MARGARET THATCHER once said that anyone taking a bus after the age of 26 was clearly a failure. In that case, failure is catching and London is in the grip of an epidemic: over the past four years bus usage in the capital has risen by 40 per cent and some nouveaux deadbeats have actually abandoned their previous status symbols, their cars, to slum it.
Perhaps uniquely in the world, says London's high-profile traffic commissioner, Bob Kiley, London is experiencing 'an intermodal shift' in favour of public transport.
The burgeoning of the buses, accompanied by efficient implementation of the congestion charge, may be one reason why Kiley looks so relaxed after four years in what has been called the toughest transport job in the world. Indeed, last December he told mayor Ken Livingstone that he was renewing his contract at Transport for London (TfL), the umbrella organisation that shelters the Underground, buses and strategic roads, 'for an indefinite period'.
Not everyone thought he would. After all, Kiley has long passed the age when he qualified for a free bus pass (he is 69). After a successful career that included rejuvenation of the Boston and New York transportation systems as well as stints in the CIA and private industry, the affable, thoughtful American had little left to prove.
And in London, even with (because of?) the support of the feisty Livingstone, Kiley has not had it all his own way. The pair lost a very public, bloody battle with the Treasury over how the desperately needed renewal of London's crumbling Underground system would be funded. Kiley still thinks the conditions of the infamous public private partnership (PPP), which locks maintenance and renewal of the tube infrastructure into fixed 30-year contracts with the private sector, are 'heinous'. So why should he continue to put himself through it?
Shirt-sleeved and at ease in his airy TfL office above Victoria Street, Kiley laughs: 'Almost from day one I said it would take six to eight years to have enough of the pieces in place to be able to walk away thinking that this work would continue for a long period, say 20 or 30 years, and [that] the whole system would be rejuvenated - all of it.'
That point hasn't been reached - but it's getting closer. One important element was the bringing together of the buses, Tube and other organisations into TfL, an organisational feat in itself given the fate of so many large mergers and reorganisations in the private sector. The Traffic Management Act, which gives TfL powers to control who digs holes in the road and when, is a further piece in the strategic jigsaw.
More importantly, TfL has secured adequate funding. This is not just through the PPP it is now allowed to borrow pounds 3bn or more on its own account depending on its performance.
'There's no question that the government has committed itself to funding PPP indefinitely - whether for the whole 30 years remains to be seen, but renewable every seven-and-a-half years,' says Kiley. That means a spend of pounds 1bn a year under the PPP alone, divided equally between maintenance and renewals.
In short, the job is doable? 'With our resources resolved for the next five years or so, very definitely.' There are still big issues with the contracts, but also a general feeling among the parties that having fought themselves to a standstill, they have to try to make the arrange ment work. The Treasury, whose brainchild the PPP was, is desperate for it to succeed - Gordon Brown, after all, wants to be Prime Minister - and has, Kiley concedes, been 'extremely helpful'.
This, of course, gives Kiley and Livingstone political leverage to compensate for lack of control over the contracts, and they too would rather be remembered for an Underground that works long after the details of the PPP have been forgotten. 'I've always reluctantly conceded that, if you give it long enough, any contract can be made to work better,' Kiley says. Some people think that after the election and a few changes of personnel, a quiet renegotiation of the contracts in the light of experience would be in everyone's interests - including those of the contractors' shareholders, some of whom are becoming restive.
TfL's end of the bargain is now to deliver on the projects it is funding and building itself, notably the East London line extension which should be under construction by the end of the year. 'We take that very seriously,' says Kiley. 'We want to make the budget, we want to do it in time, with the minimum of fuss, in a way that makes people appreciate it's a great project.'
A lot is riding on these projects, which also include the Thames Gateway bridge and extending the Docklands Light Railway. If TfL brings them in on time and under budget, as it did with the congestion charge, it will not only reinforce its claim for further powers - for instance over the overland commuter rail network - but prove that old-fashioned public procurement was the right way to rebuild the infrastructure all along.
London School of Economics transport expert Tony Travers, a fierce opponent of the PPP, believes this is likely: 'It will almost certainly be financed, built and opened while the PPP is still wallowing in treacle.' He is more nuanced about TfL's achievements as a whole. He concedes that the congestion charge and buses have been an extraordinary piece of public policy and that uniting the transport modes under TfL is a gain in transparency. But the buses are now seriously in the red and some charge that TfL on its own has inflated the going rate for public-agency salaries. But even allowing for the baleful influence of the PPP, the real doubts centre on the Tube: 'Has quality improved perceptibly since takeover in 2003? The answer has to be no.'
Kiley's indirect answer is to point to New York and Boston. On the whole, London and the two US cities are very similar. But there is one big difference: New York and Boston have been working on physically improving their systems for 20 and 30 years, respectively. London, on the other hand, has just the Jubilee and Victoria Lines to its credit over the past 60 years.
Kiley is well aware that for TfL over the next few years building human capital will be as important as the infrastructure. It's the last big piece of the jigsaw - 'the mode we have to get into for the next 30 years'.
He won't be around that long, of course, but he has another good reason for sticking around to make TfL work. He likes London. He enjoys his relationship with the mayor, and vice-versa, despite their political differences (Livingstone reportedly began the job interview by saying he never thought he'd be recruiting an ex-CIA agent Kiley retorted that he didn't expect to be sitting in the office of an unreconstructed Trot). 'It's been a delight. I really like London - it's getting a bit easier to move around in, too.'
Name Robert R Kiley
Born 16 September 1935
Career Although 'never a spook', joined the CIA after Harvard Graduate School, ending up executive assistant to director Richard Helms. Deputy mayor of Boston and chairman of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in the 1970s. Chairman of New York's MTA in the 1980s. In 1990s principal of private equity investment house CEO of New York City Partnership. Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, American Repertory Theater, Princeton Review
Family Married to Rona, two sons
Leisure Jogging, reading, galleries, museums
What they say
'He definitely plays like a political animal. We're not used to that. It's curious, a top guy telling everyone that a partnership isn't going to work. It hardly provokes the spirit the PPP is supposed to have'
'He sets very high standards. But don't bullshit him - it's lethal' Colleague
'When I was elected mayor, I decided to appoint the best transport expert in the world. All my experience working with Bob Kiley has confirmed that judgment. Personally, we hit it off from the start - it has been a real pleasure working with him' Ken Livingstone
The Observer, 8 May 2005