planner to provide the answer.

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