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Trains, buses and automobiles

Londoners have a tempestuous relationship with transport, and Ken Livingstone will be an outlet for their anger or gratitude come May 1. Whatever you think of your daily experience of getting from A to B in the capital, you can pin much of it on Ken. Such is the London mayor’s power over transport networks in the capital; the electorate’s opinion on management of the capital’s tube, bus and road networks will play a pivotal role in the result.

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The mayor controls vast swathes of London’s transport operations through Transport for London (TfL), an annual expenditure of nearly £5bn. Livingstone’s opponents will argue that he has spent the money inefficiently on headline-grabbing but wasteful schemes such as the recently launched low emission zone. They will soon discover that some budget has been invested in a statistics team at TfL, which will churn out reams of achievements under Livingstone’s tenure.

Here are a few excerpts from his campaign literature: buses now play a much bigger role in Londoners’ daily lives, carrying six million passengers per day on more than 700 routes; one billion journeys were made on the tube network last year despite the collapse of the private company charged with upgrading much of the network; the congestion charge has reduced the number of cars in central London by 70,000 per day; spending on cycling has climbed nearly sevenfold from £5.5m eight years ago to £36m per year, and the shabby Silverlink rail route was reclaimed and reborn as the shiny new overground network.

“Overall, he has done well,” says Brian Cooke, chairman of London TravelWatch. “He recognized where the money needed to be spent.” The congestion charge is a divisive policy, with its critics pointing to the fact that congestion is now almost as bad as it was before the scheme was introduced. Its defenders say traffic would be even worse without it, adding that it displayed the innovative vision that London needs to surmount its infrastructure problems. “No matter how much people dislike Ken, they cannot deny that it was a brave decision and well-executed,” said Tony Travers of the London School of Economics. “The brand leader image it has brought to London is significant.”

Livingstone has also transformed his reputation within government circles as a maverick who cannot be trusted with the levers of power and a sizeable war chest. Gordon Brown may retain concerns about his undisciplined streak, but as prime minister and previously chancellor of the exchequer, he has handed over massive sums to the mayor. Livingstone has displayed a sure touch during the collapse of the Public-Private Partnership to upgrade three-quarters of the tube network, refusing to gloat over one of Brown’s biggest policy errors and quietly securing the renationalization of the upgrade program in the process. In fact, any Londoner angered over the state of the tube network might want to register their protest vote at the general election because Gordon Brown isn’t standing for mayor on May 1.

The £16bn Crossrail agreement – which included a £5.6bn contribution from central government – plus the decision to give TfL co-sponsorship of the project, underlined the credibility Livingstone has established with the government. The mayor’s detractors will argue, no doubt convincingly in some areas, that he has spent money badly – citing the outdated technology used in the congestion charge scheme or the £120m investment in a low emission zone whose merits are open to question. But he prised the money from the government nonetheless.

According to the latest TfL accounts, its operational expenditure was £4.6bn last year – supplemented by a government grant of £2.3bn. Without that subsidy, TfL would face a substantial deficit. Its bus operation runs at a loss of more than £600m, and the gap between fares and expenditure on the Underground is £550m. However, voters need not worry about Boris blundering into a funding cut if he wins. TfL recently secured a £39bn funding package from the Department for Transport over the next ten years, plus a £2bn payment to bail TfL out of the mess created by the collapse of Metronet, the tube contractor. So the issue is not whether the Tories or Lib Dems can get the money, but whether they can spend it betters.

You just have to ask whether the substantial increase in public subsidy has produced pound-for-pound benefits, says Tony Travers. The value for money question is a serious one, and Ken Livingstone is a politician who always argued for old-fashioned high public spending.

The Conservatives will almost certainly target the bus network. Still, the London assembly report on whether it represented value for money – chaired by a Tory – said it represented cash well spent. Lib Dem assembly members have raised concerns about TfL’s cost base – the exorbitant consultation fees for former transport commissioner Bob Kiley are one example of questionable expenditure – and Livingstone’s opponents will find room somewhere for cost savings that can be reinvested in their own ambitious projects.

Livingstone has done the hard work of wringing the cash out of the Treasury and vindicated the Labour government’s decision to unify a city’s transport policy and operations under one political office – something Manchester could do with. But Londoners probably won’t vote him back in for that. He does not have a monopoly on innovation or transport expertise – the oil deal with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez was eccentric more than visionary – and one of his biggest achievements is giving his opponents plenty of cash to come up with something better.

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