Having reliable and accessible transport remains a central issue for many London voters. Spending close to 50 minutes commuting every day, many Londoners will be focused on the candidates’ transport promises. But what is within the mayor’s power to deliver?
When it comes to electing the next Mayor of London in May, transport is one of the top issues that could influence how Londoners vote. This is not surprising, given the amount of time Londoners spend travelling. 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, TfL Rail, 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. 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.
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 he only has the power to freeze single TfL fares. 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. Sadiq Khan asked the government to match his fare freeze, but to no avail.
Another ask that had been falling on deaf ears for a long time is on rail devolution. The Overground and TfL Rail both used to be suburban rail services run by National Rail train operators until they were handed over to TfL. Since then, the Overground has achieved greater ridership with increased frequencies, higher‐capacity trains and improved station facilities. Both Boris Johnson (when he was Mayor of London) and Sadiq Khan 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 into the overground could potentially deliver the full 100 per cent increase in capacity required by 2050. The forthcoming Williams Rail Review – backed by Boris’ government – may be an opportunity for this call to finally receive some attention.
Successive mayors have also raised concerns about the growing number of Private Hire Vehicles. The abundance of easy, low-cost digital services are allowing people to jump in a cab for journeys that they would have previously walked or taken the bus for. These additional trips on the roads contribute to both congestion levels and pollution. While TfL (and by default, the mayor) issues licences to private hire vehicles and drivers, it cannot refuse a licence if they are fully compliant with the conditions (although it can limit the number of black taxis it licences). Both Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan sought powers to cap the number of licences but the government has refused, as it may result in higher prices and longer waiting times for passengers.
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, which the next Mayor of London will need to grapple with in 2020.
Overseeing the completion of Crossrail will be top of the next Mayor’s list. Originally due to open in December 2018, the Elizabeth line (as it will eventually be known) is now scheduled to begin operation in the second half of 2021. 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.
TfL’s revenue base needs attention. 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.
This means that TfL mainly relies on fares income to fund operations and investment. But TfL’s budget is deep in the red and this has led to planned station and signalling upgrades being postponed. TfL is considering alternative funding sources for projects such as the Bakerloo line extension, while the much-needed Crossrail 2 is now a very distant prospect.
Centre for London has argued that the next mayor needs to rethink the fares freeze and undertake a 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.
Air pollution is also high on the political agenda, 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, it has managed to reduce harmful nitrogen dioxide concentrations in 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 adapt the city’s transport offer to Londoners’ changing travel habits. We are each making fewer trips, particularly for work and leisure but having more goods and services delivered to our doorstep. We are embracing a plethora of digital apps, from Uber to Citymapper and Deliveroo, as well as welcoming new types of vehicles like e-bikes and potentially scooters (should the government legalise them). A key question would be how to deal with these new operators to ensure both passenger safety and that London’s modal shift objective remains within sight.
Note: This blog post was first published on 7 February 2020 and has been updated to account for the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.