Uncharted Territory

November 4, 2009

Some Contrarian Climate Change Ideas

I had a day (well afternoon and evening) out of the home-office yesterday. I took the train to Cambridge and caught the first hour or so of a Cambridge Energy Forum on UK buildings before heading to the Guildhall for a well-attended public meeting on “what Copenhagen means for you”.

Maybe I’m an unreconstructed contrarian, but I find myself disagreeing with much of what I’m being told on the topic of global warming. Here are my latest musings.

What’s the target?

The Guildhall meeting started with a very competent whirlwind summary of the science of climate change by Emily Schuckburgh of the British Antarctic Survey. In particular she showed a rather longer graph than I’d seen before of historic temperatures and CO2 concentrations derived from ice-core analysis: around 800,000 years worth. During all this time the level of atmospheric CO2 had varied only between 180 and 280ppm, in close correlation with the temperature.

Furthermore, when temperatures have briefly spiked up during inter-glacials they have reached levels somewhat higher than at present (or in the entirety of recorded human history for that matter). Schuckburgh suggested temperatures may have been 4C higher than her baseline (presumably the pre-industrial average temperature, 0.8C lower than at present) for brief periods (and -8C lower during ice ages). Scary stuff.

Why then, do we think we’ll manage to keep temperatures within 2C of pre-industrial levels – and they’ve already risen 0.8C – at the sort of CO2 concentrations implied by the discussions at Copenhagen? We’re at around 390ppm right now and it doesn’t look like the proposed policies have much chance of keeping us below, at best, 450ppm.

And on top of that, CO2 isn’t the only greenhouse gas. Some have only just been invented! If we can’t get all the methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) down to natural levels and the anthropogenic alphabet soup of CFCs, HFCs and so on down to negligible levels, then we’ll be even warmer.

Here’s my contrarian position (1): we need to get CO2 levels back down to the natural range of 180-280ppm. Presumably we’d aim for 280ppm, since 180 implies an ice age!

At present the strongest mainstream positionsupported by reputable scientists and prompted by James Hansen’s landmark paper – is that we should aim for 350ppm.

The theory – perhaps I should say hope – is that we can “stabilise” levels at 350ppm and a 2C temperature rise. This is wishful thinking poppycock. In fact, the climate system is not a stable one. In particular, it will not be stable at 350ppm and a 2C temperature increase. It will have a tendency to warm further, for example, as ice melts, darkening the planet’s surface; as CO2 levels rise further as forests burn in the occasional much hotter summers we’d experience; as wetlands dry out and release their carbon too; and as the ocean circulation gradually slows due to the reduced temperature differential between the poles and the equator, removing less and less carbon from the atmosphere as time goes on.

We’ve opened Pandora’s box – we have to put all the demons back in, not just some of them.

Will the Gulf Stream slow and keep Britain cool?

This was meant to be a post about policy, but I’ll get the other science point out of the way, since this old chestnut came up in the Q&A at the Guildhall.

The point is that the Gulf Stream (as the North Atlantic branch of the ocean’s circulation is popularly known) can be disrupted by lots of fresh water flowing into the North Atlantic. Such water floats (because it’s fresh which makes it lighter, even though it’s cold which tends to make it heavier) and would prevent the circulation whereby (salty) cold water sinks as it approaches the pole, drawing more warm surface water up from equatorial regions, keeping Northern Europe, including the UK, a lot warmer than other regions at such a high latitude.

As the world emerged from the last ice age (and previous ones), it seems vast quantities of meltwater from the North American ice-sheet poured into the North Atlantic as ice-dams gave way. This disrupted the oceanic circulation and caused warming to reverse for a while, at least in the North Atlantic region.

It’s possible that meltwater from Greenland could have a similar effect to that from Canada, but unless someone’s asleep on the job, this isn’t imminent, since we’d see the water pooling in Greenland.

So, what will happen to the Gulf Stream in the absence of disruption from a sudden flood of meltwaters?

Here’s my contrarian position (2): the ocean circulation will strengthen in the short-term (which, depending largely on future greenhouse gas emissions, is likely to be a century or two), then gradually weaken as the ice-caps disappear. There’s no get out of jail free card for the UK, certainly not in our life-times.

The point is that the circulation is ultimately driven by the temperature difference between polar and equatorial regions.

More heat is captured by the atmosphere in the tropics than at the poles, that’s why you have a circulation in the first place. With the presence of greenhouse gases, even more heat is captured in equatorial regions and tends to be transported poleward either in the oceans or the atmosphere. More warm water stays near the surface until it cools as it approaches the poles. The result is a stronger circulation.

The presence of ice (Antarctica, Greenland, permafrost) keeps the polar regions from warming. Until this ice melts, more heat will be transported poleward. Indeed, the heat uptake by ice melt that drives the circulation.

Of course, the heat transport itself progressively melts the ice. When it’s eventually all gone, temperatures will tend to equalise between the poles and the equator, weakening the circulation. We’re not there yet, though.

I should remind readers that the ocean circulation is one of the major ways in which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere.
[5/11/09 Afterthought: Oops, this throwaway comment could be a bit misleading. In fact, the ocean circulation returns CO2 to the atmosphere, so, if the circulation increases in strength, as I’m suggesting it will over the next century or two, the net effect will be for the ocean to take up less CO2 (net, the oceans are currently absorbing CO2 because the ocean and atmosphere are out of equilibrium because of the “extra” anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere). This mechanism represents a positive feedback during deglaciation warming phases, and, if my hypothesis is correct, during the current phase of global warming. When the ocean circulation is interrupted, then there is a positive cooling feedback as the ocean releases less CO2 due to the reduced circulation, taking up more net. This could explain the persistence of cooling phases during deglaciations (warming periods after ice ages), such as the 1000 year long Younger Dryas event.].

Therefore, as I said in my first heresy, we’d better get temperatures and CO2 levels back down before the ocean circulation strengthens too much. [5/11/09: Amended this sentence, see previous note in square brackets].

Burning wood is not a good idea

Everyone loves Julian Alwood! (He taught on my MBA programme). He told an amusing anecdote yesterday about how some well-meaning foreigners had tried to introduce a more efficient stove in Malawi. The problem was Malawians bash the meat while its cooking, apparently, and the new stoves didn’t last very long.

But the main point is that the big problem in Africa is burning wood. It releases carbon (and, almost as important, retains moisture). “Reducing deforestation” (George Orwell would have loved the double negative!) was mentioned by Chris Hope, among others, yesterday as the cheapest way to avoid deforestation. What’s really needed in Africa is a robust solar stove design, but more about that another time.

So why then was a picture shown at the Cambridge Energy Forum of a supposedly virtuous Briton carrying some logs to put on his fire?

I’ve harped on about the biofuel topic on this blog previously and will no doubt do so again (see the Biofuel category in the box on the right), but here’s my contrarian position (3): Everyone should avoid the use of all forms of biomass as fuel.

Here’s something you may have missed. A radio programme a day or two ago was discussing a satellite that has just been launched to detect moisture levels from space. The point was made that if forecasters had realised that European soil moisture levels were so low in 2003 they would have been able to forecast that year’s heatwave much more accurately.

Interesting factoid. I don’t know about you, but it suggests to me that one way we could adapt to global warming here in Europe is to increase soil moisture levels. How do we do that? More trees (including decaying ones), less arable farming, that’s how. And how do we achieve that change? We ban agrofuels (the right-on term for biofuels) and discourage biomass burning. Simple isn’t it, when you think things through?

Trying to reduce UK (or other comparable country’s) energy consumption is a waste of time, effort and money

I have to say I was stunned by the facts and figures thrown at me by the Cambridge Energy Forum (and in Michael Kelly’s talk on a similar topic in the Guildhall). I think they’ll put up a report of the meeting and slides on their site, in due course, so I won’t try to cover everything that was said.

Let it suffice for me to report that improving the energy efficiency of the UK’s housing stock turns out to be a Sisyphean task. (And even if we succeeded, energy consumption would tend to rebound as we spent the money saved! I won’t go into all this again – my most recent post on the topic is here). After you’ve insulated the loft and put in the low-energy lightbulbs – and anyone who doesn’t take the simple steps is an idiot – it starts to get really expensive.

And you can’t wait for new low-energy houses to be built to replace the existing housing stock because that would take 20,000 years. Or something.

The UK will not reduce its energy consumption by 50%. It won’t happen. The effort is futile. It’s a dead parrot of a policy.

The reason is economics. Importing solar-generated electricity can be achieved at a fraction of the cost per kWh. Promoting that sort of scheme is what everyone should be putting their effort into. And the Desertec plan was only mentioned once, en passant, in the Guildhall.

And then there are the economic reasons. People want to be richer, not poorer. They don’t want to be turning their thermostats down. And what’s more, people are tending to get richer over time – despite a raft of policies promoted by governments round the world designed by a secret global committee with the objective of halting this process – ultimately because technological (and learning) advances mean productivity tends to steadily increase (especially when regular economic recessions purge the least efficient).

The fact that more people are getting richer all the time suggests that policies based on changing people’s behaviour through taxation have had their day. We need to think again about behavioural taxes on everything from alcohol to carbon.

The main advantage (probably the only one, at least in this contrarian’s view) of a carbon tax (championed by the even more lovable Chris Hope last night), or any other way of pricing carbon, is that it makes dirty energy more expensive than clean energy, encouraging companies to invest in renewable energy production. This presupposes, though, that the main reason companies aren’t investing in renewable energy projects is price. And when I read in New Scientist magazine on the train home that “over 5 gigawatts of [UK] wind power are currently stalled by aviators’ objections” to possible radar interference alone, I really wonder whether price rather than the planning system really is the problem.

Nevertheless, internalising the carbon cost must be part of the solution. The problem with introducing a UK tax on carbon is that it will use up an enormous amount of political capital. To be effective there would have to be a huge shift to carbon taxes. And I can see the headlines already. “Driving is just for the rich in Cameron’s Britain”! Not going to happen, is it?

People certainly don’t like being morally preached at (as Chris Hope pointed out), but they like being taxed, and changes to how they’re taxed, even less.

The problem with a tax on carbon in general is that it sets no limit on emissions – so, since a tax simply redistributes spending power, could turn out to be ineffective.

A lot of intellectual effort seems to be going into working out what is the “right” price for carbon. The Kyoto idea of carbon trading may have had a lot of problems, but the principle of letting the market determine the carbon price (by squeezing supply) was the right one.

So what’s my contrarian position? OK (4): Right now energy policy should focus entirely on removing all obstacles to the development and roll-out of renewable forms of energy. Let’s see how far that gets us.

Guilt is not an appropriate emotion for dealing with this problem

Chris Hope was the only one last night who explicitly mentioned that the West caused the problem and should pay to fix it.

Well, I’m sure that “from each according to their abilities”, despite its connotations, might be a principle that could reasonably be applied in the context of international climate change negotiations. But what appears to be happening in the Copenhagen negotiations (I was hoping to find out more last night) is that the aid agenda has taken over the global warming agenda.

For starters, I don’t see a lot of evidence of binding emission targets being linked to these large transfers of money. But for the main course, we’ve brought some more presuppositions with us. There are serious doubts that aid is what’s needed to promote development. Yeap, for decades we’ve been following a seriously flawed policy. For example, Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, wrote in yesterday’s Guardian, that “Africa must attract broad investment, not rely on handouts, if we are to sustain development”.

What’s needed is trade, not just aid.

Aah, you say, the Copenhagen largesse is investment. Well, maybe some of it will be spent wisely. But there is plenty of money in the world – too much in fact (that’s what caused the credit crisis) – looking for investment opportunities. Why do we need billions more?

A cynic, and I am one, so I’ll carry on, might even conclude that the $100bn or whatever comes out of the wash in Copenhagen, is in fact a further Keynesian stimulus for sluggish western economies. Think about it. Many of those pounds, dollars and euros are going to be spent on – to hazard a guess, as the details are not very clear – engineering projects that will be carried out by western companies. And I would have thought Gordon Brown (who’s driving this handout) is savvy enough to know this. Watch shares in Aggreko and Balfour Beatty when this deal is done!

And what happens when the money runs out? When we eventually decide we don’t need to pay developing countries for a climate deal, or decide that they’re not keeping their side of the bargain (whatever that is)? The money will be like aid, creating dependency.

On the other hand, and let’s call this my final contrarian position (5): paying for ecosystem services – and here’s some good news that could come out of Copenhagen – and/or energy, such as desert solar, will (if executed properly) provide countries with sustainable income streams which will support their further development.


July 13, 2009

Maggot Madness

I was more than usually bemused by this report on the Cambridge Evening News website.

“Horrified pensioner Anne Flack, of Chartfield Road, Cherry Hinton, felt revolted when she found maggots crawling in the bottom of her black bin after it was emptied this week.”

“Another city resident, Joscelyn Carroll, of Sleaford Street, who has previously found maggots in his black bin, said: ‘I find it ridiculous that with ever increasing council tax they cannot provide a weekly rubbish collection in this heat.’ ”

[My emphasis].

Whilst I very much agree with the sentiment that the bins should be emptied weekly – I’ve even said as much en passant to my local Cambridge Councillor – the issue is (or should be) the green bins. We have black boxes for papers, newspapers and cans; blue boxes for plastic bottles; collection points for batteries; charity shops for old clothes and crockery; procedures for dealing with fridges (even if these would fit in a black bag! [obliquely referencing Doug’s recent anecdote]) and other electrical goods; green bins for garden and kitchen waste as well as cardboard – that is, for those with no biology qualifications, practically everything that could support the typical maggot lifestyle; and black bins for everything else, which should be eff all.

So, the Cambridge Evening News reader might well wonder, why aren’t Anne Flack, of Chartfield Road, Cherry Hinton and Joscelyn Carroll, of Sleaford Street following the instructions of the Cambridge Soviet to the letter? Aren’t they putting their food waste in the green bins? As well as compostables (including “all kinds of cardboard”), I dutifully separate out bottles (glass and plastic), paper, tins and even batteries. There’s absolutely nothing in my black bin to support a maggot-dominated ecosystem. It contains little but inert packaging, much of it the same plastics as in the recycled bottles (not forgetting shiny Christmas wrapping paper – future civilisations millennia hence will wonder at the purpose of this least degradable of all human artefacts). Incidentally, guess why they only recycle plastic bottles? Because the sorting machine can only deal with rolly things! (Pointing out the absurdity of this was the substance of my letter to the Councillor).

Of course, no-one knows (as they say) what happens to the waste in the green bin. One suspects the answer is that it goes somewhere similar to the contents of the black bin – landfill, incineration or a layby on the A14. I find the idea that the waste from everyone’s green bins is pure enough to grow food in to be rather implausible.

Here’s what the Council has to say by way of “clarification”:

” ‘Despite rumours, there is no public health risk associated with putting food waste in green bins in Cambridge and it is completely safe for people to do so.’ ”

Que?, as Manuel would say. Rumours? What rumours? Can you catch swine flu or something from this “food waste”? The green bins are intended for food waste, not just garden waste (hey, wouldn’t it be better if those with gardens maintained their own compost heaps, anyway?). At least that’s what Cambridge Council have been telling me for the last 5 years.

“The council’s advice is to get a kitchen caddy – which is free for Cambridge residents – to collect food waste in the kitchen. Wrap all food waste in paper, rinse off food packaging, and keep wheelie bin lids closed.” [NSS* on the last bit!].

Thanks for letting me know before. But what exactly is a “kitchen caddy”? I use an old plastic food container – the kind the Council won’t recycle. It seems to do the job.

And here’s the screamer:

“Residents are also encouraged to put food waste in their black bin one week, and green the next, to get a weekly collection of food waste.”

Unbelievable. What are we saying now? After all this, it doesn’t really matter what goes in what bin?

Maybe this is a good time to mention that the whole national recycling strategy is, of course, entirely misconceived. Government should simply take steps to create a market for recyclables (e.g. by acting as the buyer of last resort) so that suppliers to recycling companies buy the stuff off us (maybe via enterprising school-kids). Every newspaper, bottle, tin, potato peeling and so on that is recycled saves the landfill or other disposal cost so recycling could even be subsidised, though I’m convinced that, once established, the recycling industry would be profitable. And what’s more, you might find people clearing the bottles, cans and other trash from Parker’s Piece for nothing!

Give people clear incentives to do the right thing and we don’t need to try to run our lives on the basis of contradictory local council diktats.

*NSS = No Sh**, Sherlock! – of course!

March 30, 2009

Cambridge Traffic Planning, or, The Definition of “Incoherent”

Filed under: Cambridge, Economics, Inefficiencies, Transport — Tim Joslin @ 6:26 pm

I recently commented on and suggested solutions to the traffic problems in my little corner of Cambridge. I was moved last week to attend a public meeting on the issue. I’ll report on that shortly.

First, though, I wanted to give a brief update on one area of lunacy I’ve previously mentioned, namely the taxi-rank in St Andrew’s Street. I can now report that absolutely nothing has changed. Rules clearly don’t apply to the St Andrew’s Street taxi-drivers. Most of the times I’ve looked, the taxis are “over-ranking” by as many as 6 vehicles, forcing buses leaving stops behind the rank to pull out further than necessary into a narrow road, where there are cyclists and pedestrians all over the place.

Worse, behind the taxi-rank there is a natural crossing-point, between Lion’s Yard and the city centre shops and a pedestrian walkway to the Drummer Street bus station and the Grafton Centre. Because a line of taxis now crosses this point, people have to do exactly what you’re taught not to in primary school, that is, cross the road between parked cars. This is dangerous. Especially if you’re in a wheelchair. And that’s what I saw this week – a woman in a wheelchair trying to see over a line of taxis parked on double-yellow lines. On this occasion she didn’t end up under a double-decker bus, but one did come thundering past as she was trying to cross.

But salvation is at hand! A Cambridgeshire Transport Commission has been established. Public meetings are being held. I went to the Cambridge Guildhall on Thursday 19th March, when Cambridge City Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council and the Cambridge Preservation Society gave evidence. I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account of the meeting, partly because Richard Taylor has already done so (I don’t know Richard, I just came across his blog last week, somehow).

But I’m also restricting myself to a few observations because I rapidly developed a severe headache, not entirely unrelated to what I was listening to. I couldn’t help thinking that, as ever, our decision-making capability is hopelessly compromised by a failure to recognise those two great contradictions in terms: local democracy and the rural economy. We fail to realise that the more local the influence on decision-making, the less democratic it is. And the more economic activity in an area the less rural it is – you can’t have both, you have to make decisions.

So here are my considered reflections on the politicial process to resolve the chronic traffic problems in Cambridge:

1. What public debate?
About the first thing I discovered at the meeting was that the deadline for responses from the public had passed on 13th March. A questionnaire has even been completed, already (see the Transport Commission website).

Interesting. I’d only just heard about the public meetings, yet I missed out on having my say. I know these “public consultation” processes always work like this, but wouldn’t it be better to have some discussion to help people formulate their ideas and then ask them about their views?

By conducting the questionnaire and asking for submissions as a first step the Commission has ensured that it has only gathered data based on uninformed views. OK, the Commission is tasked with a problem that has been around for years, but by taking evidence only before the public meetings, it minimises the amount of fresh thinking it can tap into. And ensured that most influence is wielded by insiders in the political process who are most aware of the timetable. Engagement with members of the general public interested in just this one issue has become a very one-way process.

If I were to make a submission, I’d rather not look totally ignorant, so would have liked to have heard the City Council’s and others’ views before putting finger to keyboard. Tricky when the submission deadline was 13th March and the public meeting 19th March.

2. Cambridge City Council priorities
I say I would have liked to hear Cambridge City Council’s views, but when I did I was shocked. Truly shocked.

Get this: the top priority of Cambridge City Council is climate change, expressed as “reducing carbon emissions”. Now, if I was to decide who should get the contract to solve climate change I wouldn’t award it to Cambridge City Council. It’s the wrong level of government. Are my local councillors going to invent the electric car? Build a Supergrid to bring to the UK renewable electricity generated from Atlantic wind and Sahara sunlight?

So one minute we’re talking about traffic congestion and the next about emission targets. Some exchanges were surreal. Sian Reid, the Transport person on the City Council, tried to convince the head of the Commission, Sir Brian Briscoe, that transport plans should take account of the effect on carbon emissions in the whole region, not just Cambridge City. She was right. It’s daft for Sir Brian to tell everyone just to worry about their own little bit. That is the trap of local democracy, and we’d never get anywhere.

Or rather, Sian Reid would have been right, if we were talking about carbon emissions. But we’re not. We can only include such a discussion in a limited way, as otherwise we have to make sweeping unjustified assumptions. We would not, for example, propose to create a railway running coal-fired steam-trains. But to equate the level of traffic in the city with carbon emissions is absurd. What if people start using electric cars?

My head started hurting at the meeting and it’s hurting again now when I read on Richard Taylor’s blog that:

“The hypothetical question of why not close the city centre car parks to discourage people driving in was raised. It was pointed out this could be ‘done tomorrow’. [Good idea!] Cllr Reid who is responsible for car parks defended them pointing to the new emission based car park charging system which she said would be accepted as people were used to paying their vehicle excise duty on the basis of emissions.”

What on Earth is Sian Reid on about?

The amount of traffic coming into the centre of Cambridge already is a massive problem. And it doesn’t scale. The roads are clogged and we’re expecting more people to want to travel in the region.

Forget carbon emissions. In fact, strike this from the Council’s objectives altogether. Just sort out the transport system.

3. Who’s in charge?
Ah, but we can’t “just sort out the transport system”, because we haven’t yet answered the question “who for?”.

Because we haven’t identified who the transport system is meant to serve, progress is hamstrung.

Human nature being what it is, everyone focuses on the congestion charge proposed as part of any transport improvement. Central government has apparently made the £500m for transport improvements conditional on a congestion charge.

But the purpose of the congestion charge (cc) is unclear. Here are two views:
1. The aim of the cc is to reduce the inconvenience to Cambridge City residents from outsiders coming into the town or driving through it.
2. The aim of the cc is to reduce delays on roads in a crowded part of the county.

The first perspective implies the City Council would have “sovereignty”. They would take responsibility for the commercial success of their constituency. Accordingly, one would expect the congestion charge to cover a zone, requiring payment on entry, with those living inside exempt from payment. If high charges deter shoppers, then so be it. It might actually be better for everyone if there were fewer shops in Cambridge and more in the surrounding area.

The second perspective implies that the transport problems of Cambridge are just a subset of those affecting a larger area. The County Council has “sovereignty”. But then it has to take a broader perspective than just Cambridge. The whole idea of a single congestion charge zone makes little sense.

Instead we have a farcical situation where the County Council has appointed a Transport Commission who are consulting local councils. That was the purpose of the meeting I went to. South Cambridgeshire District Council (SCDC) were able to announce that they oppose the congestion charge. Indeed, the head of that council explained that, because the buses were so slow, his 17 year old kids had been allowed to drive to Hills Road 6th Form College in Cambridge. Unbelievable. Cambridge University undergraduates aren’t allowed to run cars, but 17 year olds can. Someone should have a word with Hills Road College.

It is lunacy for SCDC to “oppose” the congestion charge or to give them a platform to do so – this statement should have been ruled out of order. SCDC were at the meeting purely to provide a perspective on transport in the Cambridge region, not to take a position on anything. As I’ve explained, the congestion charge must either be the responsibility of Cambridge – at least the majority Lib Dems in favour – or Cambridgeshire – all parties in favour. I know this, because someone wrote to the local paper asking who he was supposed to vote for. Maybe he shouldn’t bother. Maybe he should take the time to ask himself why he thinks he knows better than everyone who’s looked into the issue properly.

SCDC residents can only influence transport in Cambridge through their County Councillors, not their local Councillors. It is ludicrous for SCDC to have a “position” on the congestion charge (unless it extrends into South Cambs of course).

Personally I think it would be far preferable if Cambridge City Council took decisions on transport in Cambridge. Because the wider constituency represented by the County Council has the final say, we are drifting towards a vision of Cambridge as there to provide a service to the surrounding area. It is turning into a giant shopping centre. It would be preferable to tweak the political system to shift the balance so that transport and other planning in Cambridge reflects the needs of residents of the city rather more and the needs of those living elsewhere in the county a little less.

4. Strategy, what strategy?
Because we haven’t decided who the transport system is for, we have no clearly defined objectives.

One might have expected the Transport Commission to start out by identifying objectives. Every project I’ve ever been involved with has started with some kind of high-level statement of requirements. But when it comes to the future of Cambridge’s transport system, we go straight to arguing about the – at this stage hypothetical – congestion charge and who would be exempt from it.

What Sir Brian and Professor Tony might more profitably have done was:
1. Identify the objectives of the exercise.
2. Validate these with the public.
3. Produce some (internally consistent) options for meeting the objectives, based on something resembling logical reasoning.
4. Consult the now better informed public again.
5. Select one of the options.

Instead we have had uninformed public comment – many saying “no congestion charge” rather than addressing a complete solution – and will no doubt end up with an incoherent strategy.

Let me suggest what some of the objectives might have been, reconciling the interests of Cambridge residents and those from the surrounding area:
1. Reduce the usage of Cambridge City Centre (inside the inner ring road) by motor vehicles.
2. Ensure inexpensive, efficient transport options exist to support the needs of an increasing population in the Greater Cambridge area.
3. Minimise delays to traffic using designated through-routes.

A strategy could then be devised to meet these objectives. This stage should be the province of professionals. It requires objective reasoning, not subjective opinion. For example, the Commission might use the concepts of “limiting factors”, “efficiency” and “incentives”.

They might conclude that cost is not the limiting factor determining whether people drive into Cambridge or not. Any congestion charge would therefore likely have to be very high to be effective. No, the limiting factor for many journeys is surely the availability of parking. So, to meet objective no. 1, reduce traffic coming into the centre of Cambridge, we could close the Grand Arcade car-park. We could convert some of the railway station car-park into cycle parking. And we could tell Hills Road 6th Form College it is not acceptable for their students to drive into Cambridge.

The limiting factor for many journeys across Cambridge is very likely the existence of routes. If we don’t allow people to take short-cuts by leaving designated through-routes, then people will have to stick to the main roads.

Another limiting factor affecting cyclists (and even pedestrians) is the available space. There are too few cycle lanes and even pavements are congested in some parts of Cambridge! To achieve a modal shift away from cars, more cycle lanes and wider pavements are required.

Once some of the limiting factors have been addressed, the Commission should start to look at the efficiency of the system.

This will likely mean far more one-way streets. It is ludicrous, for example, that buses travel both ways, not only along Regent Street, but also along Emmanuel Road into the Drummer Street bus station.

But ultimately the Commission needs to consider the geography of Cambridge, with a busy centre confined on 3 sides by the river Cam and historic buildings. The obvious solution is for the main transport interchange to be located at the railway station (perhaps with a similar arrangement at Chesterton), with a high-capacity, high-frequency shuttle service – preferably a metro train in a tunnel, an elevated monorail or even the dreaded pods – between there and the town centre. We need to be prepared to invest in such a scheme. The Commission should not rely on vested interests, such as the bus company, but on its own reasoning.

Closing car-parks, closing minor roads to through-traffic and improving the design of the system will all help, but to meet objective 3, to minimise delays, we have to look at incentives. And now, finally, we have to consider a congestion charge. But what we’re left with are the busy routes around Cambridge and elsewhere in the county. Surely, rather than a zone, the charge should be levied purely on those using particular roads that are exceeding their capacity, causing delays for everyone? For example, a charge on the inner ring road would push some through traffic onto trunk routes. If some of these roads are too busy, a lower charge could be levied on them, moving some traffic onto public transport, or to travel at less busy times.

To sell a congestion charge to the public it must be presented as precisely targeted on busy routes. People need to be very clear what they’re buying. Rather than a zone, it would be far better to charge a fee for each busy road used – Gonville Place, East Road, Newmarket Road say – with a daily cap. And any talk of carbon emissions should be taken out of the discussion. Global warming is a different issue to traffic congestion.

5. Joined up thinking
It is impossible to separate traffic policy from housing and other planning policy. The head of SCDC pointed out at the meeting that Cambridge residents are on average 400 metres from their nearest bus-stop, but that this rises to 1000 metres in South Cambs. Look, the greater the housing density, the more customers there are for public transport (and for specialist local shops and small supermarkets!). It was refreshing to read today that someone is actually spelling this out. Here’s what Centre for Cities have to say:

“All cities are different. However, denser cities can be more efficient and more sustainable. Research has shown that denser cities around the world have a lower private transport energy use per capita. Private transport energy use in Boston, for example, which has an average urban density of 12.5 persons per hectare, was 50,000 per capita in 1990; while in Hamburg it was 20,000 per capita (37.5 persons per hectare) and around 3,000 per capita in Hong Kong (300 persons per hectare).

Growing through densification rather than urban sprawl therefore has the potential to make transport in Cambridge more sustainable, as more residents are able to walk or cycle to work.” (my stress)

March 27, 2009

Supermarkets Revisited: The Locomotive, Sky, Sainsbury’s, Self-Checkout and Plastic Bags

Filed under: Cambridge, Economics, Inefficiencies, Undercover — Tim Joslin @ 9:40 am

I commented a few days ago on the Cambridge Supermarket Wars and later on my own shopping habits. Since then the battle has intensified on the Mill Road front, and a fundamental change has been made to the shopping environment!

First, the bad news. Sadly, the Locomotive on Mill Road is up for sale. The physical reminder of those karaoke nights may soon be no more.

But the good news is that a new convenience store could open on the Locomotive site.

But the other bad news is that (as usual) the politicians are meddling. According to the Cambridge Evening News report:

“…there were calls yesterday for [The Locomotive] to be retained as [a] community pub…

Cambridge city councillor Ben Bradnack, who represents the Petersfield ward in which The Locomotive lies, said: ‘We already have two convenience stores on this side of the Mill Road bridge and they must be finding it difficult anyway.

‘I am not in favour of pubs closing in principle and these stores are for the daytime economy when we really need to think about the nighttime economy.’ “

I’m as concerned as anyone about the loss of our traditional watering-holes. This is often put down to a change in our habits – we drink more at home. But why? We are such social creatures, after all. The reasons are undoubtedly complex, but what surprises me is that Sky TV’s subscription policy is so rarely mentioned as a problem for smaller pubs. We now take it for granted that live televised sport is the right accompaniment for a beer (pork scratchings out, English Premier League in). Smaller pubs tell me that they can’t afford a Sky TV subscription. Custom is drifting away to larger pubs, or, since large crammed bars are not everyone’s cup of tea, people are simply staying at home.

It should not be up to the Council to decide whether the Locomotive site should become a store or whether it should reopen under new management as a pub. At the end of the day, someone has to decide that it is worth investing their money in a business on the site. That’s the system.

And, as I’ve argued before, it is not sensible for the Council to decide how many supermarkets we need. Far better to provide people with a choice. No-one is forced to shop at the Mill Road Tesco. Nor would they be at a new convenience store on the Locomotive site.

The dangers of pretending it is possible to all agree whether or not a Tesco store should be allowed on Mill Road is well illustrated by the emotions that have now been unleashed. Apparently, a pro-Tesco campaigner has been attacked. In front of the local MP!

How local councils (I’m sure Cambridge is not unique) have drifted into the sort of planning micromanagement we now see is a story that should be told. I suspect the problem is that local government has been so emasculated over the years that elected representatives are now trying too hard to find something to justify their own existence.

And, second, the really bad news. The reason I am revisiting the food shopping topic today is that Sainsbury’s have messed with their operation. To my horror, I found yesterday that they have only gone and replaced the multi-queue tills with a self-checkout system.

Remember, as someone following a life-style I thought society was trying to encourage, that is, not running a car, I have little choice as to where I buy my groceries.

I’m especially vulnerable, because Sainsbury’s is a de facto monopoly. They’d therefore have to screw-up big-time before enough customers took their business elsewhere for them to realise they’d made mistakes.

Today was fairly quiet in Sainsbury’s, I presume because the students are away. I dread to think how long the queues will get when they return.

In principle I support the idea of self-checkout. It will eventually reduce the amount of work that has to be done by society as a whole, moving us one step closer to a utopian world of leisure. But the technology is not yet customer-ready.

I noticed yesterday that Sainsbury’s staff were already running around between customers struggling with the new check-out machines. I dread to think how long the queues will be when the students return. Especially as staff approval will be necessary whenever anyone buys alcohol. Some of the students look quite young so we’ll all have to wait while they produce their id. When I was about 12 one of my mates was in the local paper after having had his stomach pumped to remove the whisky from another friend’s father’s drinks cabinet (hey, why wasn’t I invited?). But now we seem to think we’ll keep kids off alcohol by putting the onus on shop-keepers. They can get in serious trouble if they sell liquor to minors.

Obviously Sainsbury’s need to change the system elsewhere in their store. I’ll check sometime, but I didn’t notice that they’d done anything to anticipate this problem. The “obvious” thing to do is to monitor cutsomers’ ages on entrance to the booze section of the store. This would make their wine offers near the entrance to the store rather problematic, but then they should have thought all this through before they brought the new machines in.

Similarly, the delays at the checkout caused by the need to weigh fruit and veg could easily be avoided by having this done in the fruit and veg section. As is the case in many other countries. You simply print out a label with a bar-code which is later scanned at the checkout.

But my really big issue with the automatic checkout system (which is identical to that I’ve used a few times at Asda) is that it (moreorless) forces you to take disposable plastic bags. Yeap, the bags for life system – for which you even get an extra Nectar point on each use – is out the window. That campaign a year or two ago to use fewer plastic bags is clearly no longer a priority. Now, I don’t think cutting out plastic bags in itself is going to save the planet, but I abhor waste. If I end up bringing home plastic bags I refuse to throw them out – they’re bound to come in useful, I think – so they pile up in the corner. I am psychologically incapable of using the new checkout process.

And the reason Sainsbury’s force you to use new plastic bags? Well, it’s because they are dispensed over a weighing panel. And why do you have to weigh all items? Because they don’t trust you, that’s why. They reckon that people would deliberately or accidentally slip a few unscanned items into their bag if they didn’t have the weighing check.

You can skip weighing on the screen, but you have to do this for every item. As the queue builds up behind you. And (at least when I tried it at Asda) after you’ve skipped a few items the machine makes you wait for a member of staff to check your not a thief. You could put all the items in disposable bags, I suppose, and take them out again after completing the transaction. But then you’d look like a complete nutter.

There is a way round this problem though. We could achieve a nirvana of efficient self-checkout and reusable shopping bags. What Sainsbury’s could do is put RFID tags rather than – or perhaps as well as – barcodes on their products. These can be detected within, say, a metre (depending on the set-up). As a first step, Sainsbury’s could tell when you had put a tagged item into your bag without scanning it. Heck, they could even detect you leaving the store with an item you hadn’t paid for. Ultimately, though, you could simply pass your bag in front of an RFID reader and it would register everything.

I really resent being inconvenienced by the introduction to the busiest Sainsbury’s in the country of a system that isn’t the finished article. Especially when I have no alternative supermarket to go to.

March 24, 2009

Confessions of a Cambridge Shopper

Filed under: Cambridge, Economics, Inefficiencies, Markets — Tim Joslin @ 11:17 am

I wrote yesterday about campaigns to block a new Tesco on Mill Road and a new supermarket of provenance as yet unrevealed (at least to me) on a site in West Cambridge. I’ve also commented on some of the shortcomings of the supermarkets that do exist in Cambridge.

It’s my proposition that – from the perspective of a no-car household – there are not too many supermarkets and food stores in general in Cambridge, but too few. To substantiate this argument, I am prepared to reveal to the world some of my secret shopping habits.

As I mentioned in a previous rant, I do most of my shopping at Sainsbury’s in Sidney Street, the only general mid-market supermarket in the City Centre. Because this Sainsbury’s is essentially a monopoly I have no choice but to put up with the length of queue that the Sainsbury’s management deem reasonable (they have the power to allocate more or less space, and/or more or fewer staff, to tills). Luckily for the customer, perhaps, there is little room to waste on queues in the store, so their length is limited even if – because of the lack of alternatives – the market would stand a longer wait.

But the main problem is that shelf-space is severely limited in the Sidney Street store. Sainsbury’s sometimes run out of particular lines – often as a result of their rather annoying BOGOF policy – and have an irritating habit of phasing out branded products from time to time and replacing them with their – in my opinion – inferior own-brand products. When Sainsbury’s lets me down, I either have to lump it and buy an alternative, or find the product I want at another store.

So here’s the confession part. Where else do I shop? And why?

There’s the market of course, but I’ve never really developed a rapport with any of the stall-holders. Perhaps because my father ran a fruit and veg shop for some years, I have a strong preference for choosing my own individual items, which is rarely allowed in a market. I remember once in Croydon I was “accidentally” given a bag of rotten avocados. I made sure that, while I was getting my money back, my loud complaints cleared the area of customers. Maybe it’s my suspicious mind, but I always suspect that market-traders think they see me coming, little suspecting my professional experience. I occasionally buy fresh herbs (in absurdly large quantities), an apple, or, on an impulse, some strawbs, in the market, but not much else. I just kind of feel the prices should be lower and I worry that, distracted by the melee around the stalls, I’ll end up with dodgy goods.

Occasionally I visit Asda on Newmarket Road. Unlike Sainsbury’s, this store is entirely geared up for drivers doing their weekly shop. For me Asda is a pain to get to, and queuing behind even a couple of overloaded trolleys is a tedious process. So why do I go there? Mainly because it stocks Kellogg’s Sultana Bran. Sainsbury’s used to sell KSB, but now have an own-bran alternative which a) to my palate is made of cardboard and b) comes in a taller box which doesn’t fit in my cupboard. Of course, whilst in Asda I pick up a few other items which Sainsbury’s doesn’t stock (or at least didn’t when I got in the habit of buying these things at Asda): usually Whole Earth sparkling organic lemonade and ginger beer, and Mexicana cheese (warning: contains peppers).

I even more rarely visit Tesco on Newmarket Road, which is even further than Asda. I can only remember going there a couple of times on emergency missions. The giant stores on Newmarket Road are unsatisfactory alternatives to city centre Asda, Tesco or other mid-market alternatives to Sainsbury’s.

Then, Cambridge being one of the country’s more affluent cities, we have no less than three M&S outlets: at the railway station, in the Grafton Centre and in Market Square.

Now, I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to supermarkets. In my opinion they are shops, not food producers. We’d all be better off if they kept it simple and just offered as wide a choice as possible of branded products. Then we’d get the benefits of sensible competition. You’d choose your store on the basis of location and shopping experience factors, such as stock-control effectiveness, queue-length and ambience, and you’d choose your product based on what you actually want, not what the only convenient store in your area wants to sell you.

Why, for example, M&S does own-brand wine and beer is beyond me. Do not touch this stuff! My experience suggests money spent on M&S booze would be better used by making an offer to the guys in the park for whatever they’re drinking.

But life is rarely as simple as own-brand bad, branded-brand good. In particular I can heartily recommend M&S’s soups, particularly the spicy red lentil. They are superior, in my opinion, to the tired Covent Garden brand stocked by Sainsbury’s. Of course, everyone has the canned varieties from Campbell’s and Heinz, but few new recipes have been introduced by these companies since the coronation. Of Queen Victoria. The best soup I’ve ever bought in Cambridge was borsch at the International Food Store on Mill Road, but sadly supplies of this delicacy are sporadic, to say the least.

It’s convenient to pick up some M&S soup at their busy little store at the Railway Station, but that outlet doesn’t stock the most important product I buy at M&S: their Unsweetened Fruit and Bran Muesli. As I’m allergic to nuts, it’s a big deal to identify a satisfactory nut-free muesli product (I used to buy some Jordan’s lines). Now, the Grafton Centre M&S food-hall is about to close and relocate to Newmarket Road, so to avoid a trek, I now rely on the Market Square M&S for my muesli supplies. Let’s hope Sir Stuart Rose doesn’t decide the Market Square space would be more profitable if stocked with bras and knickers.

And, while we’re upmarket, there is a Waitrose in Cambridge, but I’d need to drive to it. The John Lewis store, disappointingly, has no food-hall. As I said, there are not enough supermarkets in Cambridge, not too many.

I shouldn’t forget the farm shop that has recently opened at the junction of Lensfield Road and Regent Street. Handy, and I regularly pop in for a treat. But I couldn’t afford to do all my shopping there.

It’s a curious little area, because mere yards from the farm shop, along Hills Road (there’s a map in one of my previous posts) we head what I can only call down-market. It’s convenience-store land. On one side of the road is a One-Stop. Handy for picking up a paper on the way to the railway station, where the WH Smith’s cannot be relied on to be queue-free (funnily enough, they have a monopoly on the station – anyone spotting a pattern, here?) – the managers who decided it would be a good idea to scan newspaper bar-codes and vetoed an honesty box for payment in the Cambridge Station WHS should be fired, and their pensions confiscated. Occasionally I’ve picked up a snack, a stale dough-nut perhaps, in the One Stop, but not much else, though I have noticed it would be an excellent place to pick up that really tacky card, for when you want something so bad that it’s good.

For emergency purchases, I prefer to cross Hills Road to the Co-op. It’s good for fresh cream and, when I spilt a glass of red wine, the internet recommended diluting it with white. It took a whole bottle, but did the trick. I defy anyone to locate the original spill. Thanks to Co-op for that bottle of cheap white wine! Judging by those ahead of me in the queue – and on the my few visits to the store I’ve had plenty of time to ponder – some use the Co-op as their main shop. This seems a bit of a stretch to me.

Mill Road is good for more than just borsch. All kinds of delicacies are on offer, from Polish sausages to caviar! Arjuna is good for spices and lentils. And there are plenty of convenience stores – Nip-In is good – though I most often pick up milk if I’m short from my newsagent on Regent Street, which is nearer.

But the general picture must now be clear. I actually have only one practical choice for my main supermarket shopping – Sainsbury’s. I’d say Cambridge has too few supermarkets, not too many.

It seems to me that the planning system is not the right mechanism for determining how many supermarkets we actually need. Surely if someone thinks a new store is viable – that they could run it profitably – then the default position should be that they are allowed to do so. Then we can all choose whether or not to use it.

The major public concern seems to be that a chain (Tesco most likely) succeeds in executing the Starbuck’s business strategy of dominating an area by monopolising all the available outlets. But, assuming that at least some people would choose another coffee-shop or supermarket in preference to Starb’s or Tesco, this strategy can only work if the number of outlets is limited. It’s much better for competition, then, if planning permission is easier to obtain than if it’s more difficult. Commercial rents will tend to be lower, and some business models – such as independent coffee shops and specialist food stores – will be more viable. And we might all spend somewhat less of our lives queuing.

March 23, 2009

Tescos and Taxis: Sanity in Cambridge Shock!

Filed under: Cambridge, Economics, Inefficiencies, Transport — Tim Joslin @ 4:19 pm

Supermarket sensation!

I had no idea local politics could be so interesting. It seems like only a fortnight ago that I mentioned the campaign against the Mill Road Tesco store:

“…the anti-Mill Road Tesco campaign … will be counter-productive as the specialist food-stores, cafes and so on on Mill Road – which does have character – would gain more from passing trade to and from Tesco than they would lose to the new competition.”

Imagine my surprise to read in the Cambridge Evening News (CEN) a couple of days ago of “traders coming out in favour of the store”. CEN reports that:

“The fight against the Say No to Mill Road Tesco campaign will see a petition launched today by traders supporting the supermarket giant.

Joyce Charles, one of the petition organisers, who owns Rollers hair salon in the Broadway, Mill Road, criticised the anti-Tesco campaigners.

Mrs Charles, who has owned the shop for 23 years and has the backing of other traders, said a growing number had had enough of the campaigners.

Other shops with petitions include Cambridge Resale, Greg’s Cycles, Halls Locksmith and the RSPCA shop.

Mrs Charles said: ‘We need Tesco to bring a bit of life to the street. In just a few hours we have had 23 signatures in our shop. …

‘These protesters are killing business in the street and putting people off setting up shop here. I have started to see more empty shops appearing and the protest has just made things worse.

‘As a hairdresser, I talk to many people and have found that those who actually live and work around here want Tesco. Why shouldn’t we have a choice? Many of these protesters are just against Tesco.

‘They are not thinking of Mill Road. They have painted the empty store and it looks awful.

‘Businesses won’t come here now because they are afraid they could be targeted next.’ “

I’ll be rushing down there to sign the petition!

And the excitement doesn’t stop there! There’s yet another plan for a supermarket in Cambridge. I’d be very interested to find out which chain this is – we should probably have a Lidl, Aldi or Morrison’s before another Tesco, on competition grounds. Otherwise, though, I’m afraid to say it seems to me that the local politicians are trying to outdo each other in objecting to these schemes – it’s very easy to say “we don’t need another supermarket”. CEN quotes Belinda Brooks-Gordon as saying about the proposed supermarket:

“It would bring with it giant delivery lorries travelling through our streets.

It could also attract hundreds of shoppers from the north and west of Cambridge, who could converge on this area.

The extra traffic it could generate would be disastrous.

It is imperative that we act now to stop these plans getting the go-ahead.

I would urge everyone to get behind this campaign.”

I can see downsides to a supermarket off Madingley Road, but I can also see benefits. The concern, of course, is indeed traffic. I’m sceptical though that a new supermarket would generate “extra traffic” – the potential customers must be buying their food somewhere already! And surely traffic is minimised by having as many supermarkets as possible so that journeys to supermarkets are as short as possible. The “hundreds of shoppers from the north and west of Cambridge, who could converge on this area” must be buying their food somewhere at the moment, many non-drivers likely at the dreaded City Centre Sainsbury’s, so will have another choice, which may require less travel. Those who drive to the supermarket may have less of a journey than to the Newmarket Road Asda and Tesco.

Similarly, a new store in itself can’t generate more delivery traffic. Unless the residents of Cambridge eat more because of the new store, the same amount of food must be being transported.

I’m a little more concerned that the store is envisaged to be the “biggest supermarket in the city”. Perhaps the proposed store represents another step towards Cambridge turning into a massive shopping centre for the surrounding area. But if this creates traffic problems these should be managed by traffic solutions. Otherwise, if we are making a value judgement, we should be asking whether it is a valid one. Surely if people want to shop in a huge supermarket, they should be given that choice. Maybe it’s efficient. If people don’t have time to do more than one weekly shop by car (I’m thinking of the thousands of families I see with trolleys piled high at Asda or Tesco when I occasionally venture a trip to Newmarket Road of a weekend), should we really be making life more difficult for them? Especially if we simply nudge them into driving further to another supermarket on the already clogged streets of Cambridge and the surrounding area.

On the other hand, there are clearly systemic reasons why large edge-of-town stores are so dominant. But some of these are under the control of local councils. Because it is even more difficult to get planning permission for local stores than for out of town supermarkets, the market allows landlords to charge much higher rents in town centres and residential areas. Sure, scale economies – which are a fact of life – and buyer power – which should be constrained – give large supermarkets an advantage, but I suspect a major competitive disadvantage for local, specialist food stores is the high cost of commercial property. And councils could reduce these by being more willing to give planning permission. In other words, in trying to stop massive edge-of-town supermarkets, councils are addressing a problem they themselves are responsible for creating!

It seems to me that using the planning system to constrain shopping choices is the wrong way to address the problem – if, indeed, there is one – and that it would be far better to grant planning permission much more readily, bringing shop-keepers’ costs down and allowing people more choice in where to shop. If people don’t want to use large out-of-town supermarkets, they’ll simply lose money and close down.

Taxi trauma!

But that’s not it for the excitement in Cambridge just now!! In a sensational move, the police actually arrested a taxi-driver! CEN writes:

“The driver was parked at the end of a row of six cabs on Thursday on a six-space rank in [St Andrew’s] street, which has become a flashpoint for the battle.”

But the story actually seems to be that if the driver had simply obeyed a police officer the arrest would never have occurred. Though I suppose – since, amazingly enough, it’s not just me, and according to the CEN, there have been “calls from the public” about the rank – the police would have had to take some action eventually, since, as I observed, taxis have simply been returning to the rank as soon as the coast was clear.

I’ve nothing against taxi-drivers. I have a lot of sympathy, since it’s obvious what’s happening. The problem is that taxis are the coal-mine canaries of the recession. There’s an incredible (and often remarked upon) feedback loop. People are less willing to drop a tenner on a taxi-fare, more taxis end up waiting at the ranks, meaning drivers have to work longer for the same return, leading to even longer queues… And that’s before even factoring in those drivers who have lost another source of income because of the recession, so need more income from fares anyway.

But as I’ve already pointed out, the taxi-drivers at the St Andrew’s Street rank are simply taking the piss. It’s not clear from the picture in the CEN article, but there are a number of bus-stops behind the taxis waiting on double-yellows. Quiet apart from clogging the street up, buses have to manoeuvre awkwardly round the taxis at the back of the queue. I’ve even seen taxis blocking bus-stops!

So now a situation has developed:

“Pc Steve Hinks, who is carrying out the sweep on taxis after calls from the public, says he and his officers have had abuse hurled at them by angry cabbies.

But cabbies criticised the ‘overzealous’ officers, saying the row was ‘the beginning of the end of a good relationship’. [what, one where the police don’t do their job?]

Now furious cabbies are threatening to turn Friday and Saturday nights in the city centre into mayhem by refusing to take drunks away from trouble hotspots.

And some are even talking about strike action or a blockade of the city.”

To be honest, the drivers need to calm down a bit. Threatening to create mayhem when it exists already seems more than a little hollow. Besides, I suspect they make a lot of their money on Friday and Saturday nights since there’s no public transport to take people out of the City Centre. They probably get a fair few £25 fares to villages and small towns all over Cambridgeshire, and are no doubt earning all the time, because they don’t have to queue for fares. Otherwise, given they choose their own hours, drivers simply wouldn’t work the party-shift.

The solution, of course, as I pointed out before is for the St Andrew’s Street taxi rank to be closed. People should walk – sorry, I know this is a novel concept for many – 100 metres to the Drummer Street rank, which appears to be redundant at the moment. There simply isn’t space for 6 taxis in St Andrew’s Street, let alone the 12 who are often there.

March 13, 2009

The Park Terrace Rat-Run (and Other Stories)

Filed under: Cambridge, Cycling, Road, Transport, Walking — Tim Joslin @ 11:57 pm

Transport is a big topic in Cambridge these days. The County Council (don’t ask why transport in the City is not the responsibility of the City Council) is pondering whether or not to agree to introduce a congestion charge in return for £500m from central government for transport improvements. A no-brainer if you ask me.

Even with half a billion, though, the problems aren’t easy to solve, as rather too many people think they have a right to drive on the cramped medieval streets in the centre of Cambridge. Weird and wacky ideas are therefore being floated.

I don’t think the principal problem is a lack of money, nor that cutting-edge technology is the whole solution. What’s lacking is a clear strategy. Joined-up thinking has clearly been continually thwarted over the years by a political system (first past the post in small council wards) that favours those who pander most effectively to local interest groups; by bizarre and unclear divisions of responsibility between different levels of government; perhaps by a lack of political courage; but above all by an electorate with an astonishing belief in its own entitlement to do exactly what it wants whenever it feels like it, regardless of the effect on everyone else.

Before spending £500m, what is needed is simply determination to minimise traffic in the centre of Cambridge. Without this, the money will make no difference.

Consider the area which I use as a pedestrian on a daily basis, as shown in the map below:

1. Close the Lion Yard car-park

Top left is Lion Yard, a covered shopping mall, recently extended in a project known as the Grand Arcade. There are a lot of shops in the centre of Cambridge now, a few hundred yards from one of the nation’s most historic buildings, King’s College Chapel. It is no longer practical for all shoppers to drive right into the centre, so Cambridge is ringed by Park’n’Ride carparks, subsidised by those of us who never use them, incidentally. So why, oh why, are some shoppers allowed to park in the new multi-story Lion Yard carpark?

I was showing someone around Cambridge last weekend, as I often do. We walked along Downing Street and Pembroke Street (not labelled on the map, but below Lion Yard, where the legend “University of Cambridge” appears), towards the Fitzwilliam Museum on Trumpington Street, looking around the area where DNA was discovered, not to mention the electron. But, spoiling the ambience and spewing fumes in this historic part of Cambridge was a slow-moving line of traffic heading north along Trumpington Street, turning right to head west along Pembroke Street, into and later out of the Lion Yard car-park, emerging to continue west along Downing Street, before causing a nuisance turning right at the newly installed traffic lights into St Andrew’s Street.

In our new mood of determination, the Lion Yard carpark should simply be closed. Build some flats instead. The shoppers and others using the Lion Yard car-park would then have to use the Park’n’Ride car-parks instead, improving the economics of the Park’n’Ride service.

But let’s see how much further we can get with our new mood of determination.

2. Close Park Terrace

Look again at the map. Just right of centre 4 roads form a tilted square: Gonville Place, Regent Street, Park Terrace and Parkside. Inside this square is Parker’s Piece, which I walk across or around (depending on the weather) nearly every day, from the end of Gresham Road (where there’s an infamous pedestrian and cycle crossing – more about that another time).

One reason for writing this post was to play around a bit with Google Maps! (Anyone know how to get rid of the annoying drawing-pin symbol, by the way?). What I’ve learnt is that there’s resistance somewhere to embedding two maps in one post. I therefore urge readers to switch between satellite mode and map mode to follow my description – the map simplifies matters a little too much.

The mess is in the north-west corner (top left) of Parker’s Piece. Heading north into town, you first encounter cyclists heading in all directions: crossing Parker’s Piece diagonally; turning left and right from Regent Street where there is a cramped dual-use crossing – that is, one for both cyclists and pedestrians, who trip over each other trying to reach the other side of the road before the lights change; heading both ways down the road on the left (Regent Terrace) behind the row of shops, restaurants and pubs fronting onto Regent Street; and – remember this point – heading east-north-east along the side of Parker’s Piece. These cyclists are not, as may be clearer in the satellite photo than the map, cycling along Park Terrace, which is actually the other side of the University Arms hotel.

At this point too, the pedestrian flow crossing Parker’s piece becomes a mere tributary. On Regent Street, you join a mass of often large groups, many from overseas, for you are now on the main route from Cambridge Railway Station into town.

After negotiating the melee at the corner of Parker’s Piece, the intrepid pedestrian has to keep their wits about them. The next hazard is the University Arms hotel car-park, which for reasons lost in the mists of time spews Sunday drivers up [23/3 CORRECTION: down, doesn’t memory play tricks on you?] a steep ramp across the busy Regent Street pavement. A lack of clutch control, or any other sign of the driver being fully in control of their vehicle, is often evident, so the wise pedestrian stays alert.

Barring major engineering works, the exit to the University Arms hotel is likely to remain in Regent Street. But this is a minor inconvenience compared to the next hazard – the dreaded Park Terrace.

As you cross Park Terrace, both cars and buses swing into the road, from both directions along Regent Street (Park Terrace itself is one-way). None appear to realise that they should be giving way to pedestrians.

Today I had the temerity to glare at a driver who swung round the corner as I was already crossing the road. What drivers fail to realise is that pedestrians do not share their knowledge of the precise trajectory their car will follow as it turns, nor indeed the same faith in the grip of their tyres, nor knowledge of the state of their brakes, nor, it has to be said, the same confidence in the skill and concentration of the person at the wheel. What the pedestrian experiences is a threat of serious harm if they should slow – or speed up, depending on where the car passes – their pace crossing the road, or, in the worst cases, if they fail to slow or speed up their pace. In short, the driver may know he’s not going to hit the pedestrian, but the pedestrian doesn’t know this. The pedestrian’s experience is simply of being on the receiving end of a form of intimidation. Hence the glare.

Believe it or not, today the driver actually stopped to discuss the issue! I should have studied sociology – hey, what am I saying?, I did study sociology! – because I felt this was a great opportunity to find something out. So when he pulled up I went and had a chat. And, sure enough, the driver, if I interpret his words correctly, felt he could not possibly be in the wrong, as he was on a road, and I was not another vehicle!

Now, later this afternoon, I pondered the Park Terrace phenomenon. I don’t drive with such aggression – well, only to other drivers, who of course deserve it, not to pedestrians – and am treated on average far more politely at other junctions. In fact, the buses using Park Terrace are noticeably more considerate than the cars, even allowing for the fact that sudden stops are not quite so easy for them. Heck, some of the buses even signal! Of course, I’m more considerate to the buses too – more prepared to step back onto the pavement to allow them to turn – not just because they are even more intimidating than cars, but also because I feel a few seconds of my time is outweighed by that of 20 passengers and a driver.

Pondering away, I developed a hypothesis – it’s Cambridge, after all. My hypothesis is this: the users of Park Terrace are mostly taking a short-cut.

The driver who didn’t care enough, for my liking, whether or not he took me out while I was crossing Park Terrace, was turning left. At the other end of Park Terrace (see map), most cars, I’ve noticed, turn right onto Parkside, and then likely left into East Road or straight on into Mill Road. One point is that there are few other places to go: straight on leads to a residential area with no exit (theoretically – it seems some anti-social drivers ignore various no thru road signs, weave through back-streets and emerge on East Road at Dover Street, no doubt very pleased at saving themselves time at the expense of other drivers and local residents). So drivers turning left into Park Terrace are mostly avoiding the traffic jam (and two pedestrian crossings) along Gonville Place. They are in the rush, rush, rush state of mind. They are not those who, I’ve read, treat car journeys, such as the daily commute, as quality time, an opportunity to relax between the stresses of work and the pressures of family life.

[23/3 NOTE: It turns out to my surprise that drivers can also turn left at the end of Park Terrace, drive round into Emmanuel Street, right into the pedestrian zone of St Andrew’s Street and then to King Street and Jesus Lane via Hobson Street. [26/3 CORRECTION: Sorry, this traffic doesn’t enter the formal pedestrian zone, rather it bears right into Hobson Street just before where a gate blocks St Andrew’s Street at some times of day, but it does add to the buses and taxis congesting an area where there are a lot of pedestrians, many crossing St Andrews Street where there is a passage leading to the bus station and the Grafton Centre.] I suspect traffic is entering Regent Street at the Lensfield Road/Gonville Place junction in order to take this route, avoiding having to use East Road and Maid’s Causeway. The same argument applies: if we want a pleasant city centre for the benefit of a large number of people, we should simply stop being so kind to a small number of motorists!].

No, the reason Park Terrace is such a pain to cross is that its being used selectively by those who are trying to save their own precious minutes. Close it, I say. We have designated which are the main roads. Why should a few avoid the queues on them, in the process slowing people down when they slot back in to the traffic procession in advance of where they left it?

If Park Terrace were closed to traffic at the Regent Street end it could be used as a two-way cycle route, though minimal residents’ traffic would still have to be permitted, thereby relieving the Parker’s Piece melee 20 metres south along Regent Street.

Potentially, too, a new exit from the University Arms underground car-park could be constructed into Park Terrace (to exit to the east). This would add little to the residents’ traffic along Park Terrace.

3. Close Regent Terrace

If you think Park Terrace is a joke, you won’t believe Regent Terrace. Regent Terrace is on the west side of Parker’s Piece, a cul de sac behind the buildings on that side of the park. Like Park Terrace, Regent Terrace is an access road that just happens to be there. It wasn’t created for the purpose to which it is being put.

And Regent Terrace – no more than 150 yards from the Queen Anne multi-story on Gonville Place – is being used for parking. Completely unsegregated cyclists and pedestrians (especially when Parker’s Piece is muddy) compete for road space with cars cruising the narrow street looking for a parking space. Ludicrously, cars have to turn round at Melee Corner. And, for much of Regent Terrace’s length, there is no room for two cars to pass. I’ve seen arguments break out over who should reverse – once with a woman (sorry, I’m afraid it simply was a woman, saying “person” would seem a little odd) nearly in tears, refusing to reverse, despite several cars in front of her coming the other way, for fear of scraping her car.

Regent Terrace should simply be closed to all except residents. The parking places are more trouble than they’re worth and should all be removed, allowing a pedestrian path and cycle lanes to be marked.

4. On the buses

Where are the buses going to go, I hear you ask, now that I’ve closed Park Terrace?

Why are the buses using Park Terrace in the first place? I retort.

At this point it might be worth listing some of the interacting traffic problems in the centre of Cambridge:
– too many private cars;
– too many buses;
– too many taxis;
– lack of cycle lanes;
– cyclists using the pavement endangering pedestrians and themselves;
– dangers to pedestrians who risk being hit by traffic when spilling off narrow, overcrowded pavements and from bus wing mirrors even whilst on the pavements.

So far we’ve addressed the private cars and provided new quiet routes for cyclists along the north (Park Terrace) and west (Regent Terrace) sides of Parker’s Piece.

What we really need to do with the buses is keep most of them out of centre of Cambridge, which is too cramped for London-style double-deckers. We could do this simply by creating a decent bus terminus at the railway station (not just a few more stops), in place of some of the acres of car-parking there, and building a high-capacity transport link from the station to the centre of town – a monorail, an underground rail link, or even the Heathrow-style pods that have been proposed.

But, even without such major improvements we can make a big difference in one fell swoop. Why don’t we simply create a one-way route for buses (and all other motorised vehicles)? The bus station, such as it is, is in Drummer Street (at the east end of Emmanuel Street, see map), and, controversially, National Express coaches wait on Parkside (space should be made for them at the central railway station, which would then operate as a more effective transport interchange). A one-way loop, (either way) could be created from Emmanuel Street, along St Andrew’s Street, Regent Street, Gonville Place, Parkside and Drummer Street, back to Emmanuel Street. Simple.

The advantage of creating a one-way loop for buses and all other vehicles would be to create space for cycle lanes in both directions, and wider pavements, on all these roads – but especially Regent Street.

People will object to making Gonville Place one-way, because it is part of a major east-west route, but I say: bite the bullet! Traffic is stationary in Gonville Place much of the time, simply waiting for the lights at either end (often blocking the pedestrian crossing at the end of Gresham Road – but it’s hardly news that so few these days know how to drive with the courtesies laid down in the Highway Code, is it?). Simplifying the traffic sequence at these junctions would speed up the traffic flow. OK, traffic in one direction would have be diverted some way round, but remember what we’re trying to do. We’re determined to minimise traffic in the centre of Cambridge.

5. Taxi, taxi

There have always been a lot of taxis in Cambridge, but now that there’s a recession on it’s like Moscow in the early 1990s, except that the Cambridge taxis don’t double as currency bureaux and kiosks for black-market goods.

Now, I’ve nothing against taxis, but they should be for the occasional difficult trip. They are not an alternative to buses. They are an incredibly inefficient form of transport, using more fuel and road space per journey than private cars – because the vehicle is empty when it returns to a rank or goes to the next pick-up. Why then, are taxis given such privileges?

In Cambridge, taxis can go everywhere buses go, not just to make pick-ups or drop-offs that would be impossible otherwise, but en route. There are certain roads – for example, Sidney Street and St John’s Street (scroll up on the map and, because these streets are so small, zoom in) – where people walk in the road and have to jump back onto the pavement when a taxi wants to pass through. This is madness. Inconveniencing dozens for one passenger makes no sense. Unless picking up or dropping off where private cars can’t go, taxis should have no more rights to drive through Cambridge than you or I.

And the siting of taxi ranks is hilarious. There’s one for 6 vehicles in St Andrew’s Street in the absolute busiest part of town, where space is at a huge premium. Today I noticed about a dozen taxis queuing back past the rank and a couple of community police officers moving them on. As soon as the police left, the queue was back, of course, causing a nuisance. Yet round the corner in Drummer Street, the rank next to the bus station was empty. Totally unused space. Just get rid of the rank in St Andrew’s Street and put a sign up pointing to where taxis can be found.

Incidentally, I once read that pollution levels along Regent Street and St Andrew’s Street are extraordinarily high. Funny, that.

6. Take pedestrians seriously

If we are determined to give cyclists and pedestrians priority over cars – and remember, this is our policy – then give cyclists and pedestrians priority over cars. I must have spent hours waiting, for example, to cross Gonville Place at the crossing at the end of Gresham Road. I stand there watching cars either edging along in a jam (often stopping on the crossing – please, please send a traffic cop to book them, even if it’s just the once!) in one or (better, because you can sometimes nip across) both directions. Now, if the lights have been green to traffic for even 10 seconds, switch immediately to pedestrians and cyclists. The same no-brainers occur all over town.

So, various tiers of government, if we’re going to have a transport strategy for Cambridge, let’s have one that makes sense. We want to use the space as efficiently as possible. That means minimising the traffic in the centre of town. And if we want to minimise traffic in the centre of Cambridge, then that’s what has to be done. Don’t fudge the policy by sticking car-parks where some people would like you to do that; don’t leave sneaky little short-cuts and parking places for drivers in the know; create a sensible traffic circulation even if people whinge; don’t kow-tow to lobbies, such as the taxi-drivers; don’t try to cater to a minority at the expense of anyone else (even bus users – take those stupid stops outside John Lewis, you know, where the queues block the pavement, and put them in Drummer Street); and, above all, make life as easy as possible for pedestrians and cyclists, because they’re exhibiting the behaviour you’re trying to encourage.

You can’t keep everyone happy all the time. And if you keep trying to do so, you’ll end up making someone very unhappy indeed. For example, in this small part of Cambridge I’ve focused on, which I know intimately, cyclists have taken to using the pavements – because space hasn’t been allocated to them in the form of cycle lanes (or they can’t be bothered to sort lights). Cyclists often travel at high-speed on the pavement. It’s only a matter of time someone – likely frail and elderly – is seriously injured. Or worse.

March 9, 2009

Dear Sainsbury’s. Just. Put. The Price. Of Warburton’s Seeded Batch. Back. Up.

Filed under: Cambridge, Economics, Inefficiencies, Markets, Undercover — Tim Joslin @ 9:09 pm

Maybe I should start Twittering, as perhaps I’ve already said what I want to say – and I was able to use the letter format again. Nevertheless, I’ll explain, since I consider myself a trainee Undercover Economist, although I prefer to point out failures rather than successes. I’m just a monitor evaluator kind of guy!

A little earlier on – before I was distracted into a short riposte in order to save capitalism – I stopped by Sainsbury’s in the centre of Cambridge.

One of the key items I wanted to purchase was a loaf of Warburton’s Seeded Batch (WSB) bread. I don’t consider myself overly fussy, but, after a long period of trial and error, I have established a clear preference for this particular loaf.  A slice toasted and with marmalade goes nicely with a cup of tea in the morning.  I recommend WSB, though it may not be the right bread for everyone. A while ago I was mildly concerned when a report suggested that WSB contains more than the average amount of salt compared to other loaves.  But in the end I found myself laughing in the face of excess dietary electrolytes.

It was around the time of the sodium chloride exposé that Sainsbury’s started a promotion: £1 rather than £1.51 for a loaf of WSB. Over several months when this offer has been in place much of the time, I have never once succeeded in profiting from it. The casual observer might notice that Cambridge is full of students, for whom the chance to save 51p is an opportunity not to be passed up. Loyal customers end up suffering. If there is a logical, Undercover explanation for this pricing policy I have not yet identified it. Today the inferior and more expensive (£1.59) product I ended up with is a Hovis Granary Original. Original in the sense that it was apparently unevenly sliced by hand.

Does the manager of Sainsbury’s in Cambridge city centre understand supply and demand? The idea surely is to find the highest price at which the day’s supplies of WSB sell out just before the shop closes, disppointing the minimum number of customers who may choose to shop elsewhere next time. Or, perhaps the price should be that at which profit is maximised, although, given the cost of clearing unsold product and, again, the risk of losing customers, this may be at the same point. Reducing the price to £1 and selling out by lunch-time on many days over a period of months does not seem to me the most intelligent promotion. What about giving free sample slices instead?

The Cambridge Sainsbury’s manager is obviously a bit of a keenie. Today he was also offering lemons at a special price of 10p each! What is this, the Soviet Union? Don’t we import citrus fruits from around the world in order to provide a constant supply? Is a promotion really necessary? Cambridge is an international kind of place. Are there perhaps potential lemon customers who’ve never tried one, and may baulk at 30p for a strange subtropical fruit? I suspect the true explanation is a glut of lemons in the store-room after over-enthusiastic marketing of the ingredients for pancakes with lemon and sugar for Shrove Tuesday a couple of weeks ago.

But that doesn’t explain the pile of cross-cut shredders (for paper, I presume, rather than lemons) at £10, reduced from £29.99, that I nearly stumbled into on my way out of the store. What is this? A recession warehouse clearance outlet or a supermarket?

One wonders what the manager of the Cambridge Sainsbury’s does understand, as the store can’t be accessed by car, so those shopping there arrive by bicycle or on foot. Many customers are students who, by and large, do not have access to a freezer, or at least a secure one. Why, oh why, then, all the BOGOFs and other offers on heavy, bulky items? Tomato juice is my “favourite” of the “offers” – I say it is an “offer” as this one has been in place for years, it seems. I enjoy a slurp with lemon juice (am I lucky today!) and Worcester sauce before dinner. But there is a significant saving – relative to the price of industrially squeezed tomatoes, that is – if you buy 3 cartons at once. Is there a car-park outside the Cambridge city-centre Sainsbury’s full of SUVs owned by the purchasers of these cartons? No, they have to lug them home on foot or bicycle. Smart. But this is less an offer by Sainsbury’s than a payment to the customer for tomato-juice storage.

The Director of my MBA programme was fond of pointing out that, on more than one measure, the Cambridge city centre Sainsbury’s is the busiest in the country. Part of the reason, I reckon, is that rents in the centre of Cambridge are so high that only a small number of competing food stores would be profitable.

Because it has a de facto monopoly, there’s no way to tell whether or not the bizarre pricing policies at the city centre Sainsbury’s are what the market wants. True, there’s an M&S foodhall, but that serves the sort of people – of which there are quite a few in Cambridge – who don’t go to Sainsbury’s. And vice versa.

True also, there are a couple of other food stores near where I live, a little way from the centre, but I always feel I’m in a movie when I go to them. The sort of movie where men with guns walk in and shoot the place up.

Competition would be somewhat improved, I suspect, if campaigners hadn’t objected to Tescos plans for its store on Mill Road (the store will open, I understand, but without some of the facilities Tesco wanted). At least some people would have a practical choice between the new Tesco and Sainsburys.

Denying people a choice of shop hardly seems democratic to me. Where is the need to apply the political process? – shops are not mutually exclusive.

The idea seems to be to preserve “independent” stores in Mill Road. Why the locals want to pay over the odds for milk is beyond me. And isn’t it possible that the specialist food stores on Mill Road would benefit from freeing space up from staples for higher value-add specialist products?

The concern is that Tesco would be too strong a competitor – as I pointed out en passant to my MP, if we bar Tesco from the location are we saying that we’ll close down the nearby Co-op if it sharpens up its act?

But the way to level the playing-field is to eliminate distortions of the market for – say – milk due to supermarket chains’ buyer power. If smaller retailers are at a disadvantage this should be addressed by the competition authorities, not through the planning process – as I noted in another context earlier today, the planning process is overused – arguably abused – in the UK.

I expect, insofar as the anti-Mill Road Tesco campaign has achieved its objectives, it will be counter-productive as the specialist food-stores, cafes and so on on Mill Road – which does have character – would gain more from passing trade to and from Tesco than they would lose to the new competition.

Cambridge is clogged with traffic, and it is also part of the environmental agenda to get people out of their cars.  Blocking companies’ plans for local food stores seems a perverse way to achieve a transport modal shift in the town. Green revolutionaries needs to be a bit smarter than this.

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