I woke to a deep cranial judder, while jewellery boxes buzzed on the adjacent shelf, the entire house having converted into a giant massage chair. My eyes slit open to track the deep, wall-to-wall ceiling crack springing new tributaries. “Thames Water?” I croaked.
“Virgin Media,” my husband corrected.
“More mouse migration,” I groused over the coffee grinder. The last roadworks excavation only a few weeks ago drove a host of our adorable furry friends to seek sanctuary in our kitchen, as if their housing benefit had just been capped. “And Thames Water is right around the corner. If they could only coordinate — !”
“Don’t start,” my husband cut me off. “No tirades before coffee.”
OK. But now I’ve had coffee.
This month, Transport for London finally pilots a “lane rental” scheme, charging utility and broadband companies up to £2,500 per day for obstructing major thoroughfares at peak traffic times. Lane rental is one of Boris Johnson’s better ideas, an attempt to rectify the lunatic state of affairs whereby 100 different companies have been given carte blanche to dig up any of London’s roads whenever and for however long they like, causing 38 per cent of the city’s traffic delays.
Great start. But as currently conceived, the lane rental scheme doesn’t go nearly far enough. Sure, charge more for rush-hour roadworks, but not nothing for off-peak-just as off-peak train tickets are cheaper, but not free. Under the regime as planned, frequently abandoned roadworks can still drag on indefinitely on side streets, and frugal utilities are bound to drag their weapons of mass destruction on to the pavements.
For TfL is not charging the archaeologically inclined anything for obstructing pavements, increasing the likelihood that these companies will transfer as much of the imposition as they can from motorists to pedestrians. Few roadworks configure a substitute pedestrian path, most merely announcing in rude red-and-white that the pavement is “closed” — meaning that we lowly bipeds are supposed to 1) nobly throw ourselves into traffic to reduce population growth; 2) spontaneously combust; 3) rent a private helicopter.
Though a laudable initial effort, the lane rental trial also fails to initiate any coordination between multiple companies who plan to turn the exact same segment of roadway into the site of a 200lb suicide bombing within weeks or even days of each other. I’ve sometimes thought London should stage a contest for Most Dug-Up Intersection Ever — perhaps awarding a memorial plaque (which would promptly get dug up). Why can’t workmen from different companies muck about in the same hole?
Furthermore, utilities should be forced to confer with local councils, especially when planning routine, non-emergency upgrades. Repeatedly, a costly, publicly financed refurbishment — with freshly laid tarmac, fancy replacement paving stones, elaborate traffic-calming measures, newly planted trees — is no sooner completed than along comes EDF Energy. Poom-poom-poom-poom-poom! So much for that “improvement”.
My road is a case in point — on which Southwark Council just finished an expensive length of new paving stones, flash limestone curbs, and slick, separated bike lanes. Recall, who did I say was advancing down my street with all the inexorability of death and taxes? Thames Water. Any day now the entire renovation will be reduced to a mound of rubble. Why couldn’t Thames Water have replaced its famously “Victorian” water mains before the council spent a fortune spiffing up the street?
Lastly, TfL needs to force companies to leave public property the way they found it. Routinely, attractive, neatly laid grey paving stones are hacked to pieces for another shortcut to China, and then replaced with an ugly, uneven splodge of lumpy tarmacadam. It’s like repairing a footpath with Blu Tack, and amounts to legalised vandalism.
Particularly post-2000, this erstwhile beautiful city has looked like Mogadishu. Yeah, yeah, London is one of the world’s great metropolises — but only if you can see beneath the blaring orange traffic cones, garish green plastic barriers, threatening red signage, piles of bright blue pipe, and hulking yellow earth movers, their muddy teeth snarling like pitbulls on steroids. Eventually we should improve on this medieval technology that accesses vital infrastructure by destroying vital infrastructure, since having to hack up the roads to get at sewer pipes is moronic. But before that happy day, let’s at least make indolent, often high-handed companies pay for tearing up public property and for bringing this fine city to a standstill — not just during rush hours on key arteries, but all day, anywhere.