The high cost of convenience

My partner tells me that it takes him longer and longer to turn into Greenford Road on weekday mornings on his way to work. Once he reaches Greenford Flyover he heads away from town, passing the slow moving stream of traffic heading towards it. If it was a better option he would use public transport, but the prospect of a long walk down muddy country lanes after a train journey that might not get him there on time even before a long hard day at work makes a twenty minute drive seem preferable.

It’s absurd that we live very close to a minor transport hub which is of no use to him. Greenford Station is served by the Central Line, one of the most useful Tube routes, which can take us right across London, from West Ruislip to Epping, with a branch line to Ealing Broadway. We can also take advantage of the First Great Western service between Greenford and Paddington using Oystercards (although once Crossrail arrives the line will stop at West Ealing). The Piccadilly Line is a walk or bus ride away at Sudbury Hill Station. Apart from trains there are buses to other parts of the borough from stops across the road from Greenford Station or a short walk away. This makes me wonder why so many people in Greenford still own cars.

A walk down a residential street in the area at the weekend can leave you wondering if it’s turned into a giant car park. It isn’t only houses shared by tenants that have two or more cars parked in what used to be a front garden. Yet a fascinating census based map that compares levels of UK car and van ownership in 2001 with those in 2011 shows that the percentage of households owning cars barely changed in Greenford in that time (zoom in and click on the area to find statistics for the area). It will be interesting to see what the figures show following the next census in 2021 because my current perception of how many car owners live here suggests that a lot has changed in the last four years. It is now common for older children to live with their parents who may each own a car, that could be two cars to begin with. Two adult children sharing the family home with them could take that to four. On more than one occasion I’ve seen cars being driven along the pavement from front gardens to reach a gap between the ones parked at the kerb. I watched as a man trapped his car on the remains of a low brick wall as he tried to drive over it into a garden after crossing the pavement. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. I don’t think the point of smart cars is that you can cram several of them into a front garden but I’ve seen that happen too.

It explains why residents alerted to new property developments are almost always concerned about the impact on parking. They know that no matter what the planning application says about the number of parking bays and cycle parking provided or the close proximity to public transport there will be an overspill of cars into the surrounding streets. It is inevitable. There are more developments on the way, not least the one on the former GSK site which will create around six hundred new homes, ranging in size from one bedroom flats to five bedroom houses. It will also provide a cinema and retail units, possibly a supermarket, which is bound to bring more cars, more noise, more emissions into Greenford.

I’m fortunate in that I don’t have to travel to work on public transport at peak times but on the occasions I have it hasn’t been a pleasant experience. The large sum you’re obliged to pay for a travel card so that you can squeeze into a carriage along with too many others on the Central Line probably helps to sway the choice towards car ownership. Greenford is in zone 4 so in 2015 the cost of a monthly zone 1-4 travelcard is £177.10, an annual one £1,844. Problems such as delays caused by signal failures and the state of the carriages, most noticeably the worn and dirty seats, must make some commuters wonder where their money is going. If residents work locally and rely on buses they might spend £840 on an annual bus and tram pass (£80.70 for a monthly one) but find that everyone else wants to catch the same bus at the same time. Perhaps it isn’t such a surprise that those who can buy a car often do so even if public transport would take them almost door to door. There has been an increase in new car sales, partly because of an improving economic climate and attractive finance deals. Some might choose paying off a car and maintaining it for a few years over paying for public transport.

I asked John Beeston, Chairman of the Ealing Passenger Transport User Group (EPTUG), what he thought would persuade residents to use public transport and leave their cars at home. He explained that the Greater London Authority (GLA) is responsible for transport in London but he suggested that MPs might encourage the use of national funds to subsidise fares in the capital. Stressing that he was expressing a personal view and not that of EPTUG he said “To get cars off the road we have to make fares cheaper.” He also told me “In London we have an inflexible system”, he feels that the approach taken by TfL, towards bus contracts in particular, denies users a system that meets their needs. John said that TfL asks for feedback from user groups but arranges inflexible contracts that commit particular bus companies to specific routes with a specific number of buses. These contracts run for five years but can be extended to seven. By the time they are put into place actual needs have changed, so you could have bus routes meant to serve employees from a business that might actually have closed down but there will still be a service between those two points. In his opinion TfL needs to ask private operators to be more flexible. I was told some time ago, by residents living in the vicinity of Horsenden Lane North, that they would like a bus to take them from North Greenford to central Ealing. A re-examination of the needs of these residents might allow them to leave their cars at home when they need to reach the borough’s administrative centre but if the process takes so long that such a service is no longer relevant it could be a wasted effort.

There are other factors that encourage the use of cars by Greenford’s residents. Better deals and a huge range of goods are available at the superstores in and around the area. Who staggers home with bags full of shopping on the bus when they can fill the freezer and cupboards at a discount using their car? In the past people were happy to take public transport to places like Oxford Street during the sales but they can now reach retail parks and shopping centres by car without having to pay for parking. There were concerns, when the one at Westway Cross was proposed, that it would lead to an increase in traffic, which certainly has been the case, and cars come into the area even after the shops there are closed to access McDonalds, which has now extended its opening hours. Independence from train timetables and bus schedules, an environment that they can control, as well as the opportunity to own a status symbol are all reasons to choose a car over public transport.

It isn’t just car owners that have caused an increase in traffic along Greenford Road. All those superstores and retail parks need re-stocking. Goods sold in them are often brought to Greenford’s warehouses by large freight vehicles, from all over Europe and the UK, and redistributed. When my partner tries to turn out at the end of our street he is competing for a space in the queue not only with other car drivers but with commercial vehicles. Warehouses, such as that owned by Wincanton, play a significant part in life in Greenford. They employ a lot of people who spend money in local shops, pubs and food outlets. Unfortunately the expansion in the amount of space given over to such enterprises has been matched by a rise in the amount of local road freight. Greenford is also home to a Royal Mail distribution centre, in Green Park Way off Greenford Road, another company with a fleet of HGVs. Tesco’s home delivery service in the area (for those who have neither the time nor inclination to shop at their stores) operates from a depot in Oldfield Lane North.

The routes that many of these vehicles take to and from the A40 at Greenford Flyover pass through the junction of Rockware Avenue and Greenford Road making the wear and tear on the road surface there a significant problem. I’ve seen some seriously impressive pot holes develop there, a problem not only for motorists and cyclists but for residents living nearby too. Until 2012 a combination of these holes and the patchwork of repairs made life a misery for anyone trying to sleep in the surrounding homes as HGVs passing along Greenford Road throughout the night hit ridges and bumps. It reached the stage where vibrations caused windows and walls to crack. Residents told me that the disturbance had woken their children and left them too frightened to sleep. In desperation they contacted ward councillors and the local paper with the result that a more substantial repair was made to that section of Greenford Road. Further work was carried out recently on the section between Uneeda Drive and the Flyover but it had to be carried out at night during the Easter break as closing that stretch of road to traffic during the day would have caused gridlock across a large part of Greenford. Those trying to sleep through the noise of roadworks at 1am might have felt it was a small price to pay in the long run.

There is a less obvious problem caused by high levels of traffic, that of emissions and their impact on health. I don’t consider that I’m especially vulnerable to respiratory problems but even I felt the impact of poor air quality recently. Weather patterns had caused London to be in the path of a cloud of Saharan dust which, combined with the ever present smog, kept those affected by breathing disorders indoors, if they were wise. Anyone who lives near a main road in London will at one time or another have wiped black dust from their window sills. That’s what you can see. It’s what you can’t see that is of real concern. Those living near heavily used routes such as Greenford Road, especially children, pregnant women and the elderly, face risks to their long term health (those with concerns can find out more on the Healthy Air Campaign website). While diesel fumes from all those huge freight vehicles have the worst effect everyone who uses a car contributes to the problem. I recommend that you read a passionate post about emmissions on another hyperlocal blog, “Kings Cross Environment”.

What did the candidates for the Ealing North constituency have to say on the issue?
Steve Pound (Labour, MP for Ealing North since 1997) “With respect to traffic and car ownership – I don’t believe that government can legislate to limit car ownership but we can improve public transport to the current position whereby people like me can give up their car and enjoy cheap,clean,safe and frequent public transport.”

Kevin McNamara (Liberal Democrat): “No easy solution to this and it has challenged Labour, Conservative and now a coalition administration. I firmly believe incentivising public transport is always better than punishing car users. Sugar rather than stick. Ways in which you can do this is make services more regular and try to keep fares as low as possible. As for the future of the Greenford spur – that will help it survive as Crossrail should also effectively replace the underground, so changing at West Ealing is the equivalent of changing at Ealing Broadway. There are a few questions over the future of the Greenford branch line that need answering however: There have been rumours of closure before the launch of Crossrail. Will there be any closure? If so, people finding new routes to work will be to the branch line’s future’s detriment. Will branch line customers be ‘compensated’ for the truncation of the service? We need a cast-iron commitment to any and hopefully multiple of the following items: station refurbishment at Drayton Green, Castle Bar Par and South Greenford; Sunday service; longer trains; 4 trains per hour rather than 2 as they now travel less far. I will be writing to Caroline Pidgeon, Liberal Democrat chair of the London Assembly’s Transport Committee about this. Stronger, better, more affordable public transport will always be thebest way to drive down car ownership.”

Meena Hans (Green): “The Green Party would tackle this problem by improving public transport. We would bring it back under public ownership, decreasing fares and making it more reliable by using the millions that are spent in administering privitisation. Also by re-introducing conductors on buses and more visible staff on stations thereby encouraging use through increasing safety. We would also prioritise the creation of segregated cycle lanes and re-allocate road space to give priority to pedestrians and cyclists, making it safer to walk and cycle. Thus encouraging more of both. As well as this, car clubs would be encouraged, as many people do not need their cars on a daily basis. The Green Party would also ensure that necessary facilities were available locally, reducing the need for individual car ownership by reducing the need to travel further distances for necessities, such as food, in out of town shopping centres.”

David Hofman (TUSC): “As far as the transport issues your raised are concerned, we need, not just in Ealing, but nationally, a thorough overhaul of transport provision. The foundation for a publicly funded, low-pollution public transport system is to bring back into full public ownership all rail, air and bus sectors. There needs to be a major increase in investment, but just as important, full and enforceable consultation with local residents (as part of a regional and national plan) to ensure their needs and wishes are taken into account. Whilst I believe that people have a right to own a car, study after study has shown that people would be happy not to use their cars if cheap, clean, efficient and reliable public transport were to be guaranteed.”

The UKIP candidate was too busy to respond. There was no response at all from the Conservative candidate.

I agree with John Beeston that lower fares would help some choose trains and buses over a car but I feel that it would also take a considerable improvement in their condition to make that happen. I think more effort needs to be made to encourage options such as local car sharing although it seems that it is already happening for longer, less frequent journeys For those who might consider the occasional use of a car rather than owning one there’s a page on Ealing Council’s website about car clubs which gives contact details for the three companies operating in the borough, ZipCar, City Car Club and HertzOnDemand. According to Ealing Council there are, at present, ninety-one bays in the borough (none in Greenford as yet) and that there are plans to introduce more. These are all great ideas but I think there’s so much more to car ownership than its being a practial solution to travel that they won’t help to won’t reduce it.

In the end I believe it will take greater public awareness of the price paid by those vulnerable to respiratory disorders, an emotional response, to encourage people to get rid of their cars. The blame cannot be laid entirely at the door of individual motorists but Greenford is so reliant on logistics that I don’t see how we could make up for the loss of those warehouses in jobs and revenue if they weren’t there. It would at least be a start if more of those who live a walk away from Greenford and Sudbury Hill Stations began to use them or caught a bus rather than getting into their cars. We do need a cheaper, more accessible transport system but we also need to address the impact of emissions on residents, including motorists, and force everyone to recognise the high cost of convenience.

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