Latest Travel in London report details extent of Covid’s impact on capital’s transport

Latest Travel in London report details extent of Covid’s impact on capital’s transport

Congestion charging is doing its job in curbing traffic levels in Central London, even as road traffic in the capital recovers significantly faster than public transport usage, according to Transport for London’ latest Travel in London report, published today.

The authoritative annual compendium of data on travel in the city highlights both the full extent of disruption due to the coronavirus pandemic – “unprecedented in modern times” – and the challenges TfL faces as it begins talks with government over future funding.    

The now familiar cliff-edge charts show the London Underground hardest hit, with ridership plummeting to just 3% of normal rates during the first lockdown in March, recovering slowly to below 40% of normal. Bus usage also fell sharply, down by 86% before recovering to 55% of normal levels in October.

Traffic on the roads, which initially fell by half during lockdown, recovered much more rapidly towards near normal – 92% of pre-Covid rates in outer London at the end of September, 90% in inner London and 78% in the central area – underlining the risk of a “car led” recovery and raising “concerns about the ability of London’s limited road capacity to cope as activity returns,” the report warns.  

Central London vehicle traffic has nevertheless been constrained both by the reinstatement of the Congestion Charge in May, and the extension of its operating hours and higher fees from June, the report says: “The…data suggests that the temporary charge increase and extension is having the expected effects on demand.”

The figures give backing to proposals floated this week by City Hall for a £3.50 charge on vehicles registered outside the capital entering Greater London – a move estimated to raise some £500 million a year while reducing weekday car trips into the city by up to 15%.

The rapid hike in journeys made by car since March – up as a proportion of all journeys from 38% to 45% in September – also puts pressure on mayoral targets for “active” travel, by foot,  bike or by public transport and on TfL’s sometimes controversial “Streetspace” programme to boost walking and cycling and “avoid a car-led recovery”.

Launching today’s report, TfL heralded a “significant” rise in the proportion of journeys made on foot or by bike, from 29% between January and March this year to 46% between March and June, before falling back to 37% in September.

But with Londoners still nervous about public transport and many still working from home, Tube, rail and bus usage remain severely depressed, bringing their share of overall journeys down to just 17.5% of trips between June and September, compared to 36% in 2019. 

With lockdown measures continuing, the overall active, efficient and sustainable mode share – public transport, walking and cycling – could in fact be “the lowest seen in London since the early 2000’s, and “not be back at 2019 levels until well into 2021,” the report concludes.

Figures both for cycling and walking are likely to have been boosted by increased opportunities for leisure cycling during lockdown, the report says, with weekend cycling well up on weekday cycling, and total cycling above pre-pandemic levels.

Data is drawn however from what the report describes as a “non-representative sample of permanent counters in central and inner London”, while “few data sets are available currently” to quantify increases in walking. Much cycle monitoring was suspended during the initial lockdown, it adds, with limited monitoring in Outer London and on minor roads.

The report’s pre-pandemic figures comparing 2019 with 2018, already analysed by On London, actually show the volume of cycling declining by 2.7%, making up just 2.4% of journeys overall, leading the report to conclude that “growth in cycling appears to have stalled in more recent years”.

Around 21% of Londoners reported cycling “at least once” in 2019/20, according to TfL surveys cited in the report, the same as in 2018/19 and “the lowest proportion since 2010/11” – suggesting a continuing challenge to “further embed walking and cycling into the daily fabric of London”. 

TfL’s recent bailout agreement with Whitehall includes a further £75 million for Streetspace schemes, plus £20 million allocated to boroughs for similar schemes.

“This new data shows just how important walking and cycling have been in helping Londoners stay healthy and safe,” TfL Streetspace delivery manager Helen Cansick said today. “That’s why it’s crucial that we continue to invest to support walking and cycling, ensuring that the capital can recover from the pandemic as a healthier and more sustainable place for everyone.”

The report also highlights the disproportionate impact of travel changes on Central London, with £1.9 billion commuter spending lost in 2020, and suggests that changes including working from home could mean long-term implications for TfL. 

A new report on TfL finances, commissioned by Mayor Khan, forecasts continuing budget gaps of up to £2 billion a year as passenger demand, and revenues continue to be well below pre-pandemic levels, while the government has given TfL an 11 January deadline to come up with plans for a balanced budget for 2023/24.

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