Is London going to need a lot more buses to help recovery from Covid-19?

Is London going to need a lot more buses to help recovery from Covid-19?

In his debut Evening Standard interview, new Transport for London commissioner Andy Byford stressed his desire to “carefully, progressively” rebuild people’s confidence in using the Underground, the buses and other public transport modes. “We are already beginning to see people coming back,” he said.

Indeed, we are. TfL figures provided to On London show that this morning a total of 216,546 Tube journeys were completed by 10.00 a.m. compared with 206,777 by 10.00 a.m. last Friday morning. That is still a fraction of the number of Tube journeys made in those morning hours this time last year – a towering 1,005,012 on 19 July 2019 – but a significantly larger fraction than at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown.

TfL also said that bus ridership has increased from 15 per cent of “normal levels” during the peak of the pandemic to around 40 per cent, which is a big jump. But how fast and how full will the public transport recovery be? And if riderships don’t revert to their pre-Covid levels, how will people get round the city instead?

Byford gave a frank warning about any increased use of private motor vehicles: “What we do not want is people to migrate to cars. If we end up with a car-led recovery we will just end up with gridlock.” He was also enthusiastic about the temporary cycle lanes being set up across the city as part of the Streetspace programme introduced under his predecessor. “I think it’s fantastic,” he said. “I think it’s got off to a very good start.” And he added: “I would hope that most, if not all, at least get considered for permanency.”

That’s quite a cautious caveat to his praise for pop-up bike lanes – a “hope” that “most” will be “considered” for being made permanent falls quite a long way short of a clear commitment to, as it were, getting them set in stone. Of course, we shouldn’t read too much into that or any other measured statement Byford makes about the future. There is, after all, so much that is hard to predict. Just as public anxiety about public transport is hard to foresee, so is the degree to which extra cycle lanes will help make cycling a more attractive everyday alternative to it than travelling by car, or by private hire vehicle or black cab. Cycling activists are hopeful. Time will tell.

There are other factors in the London transport Covid-era equation, such as the (also uncertain) extent to which more home-working will reduce the amount of commuting by whatever means. What can be reasonably said of cycling is that there are all sorts of reasons why Londoners don’t do it. Concern about road safety – which segregated lanes are intended to assuage – is only one of them. And how many weary, commuting Londoners will ever want to make a long bicycle ride from, say, Ealing or Bromley to work in the West End or the City every morning and another to get home every evening, especially when the weather is inclement? Meanwhile, congestion levels, while still below what they were this time last year, have been steadily increasing.

Perhaps there are more effective ways to re-allocate road space with a view to preventing gridlock caused by cars and provide more scope for social distancing, especially if transmission rates rise again. Bogota is famous for its bus rapid transit system (BRT) and these exist in European cities too. Basically, you provide lots and lots of dedicated road space for lots and lots of buses to carry lots and lots of people. And if there’s lots and lots of worry about coronavirus transmission, the more buses there are, the easier it is to give their passengers lots and lots of space inside.

BRT is less expensive or disruptive to provide than extra rail services or trams and entails far stricter limitations on the use of road space by cars than cycle lanes do. If streets cannot accommodate more or wider bus lanes, other vehicles might have to be completely banned from certain roads at certain times of day, the morning peak period being the obvious contender. In theory, BRT or even a degree of it or just a lot more ordinary bus priority could give a big boost to road and public transport capacity.

Has Andy Byford given thought to such a radical idea or something like it? If not, others in the realm of London governance have. Implementing it would cause rows and present problems. But the longer Londoners resist returning to their old travel habits and the worse road congestion gets, the more persuasive such an approach could become.

This article was updated at 07:20 on 18 July 2020 after TfL supplied Tube ridership figures for the morning of Friday 17 July. It had previously reported figures for earlier in the week.

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Categories: Analysis

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