While many of us have stayed much closer to home throughout the pandemic, having reliable and accessible transport options remains a central issue for many voters. It’s the lifeline that unlocks job opportunities, helps us access education and connects us to family and friends. As we look to recovery, more of us will be moving around the city every week. But what is within the Mayor’s power to deliver?
Transport is a key issue that could influence how Londoners vote in May. It’s not surprising given the amount of time we usually spend travelling across the city. It isn’t just efficiency that makes transport a political issue – it is also about the cost of transport, how accessible it is and what is being done to tackle the pollution it generates.
Unlike many other policy areas, the Mayor of London actually has a great deal of control over transport planning and operations – so voters can get a pretty clear idea of what they are voting for.
Current powers and responsibilities
As the Chair of Transport for London (TfL), the Mayor has responsibility over public transport in London. This extensive remit includes the London Underground, Docklands Light Railway (DLR), TfL Rail, the Overground, buses, trams, riverboat services and the Emirates Air Line, as well as licensing black taxis and private hire drivers in London. In contrast to other UK cities, bus services in London are regulated. This means that the Mayor can control fares, routes, service frequency and can also set minimum performance standards. In fact, the government launched a new National Bus Strategy earlier this month to give councils outside London more regulatory powers.
The Mayor is also responsible for the TfL road network which makes up just four per cent of the total road length but carries 30 per cent of all traffic in the capital. The rest of the capital’s roads are managed by the boroughs, but there is shared responsibility for walking and cycling promotion such as cycle lanes, as seen in the roll out of TfL’s Streetspace plan.
One of the Mayor’s statutory documents is the Transport Strategy. This important document sets out the policies and proposals that will shape transport in London over the next 25 years, including plans for infrastructure investment and how they will be funded and delivered. The strategy is developed in detailed consultation with TfL and reviewed by the London Assembly. The current strategy lays out a vision of a greener, healthier and safer London and sets an objective to shift away from private vehicles in favour of public transport, walking and cycling.
Raising money to pay for improvements
To help fund transport infrastructure, the Mayor can levy a Business Rates Supplement on businesses and a Mayoral Community Infrastructure Levy on developers. A mixture of these sources was used to part-fund Crossrail (now known as the Elizabeth line). The Mayor also has the power to impose road user charges (such as the Congestion Charge, the Ultra Low Emission Zone or similar pollution charges, as well as a Workplace Parking Levy), but these can only be used to help manage demand on the roads and not to raise revenue.
Additional transport powers for the mayor?
While the above is an extensive list, there are gaps in the Mayor’s current set of powers. For example, the current Mayor has implemented a “fares freeze” but only has the power to freeze single TfL fares. Throughout the pandemic, concessions for older and young people have been debated during TfL funding talks. But travelcards and associated price caps – which can be used on non-TfL rail services too – are set in agreement with the train operating companies under regulations set by central government, so they have continued rising in line with inflation.
Another gap in the Mayor’s current powers is responsibility for London rail services, something the current Mayor has hoped would change. Before they were handed to TfL, the Overground and TfL Rail both used to be suburban rail services run by National Rail train operators. Since then, more people are using the Overground, services are more frequent, higher‐capacity trains have been introduced and station facilities improved. As Mayor, both Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan have called on the government to give responsibility for further rail services in south and southeast London to TfL. Centre for London’s own research found that turning south London’s railway network orange could potentially deliver the full 100 per cent increase in capacity required by 2050.
Successive Mayors have also raised concerns about the use of Private Hire Vehicles (PHVs) in London. User friendly, low-cost digital services allow people to use PHVs for journeys that they would have previously walked or taken the bus for. These additional trips on the roads contribute to higher levels of congestion. While the Mayor issues licences to private hire vehicles and drivers, it cannot refuse a licence if they are compliant with the conditions. As a result, over a third of all licenced vehicles are licenced in London.
Voter winning ideas and post-election priorities
Previous mayoral elections have seen candidates making promises to reform and improve London’s transport system, each designed to woo a specific voter demographic.
In 2012, Boris Johnson promised car-owners in outer London that he would never introduce a London-wide Congestion Charge. In 2016, Sadiq Khan appealed to lower-income Londoners in inner London with ‘The Hopper’ – a one-hour bus ticket allowing unlimited changes within an hour which makes bus travel more affordable and accessible. But alongside campaigning for their own eye-catching initiatives, the mayoral candidates will also need to consider some significant challenges, from the future of TfL funding, to managing new vehicles on our streets and continuing to encourage active travel.
Since the start of the pandemic, TfL’s finances have been struck a cataclysmic blow, with people advised against using the public transport network for all but essential travel. Ridership plummeted during the first lockdown and has fluctuated ever since. With Londoners advised against leaving their local area, many working from home, and global tourism heavily restricted, passengers numbers won’t recover for some time.
But even before the crisis TfL’s revenue base needed attention. The London Underground and bus network were experiencing a long-term trend of declining passenger numbers and as a result, TfL’s income was taking a hit. Since March 2018, TfL has also been one of the only transport authorities in the world to not receive a direct grant from the government to cover day-to-day running costs. It is extraordinarily reliant on fares income to fund operations and investment, which had led to planned station and signalling upgrades being postponed.
The current emergency financing agreement with government is in place until the end of this month but the Mayor will play a vital role in forging a sustainable plan for the future. We’ve argued that the next Mayor needs to take more fundamental review of the fares structure as a way to improve affordability for struggling Londoners. Any discussions on how to address the funding challenges should also redress the balance between the relevant contributions from public transport and road users.
Originally due to open in December 2018, Crossrail, or the Elizabeth line (as it will eventually be known) is now scheduled to begin operation in the first half of 2022. The next Mayor will need to keep a close eye to ensure that construction, rolling stock delivery, signal and safety testing and operational processes all progress as smoothly as possible to avoid further cost escalation and fare revenue losses.
Air pollution has also been high on the political agenda for this mayoral term and the Ultra Low Emission Zone was one of the ways the current and previous mayor sought to address the issue. Since starting in April 2019, the ULEZ has managed to reduce harmful nitrogen dioxide concentrations within the zone by 36 per cent, and a similar reduction in the number of non-compliant vehicles. With an extension to the North and South Circular roads planned for October 2021, it will capture a much bigger area and affect many more drivers. The key question is whether a new Mayor would proceed with the extension as planned and, if not, how will international limits on air pollutants be met. Whether to move towards a more sophisticated system of charging for congestion and pollution would be an important question to consider. With transport a significant contributor to carbon emissions too, how the next mayor will tackle the climate emergency is bound to be a key battleground in the election campaign.
Managing new mobility services
Finally, the Mayor will need to think about how to accommodate Londoners changing travel habits and the introduction of new forms of micro mobility. Since the start of the pandemic, online shopping and parcel delivery has skyrocketed, and this has lead to over 15,000 more cars and vans in London’s neighbourhoods. Londoners are also using new forms of personal mobility to get around – personal e-scooters and e-bikes have proved popular, though the former currently still illegal on public roads. Shared e-scooter trials are set to be announced in the capital later this month and are already underway elsewhere in the UK. The next Mayor will have to manage these changes in a smart and sustainable way, ensuring that London’s modal shift objective remains within sight.