Everyone’s now desperate to get the capital’s workforce back onto the Tube and into the office, it seems – except the workforce itself.
The Prime Minister, the Chancellor with his “get back to the office to help recovery” message, business leaders, the Lord Mayor and Sadiq Khan too, are increasingly speaking with one voice. “Getting businesses and venues thriving in Central London once again should now be an urgent priority,” Mayor Khan said this week.
It’s an important, if obvious, recognition of the need to boost recovery in London, which is responsible for a quarter of UK growth, generates 10 per cent of national economic output in the “central activities zone” of the metropolis alone, boosting the economy outside the capital and contributing significantly to the Chancellor’s coffers.
The reality though, as the capital’s finance and business daily City A.M. has pointed out, is that London’s professional districts remain “eerily and worryingly quiet”, in contrast to those of other European cities. Just 30 per cent of London workers are back at their desks full time, with nearly half the city’s office staff working from home five days a week compared to 20 to 30 per cent in Paris, Frankfurt, Milan and Madrid.
Public transport, supporting the city’s and the wider economy, mass tourism and the consumer, commercial, cultural, academic and technological concentrations which drive the capital, is at the heart of the issue. And commuters aren’t convinced the network, particularly the Underground, is safe.
Around a third of Londoners remain uneasy about using public transport, with the capital’s travellers less reassured than those elsewhere by safety measures, cleaning and passenger behaviour, including face-covering, according to London TravelWatch research, while more than nine out of 10 companies surveyed by the business organisation London First cited concern over using public transport as the major barrier to staff returning to the office.
“Londoners are going to need a lot of reassurance before they get back on the Tube and start using buses again in much greater numbers,” said TravelWatch director Emma Gibson. Anecdotal evidence reinforces this. A recent Bloomberg piece on commuting elicited an immediate comment thread response: “Using the Tube in London to get to work seems pretty dangerous without the vaccine…”
Early government messaging – stay home, avoid public transport wherever possible – may have been almost too good, fuelling concern that the Tube was somehow intrinsically unsafe. That’s been noted in the US too, particularly by former New York transport commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan who has highlighted claims that “subways themselves were seeding disease” – playing to “long-standing fears of urban spaces” not backed up by evidence.
Recent findings indeed suggest that public transport may not be as risky as many think, with studies in France and Japan, summarised here, effectively finding no clusters of Covid cases associated with public transit use, even as lockdowns eased and passenger numbers started to rise, generally to levels higher than in London.
Findings in Austria have been similar, while contact tracing in Paris specifically between early May and mid-July also failed to find links between 386 clusters of infection identified and the metro or buses. Sadik-Khan also cites the example of Hong Kong, with a relatively low number of cases but public transit use maintained at a relatively high level, to suggest that transit is not “inherently harmful”.
Detailed work by the University of Southampton, looking at infection spread on China’s high-speed trains, found an infection rate of around 0.32 per cent among people sitting within three rows of an infected person, with the rate increasing for every hour travelled, and with proximity. But the risk remained low compared to infection in the home or in other indoor settings, such as the church events and choir practices in the US, which saw infection rates between 38 and 53 per cent.
UK research is relatively thin on the ground, with a 2018 modelling study headed by Dr Lara Gosce at University College increasingly cited in recent months. It shows a correlation between use of the Tube and the spread of influenza-like illnesses, specifically highlighting higher numbers of cases in boroughs where residents are on the Tube more and change lines more frequently, therefore coming into contact with more people, compared to boroughs with more limited Underground use and more direct trips.
The study nevertheless cautions that “correlation…does not prove causation”. With a large-scale epidemic “many contributing factors need to be taken into account”, it concludes, advising that further research is needed to “explicitly quantify the role of public transport in infectious disease transmission”.
The government’s scientific advisory body SAGE took a similarly cautious view in May, reporting that while the “overall weight” of evidence is towards increased risk of infection among public transport users, contract tracing suggested transmission “only in cases of long exposure”, with risk factors consistent with risk in other indoor settings – including “proximity to the source and duration of exposure”.
Overall, SAGE concluded: “There is high confidence that some users of public transport have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 while travelling. However, there is not yet evidence to understand how this transmission occurred or to be able to determine the proportion of cases that are associated with transmission on public transport.”
There is the caveat, of course, that we are still getting to understand a new virus, and that it’s difficult through contact tracing to link infections directly to public transport use rather than some other source. And evidence from round the world remains based on usage that has not returned yet to pre-Covid heights.
There is a sense though, that, with measures ranging from cleansing, hand sanitising and properly-enforced mask-wearing to social distancing and management of travel times, the Underground and the buses may not be as dangerous as initially perceived.
From this point of view, the off-the-cliff reductions in tube journeys can be seen as part of a general adoption of social distancing measures coming together to bear down on infection. So a level of risk, yes, in getting back on the Tube, but perhaps no greater than in other settings, if appropriately mitigated. That’s the message business organisations are now urging the government and City Hall to get behind, as the expected back to work uptick in September draws closer.
“Once the summer holidays come to an end, the signs point to a step up in the return to London’s workplaces,” said London First chair Paul Drechsler. “Now it’s up to the government to end the messaging muddle and work flat out with public transport operators to boost confidence in the transport system.” The CBI too is calling on government to “proactively encourage increased use of public transport”, while maintaining a “health first” approach.
Mayor Khan agrees: “Giving people the confidence to travel is…vital, which is why as a result of TfL implementing an unprecedented range of safety and hygiene measures, more passengers are now able to travel safely on London public’s transport network,” he said this week.
Cleansing features heavily in TfL’s current messaging, with a focus on increased cleaning, “hospital-grade” disinfectant and more than a thousand hand sanitiser points in stations, with Imperial College scientists finding no traces of the virus on “high frequency touch points”, plus face-covering requirements, hand-washing, one-way systems through stations and work with businesses to even out demand across the day.
“We are doing everything to keep things clean and safe for everyone,” says new Transport for London commissioner Andy Byford. Businesses are nevertheless looking for deeper collaboration, including sharing “real-time and predictive data…to ensure that people can plan their journeys so that they can travel in a safe way…creating an active travel management ecosystem”, according to London First’s Adam Tyndall.
It’s crunch time for TfL. If usage stays low, income stays low in a system almost entirely dependent on fare income. Without money coming in, service cuts will be inevitable, reducing transport options for the most disadvantaged Londoners and encouraging a return to private cars.
A full-capacity service accommodating a measure of social distancing must mean continuing government subsidy or an expanded devolution deal. Alternatively, as the CBI warns: “Congestion will increase, driving down productivity and increasing emissions as a result.” That would mean more health risks, including in communities already hit hard by Covid, and ultimately the decline of the city.
Will we be persuaded back onto the Tube, or will we continue to vote with our feet as we did in March? For individuals, for business, for London as a whole, there’s a lot at stake.
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