Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Boris: Engineer Blaming?

i may be over sensitive, but london mayor boris johnson has made some comments about a lack of UK cycling infrastructure design skills which I find a bit insulting. But perhaps it might be a good point clumsily made?

The comments were reported by on the TransportXtra website as follows;

"I think cyclists and I agree on almost everything we need to make the roads safer. The only difference between us is timing. I would love to see change overnight. The reason why it will take a little longer is not lack of money, or lack of will - but lack of capacity.”

"There just aren't enough people in Britain who can design good cycle routes - and we are hiring most of them. We also have to agree changes with the boroughs. As I promised, we will do things properly - not repeat the mistakes of the past."

I am not here to bash Johnson (plenty of others can do that), but I cannot agree with his suggestion that we don't have enough people who can design good cycle routes, but I will return to the point later.

He makes three key comments;

(i) Lack of capacity,

(ii) TfL hiring those (by inference) who can design good cycle routes,

(iii) Having to agree changes with the boroughs.

I have been in the civil engineering game for over 18 years since getting my degree and there has always been talk of a "skills shortage" in the industry, but things seemed to have carried on. I started "proper" work in 1995 which was at the tail-end of a recession where many professional engineers and technical people in construction and civil engineering were out of work. Pay was poor, hours were long and it was an employer's market.

Things improved and by 2000, life was pretty good for a few years (local authority pay even caught up with the private sector!) until the economy went wrong in 2008 and savage cuts were made in public spending in 2010. Yet again, professional and technical people were on the scrap heap as public and private sector alike ditched the qualified and experienced, but expensive staff. 

The skills shortages and therefore lack of capacity are as a result of boom and bust. With each wave of people losing their jobs, retiring or moving on, their knowledge and experience went with them and those left have to spend proportionally more time playing catch up. TfL was not immune and since Johnson became Mayor, an awful lot of technical staff have got the boot from TfL.

Consultants have suffered too, especially where government work was concerned. Excellent people got laid off and the quality of service from consultants suffered. The trouble was, that many local authorities had run down their in-house technical departments and consultants were relied on. A perfect storm for not being able to get things done.

So, with less technical people around, TfL is now looking to take staff on to deliver the Mayor's Cycling Vision and so he will suck people in from the boroughs and in some cases, their consultants, many of whom have pretty slim levels of staffing as it is.

Johnson recognises the need to properly engage with the boroughs, but if TfL has got their staff, how is that going to work and who will be left who can actually deliver on non-TfL roads? Perhaps as with the extension to Cycle Superhighway 2 to Stratford (on Newham's roads), TfL will do the design for the boroughs and construct the schemes using TfL's LoHAC contracts

Those left at the boroughs will just spend their time being a liaison between TfL and local politicians and so technical skills will further erode or be dispensed with altogether. The LoHAC approach is being pushed hard by TfL and there are some merits with certain kinds of work (mainly large schemes), but a great deal of the Vision will surely rely on small, local interventions which the LoHAC consortiums will not be interested in.

Back to the original point. Good engineers are adaptable and resourceful people. Their job is to solve problems, but this skill needs to be constantly developed. An expert in cycling infrastructure 5 years ago is not going to be properly competent unless he or she has kept up with new developments. Good engineers want to develop and need to be trained; so if the Mayor and indeed the boroughs want to increase capacity, they need to invest in their staff so that they can adapt their skills to the new infrastructure challenges ahead.

Building capacity takes time and keeping capacity takes hard work and needs stability to be successful. The last few years have not been stable and that is why we have lost so many staff. The Mayor is being pushed hard to deliver, which is good and he is right to raise the capacity issue. However, he needs to offer leadership. 

In parallel to what he wants to do infrastructure-wise, he needs to really support the boroughs in terms of making the case for employing professionally-qualified technical staff and creating a pan-London training programme based on the forthcoming London Cycling Design Standards to ensure consistency across the Capital. He needs to ensure that this is an ongoing programme with different levels of training from the introductory to the refresher. 

Additionally, TfL needs to back off pushing LoHAC so much and recognise that boroughs may wish to do things their own way. The Mayor needs to be coming out to the boroughs and really selling his vision to senior officers and councillors so that local leadership can take root. I am still waiting for a local councillor to invite me to cycle with them to look at an issue!

So, in answer to Johnson's point; there are plenty of engineers out there who can design good cycle routes, it is just that many of them have lost their jobs, don't have access to decent training programmes, don't have senior officer or councillor support, are not paid very well, are overworked and frankly, feel very undervalued.


  1. First, let me say that Boris Johnson is simply proof that, behind those sullen faces on the Tube, Londoners do have a sense of humour (you realise he goes 'round the World saying he represents you lot, don't you?).

    Secondly, I think what you can accuse engineers (as a group) of, is a certain conservatism, with a small 'c'. There is a fondness for standards or guidance which in some departments can verge on the pathological, and descend into the "if it's not in the standards we can't do it" mind set.

    A recent example of that conservatism may be the testing of the 'new' options for cyclists at TRL. These are after all long-standing features of Dutch/European roads (particularly the cycle signals). But even then, the (two?) ways in which they are being tested seem to me to show a limited vision and imagination.


    1. Boris polled 44% of a 38% turnout in 2012; just over a million votes after transfers.

      London has a population of 8.2 million (OK, it includes under 18s!), so hardly a ringing endorsement for him or the other candidates for that matter given election apathy!

      Yes, engineers do want standards and guidance which may be the conservative approach, but we also want some consistency and indeed some leadership.

      But, politicians are not radical people on the whole. Despite his "Vision" not much has happened Boris, but I think the oil tanker has started to shift.

      The TRL trials may have been relatively narrow, but they will open up a whole area of flexibility and the genie will be out of the bottle; we will need decent guidance to make sure we have consistency though.

  2. Like many other people who try to defend an indefensible position, they will try to pin the blame on others. He's blamed the victims now he's blaming the engineers. Santa will be next on the list.