Mahmood Siddiqi has spent nearly four decades in highways and transport, the last 12 years as a director of transport and highways in two London boroughs. Recently appointed a CIHT technical champion, he reminisces and discusses the challenges for sustainable transport in the future
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Mahmood Siddiqi’s graduation in the mid-1980s coincided with the construction of some major projects such as the Thames Barrier, London Orbital motorway, the Dartford crossing and the Channel Tunnel.
“The then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, had just disbanded the Greater London Council (GLC), which meant that overnight, many London boroughs inherited multimillion-pound roadbuilding projects,” he recalls. “I was fortunate to join Wandsworth Council and work on a major road-widening project at the start of my career, before moving on to Westminster City Council and Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.”
His introduction to the world of work also allowed him the opportunity to get involved with industry institutions, which provided further learning opportunities. “While I joined both the ICE and CIHT, the CIHT was certainly the more relevant, in the context of my career path,” he says. “I was a member of the CIHT Greater London branch committee, which was an excellent forum for professionals and junior staff, from the private and public sector, to compare notes.”
The redevelopment of Oxford Street and Kensington High Street are just two projects in the capital that Siddiqi was involved with, but it’s another that he holds in the highest regard.
“Exhibition Road is a real feather in the cap, because it essentially redefined how we look at creating public spaces and tipped the balance away from motor vehicles towards walking and cycling,” he reasons. “It was essentially a dual carriageway with kerbside parking and barely a pavement strip of two metres on either side, but it catered to over 12m people visiting the museums and other institutions in the area each year.
“Urban designers have compared it to schemes on the continent, where introducing a degree of ambiguity actually forces drivers to give way to other road users,” continues Siddiqi. “Many of the concepts first introduced on Exhibition Road were later incorporated in CIHT’s Manual for Streets, which, in turn, has enabled local authorities to cater for pedestrians and cyclists.”
But the proudest achievement for Siddiqi was to persuade the Department for Transport to allow a ‘cyclist exemption’ sign to be placed under a ‘no entry’ sign. “You were allowed to place a sign under the standard ‘no entry’ sign (616 in the TSRGD, Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions) exempting buses, but not cyclists,” he recalls. “DfT argued that there was already a sign 619 for this, but the flying motorbike sign doesn’t really give the right message to cyclists. DfT finally agreed and it is now being widely used across the UK, opening up low-traffic routes for cyclists.”
The 1960s government white paper, Traffic in Towns by town planner Colin Buchanan is cited by Siddiqi as a text that many transport professional talk about, but those days of intensive road building and concentrating on drivers, particularly in urban areas, are long gone, he believes.
“By the 1990s we realised that approach was not sustainable,” he recalls. “A government advisory committee concluded that building more roads paradoxically led to more traffic and more congestion. We then relied on computer applications to optimise traffic signal timings and synchronise them across the road network, but we were essentially still catering for vehicular traffic. We all recognised that in the hierarchy of transport modes, walking and cycling are at the top followed by public transport with private car journeys at the bottom. But there was little being done to achieve this desired modal shift.”
At the dawn of the new millennium, this situation had moved on again. “In London we saw the congestion charging scheme where the revenue from the toll was used to subsidise public transport. As a result, London boasts one of the best public transport systems in the world,” he says. “We also finally started to see improvements for walking and cycling. Until then, creating an attractive public space with maybe a few flower beds and benches was considered to almost be a vanity project, but now we were recognising the importance of these elements if we wanted to encourage people to walk or cycle.”
As for the future, Siddiqi thinks that the general public recognises that private car journeys made in petrol/diesel cars are not sustainable and that the evidence linking them to climate change and air quality is now indisputable.
“The challenge for us, as transport professionals, is to come up with viable alternatives. Cycle routes that are introduced as token gestures won’t do, and the cost of public transport has to be cheaper than using one’s car.”
Siddiqi’s new role of technical champion isn’t one he takes lightly. “The sphere of influence of transport professionals is growing rapidly,” he says. “We are now expected to devise policies to influence the choice of vehicles people buy, policies to improve air quality and arrest climate change. This can only be done if we are honest with the data we present and what we can achieve. We must avoid setting overambitious targets just to win over public support or acquire funding, because we will quickly lose support.”
While transport planning is considered to be a science, Siddiqi maintains it still requires a human touch to “win the hearts and minds of the general public”. “Most people understand the link between traffic and air quality and climate change but how do we encourage them to make better decisions on how they make journeys? I’d like professional organisations such as CIHT to be the first call from the media when reporting on important topics such as electric cars. Currently it is the campaign groups that tend to be heard first, but we understand both sides of the story and have plenty to say. I would be happy to be the CIHT’s face of sustainable transport policies, as well as a technical champion.”
Since 2010, much of Siddiqi’s time has been spent working for two neighbouring London authorities – Kensington and Chelsea, and Hammersmith and Fulham. “The authorities couldn’t be more different, not only politically but also in their transport policies,” he maintains. “Yet their end goals were aligned – they both wanted safer roads and to primarily cater for their residents (who voted them in). In addition, they wanted to make provision for cyclists and embrace electric vehicles.”
Communication is vital, regardless of how difficult it might be, to overcome problems. says Siddiqi. “We should be talking to our opposite numbers at local authorities much more and learning from each other’s experiences. I know, in some cases, we keep our cards close to our chest – particularly in topics such as parking parking enforcement, because we don't necessarily want to publicise initiatives that have not delivered. But through not doing that, we are constantly reinventing the wheel. That’s something we need to overcome and we need to create areas where people can feel that they can talk to each other and share that best practice.” Interestingly this is less of an issue at the junior level of our industry. I have recently become head of training at PTRC and am delighted to see the level of open discussion amongst students at our series of lectures.”
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