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Pause for thought: Rethinking city transport

It may seem a little odd to be feeling optimistic about the future of public transport and city streets at a time when England has re-entered a period of ‘lockdown’, with its citizens encouraged to avoid both transport and streets wherever possible.

But listening to two world-leading experts from two of the world’s biggest global cities discuss the opportunities, as well as the challenges, presented by the current pandemic has left me feeling quite upbeat about the future. Alongside the horror of the virus itself, lies an opportunity to reset, rethink, improve. Perhaps this won’t be the end of the city as we know if after all.

None of this is to downplay the impact of coronavirus. It goes without saying that the virus and its consequences are unshakably horrific. In terms of its impact on public transport, the drop in ridership in many cities has been huge, and the economic consequences overwhelmingly negative. For systems such as Transport for London (TfL), which relies more (but not quite exclusively) on income from the fare box to cover its operating costs than many comparable global cities, this has the potential to be catastrophic.

Andy Byford, former ‘Train Daddy’ of NYC and now the TfL Commissioner tasked with steering the capital’s public transport network through what is arguably the most difficult phase of its history, made a powerful case for finding a more sustainable funding model that recognises the ‘social benefit’ of public transport. There is clearly a real need to put the future on a more even keel, to avoid London’s vital network bouncing from crisis to crisis, with energy and time consumed by negotiating with central government rather than planning for the future.

The recent ‘Halloween Agreement’ between London-wide and central government to keep TfL afloat (at least for the next six months) is to be welcomed. And many Londoners will have breathed a sigh of relief at the news that the congestion charge is not suddenly going to be extended all the way out to the North and South Circular roads. However, given that this sigh will likely involve breathing some quite polluted air, perhaps we should also be using this period of relatively quiet streets, trains and buses to build a system that encourages more active travel?

There is a great amount of work to be done, but also a great opportunity to do it. Janette Sadik-Khan spoke passionately about the importance of city streets – from providing opportunities for active travel through walking and cycling, to dining and democracy. Whilst some of the changes to London streets during the pandemic have been met with loud controversy (Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in particular), many have proved quietly successful. Cycling is still responsible for a relatively small share of all journeys, but Andy Byford wants to increase this from two to 20 per cent of all journeys over the next 20 years. Janette Sadik-Khan quoted Byford, saying ‘Pick a crisis and you’ll probably find that cycling is the solution’, and claimed that her personal experience undermined the idea that white, middle-class men in lycra dominated cycle lanes. Even if this was the case, it said more about the current design of our streets than suggesting that there is something inherently male about cycling itself: ‘Women are the indicator species of the health of a street… their absence from a street is really telling you something important’.

Whether we agree that cycling is the answer or not, what better opportunity could there be to rethink our capital’s future transport landscape than this second lockdown? Other sessions at London Conference have underlined the idea that the ‘death of the city’ seems far from likely. What seems more likely is a significant reshaping. In this pause lies an opportunity, perhaps a one-off, to consider the future shape of London. Two things are particularly apparent: London’s transport offering needs to be greener and better facilitate active travel; and TfL needs to be put on stable financial footing. Perhaps a form of more progressive, fairer road user charging could help address both issues?

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Jack Brown is Research Manager at Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter.