London is still lagging behind other major cities with getting passengers back onto public transport, with significant consequences both for the future of the network and the Central London economy.
That was the message from Transport for London’s head of city planning Alex Williams, facing questions at the London Assembly transport committee yesterday.
The Tube has been particularly hard hit, said Williams, with the “work from home” message taking hold and passenger anxiety about contracting the coronavirus continuing. Usage is now back to between 20 and 25 per cent of pre-pandemic levels in London, compared to 40 per cent of passengers now back in Madrid, and 45 per cent in Paris and Brussels.
At the height of the pandemic, the number of daily journeys on the Tube dropped by 95 per cent, from four million a day to under 200,000, Williams said.
Social distancing is the “big issue we are facing”, he added. “We are not going to be able to manage 100 per cent social distancing on the network.” Government guidance on safe travel would need to change, he said, with TfL already looking at its station messaging, in line with the Prime Minister’s “get back to work” exhortations.
City Hall cycling and walking commissioner Will Norman underlined the safety message. “The ultimate priority for employers is the safety of their workforce,” he said. “If they don’t feel safe, they won’t come in.”
TfL has introduced a “huge number” of measures to keep passengers safe in addition to the now mandatory face-covering, he added: extra cleaning with hospital grade disinfectants, a trial of UV light cleansing methods on escalators, one-way systems, hand sanitisers and more pedestrian space around busy interchanges.
The Tube is safe to use, with adequate capacity particularly if journeys are spread out across the day, said Williams. “The network has never been cleaner,” he said, while transport researcher Nicole Badstuber from University College cited research suggesting that the risk of using public transport is not high.
Norman also defended TfL’s “Streetspace” programme supporting new cycle lanes, “school streets” and low traffic neighbourhoods across the capital, to forestall a “car-led” recovery. “People will still be able to drive to their homes,” he said. “It’s about reducing through traffic in neighbourhoods and trying to shift those journeys from the car to other modes.”
The public reaction to Streetspace measures was nevertheless “politically challenging”, said Julian Bell, leader of Ealing Council and chair of environment and transport for the boroughs’ umbrella body London Councils. “The boroughs need to hold their nerve,” he said.
With Williams warning Assembly Members that TfL coffers are effectively “empty going forward” with the government’s £1.9 billion bailout ending in mid-October, negotiations about future funding for the network are now underway, with a government-led review starting work and a rival review commissioned by Mayor Khan.
Khan used his appearance at the House of Commons transport committee yesterday to call for further government support. “For the foreseeable future, we’re not going to have that 80 per cent from fares that we need to run TfL and that’s why the government should support us like they are supporting other transport authorities across the country and other sectors including public and private,” he told MPs.
The government should also consider “proper fiscal devolution to London”, he said. “That would mean we wouldn’t need to go to the government asking for assistance in difficult times because we’d be able to ‘box and cox’ within our own resources through fiscal devolution.”
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