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London’s transport needs a radical rethink

Our travel habits and patterns could change dramatically when the COVID-19 lockdown is lifted. To deal with these changes, Rob Whitehead argues that London’s transport system will need a radical rethink.

Extraordinary times call for unprecedented measures. Londonersapart from our keyworkers, are locked down. We have shut down all but the most vital arteries of London’s physical economy. 

The second order effects of these measures are starting to be revealed. London’s transport system: crazy, complex, but comprehensive and much envied, risks imploding under the weight of staying open for the heroic few, as its income almost vanishes.   

Last week Transport for London (TfL) sources declared it ‘will run out of cash by the end of the month’. If true, this is startling. To mitigate this, it is placing one-third of its staff on furlough. TfL has an annual budget in the order of £10 billion. But since March 2018, TfL is one of the only transport authorities in the world not to receive a direct grant from government to cover the day-to-day running costs of the services. With more than two-thirds of its income from fares, and with passenger numbers down around 95 per cent on the Tube and 85 per cent on buses, you can see why they’re in trouble.

At the same time, London’s boroughs, who manage most of the capital’s roads and run many, often unsung, transport services, are seeing a chasm open in their accounts as parking income disappears. Yes, some costs will fall, but still one west London borough projects at least a £7 million shortfall this yearOverall, this looks to be ‘orders of magnitude worse’ than the financial squeeze of the austerity years according to one leading local transport figure. Yes, the government has already stepped in with some financial support, but more will be needed. 

Transport authorities are also grappling with immediate pressures to manage social distancing on their pavements, roads, and parks. The pressure is building to emulate cities around the world that are adopting ‘tactical urbanism’ approaches to expand pavements into parking areas, set up temporary bike lanes, and even close some roads to cars entirely. 

As if these two immediate pressures weren’t enough, there is third, and even more thorny challenge.  

Many previously rock solid assumptions about our transport future, and our individual preferences that underpin these, are being shattered. Before the virus hit, three in five (61 per cent) Londoners used the bus at least once a week, and half used the Tube (including Overground) with the same frequency. This could change dramatically when the lockdown is lifted. With personal safety in mind, we are likely to err on the side of private, not public, transport.

Modal share pre-coronavirus lockdown 

Unmanaged, this could lead to a huge reversal in the progress made over recent decades to persuade Londoners out of their cars. Before the crisis, private cars were used for around a third of journeys. Even small shifts back towards car use will be devasting in the battle against congestion, poor air and climate catastrophe. 

This uncertainty makes the transport planner’s job a nightmare. How can we revive the economy from its induced coma but steer ourselves away from private choices that will, at scale, be hugely deleterious to the city and the world we live in? 

It is not all gloom.

Some cities, like Paris, are nimbly embracing temporary changes to streets that allow more space for walking and cycling. There are signs that parts of London will follow. London’s Mayor is weighing up pushing ahead with measures to make public transport safer, like compulsory facemasks. Though whether these will encourage or discourage us to board a bus or tube is unclear.  Elsewhere, some councils have already put on ice emissions-related parking reforms, concerned to avoid penalising already fragile businesses and residents. This is a worry. 

Transport is the only sector in the UK where recent greenhouse gas emissions have gone up, not down. If we are serious about tackling climate change, London’s terrible air pollution, and congestion we should resist the urge to scrap or postpone moves to penalise or phase out the most carbon emitting vehicles. Rather we should be accelerating measures to encourage electric vehicles, from lorries down to emergent micro-vehicles like e-scooters and e-bikes. Electric charging infrastructure must be pushed hard as part of a stimulus package as we re-invent our businesses, our streetscapes, and even how we manage our city. And we should use the best of our imagination to pick back up the baton of promoting active travel, in all its forms, and our use of our amazing public transport network.  

All this must be made possible with urgent funding from Whitehall for TfL and borough’s hard-hit transport budgets, alongside a radical rethink of how transport is funded in the capital.

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Rob Whitehead is Director of Strategic Projects at Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter