As pressure mounts to get more trains and buses running in the capital, Sadiq Khan’s transport deputy Heidi Alexander has warned of lengthy queues, face-covering, and overall capacity being at a fifth of pre-crisis levels.
Speaking at a London TravelWatch webinar, Alexander said there is “no perfectly-formed set of answers” about the future of the city’s public transport network. With certainty still needed from government on when and how schools and different sectors of the economy would reopen and which public health rules would be applied, “it’s a bit like trying to finish a jigsaw puzzle in the dark,” she said.
Usage, currently down at 19th century levels, would go back up, she said, and Transport for London would run “as many Tubes and buses as is physically possible with the resources we have”, but the public would also expect TfL to keep passengers and staff safe.
Two metre distancing on the Victoria line, for example, would mean 21 passengers per carriage rather than 125. And on the system as a whole running at pre-crisis levels, even a one metre distancing rule would reduce rush hour capacity by more than three-quarters.
Alexander set out a mantra of four principles to avoid a “car-based” recovery: reducing numbers on the system by continuing to encourage working from home; “re-moding”, which means shifting to more walking and cycling; re-timing journeys to ease rush hour pressure as well as avoiding “pinch points” such as King’s Cross and London Bridge; and re-imagining travel, with new ways of behaviour including mask-wearing, queuing and distancing.
Her comments came as the Mayor unveiled his “London StreetSpace” plan, billed as a major transformation of the city’s streets to accommodate a possible ten-fold increase in cycling and five-fold increase in walking as lockdown restrictions ease.
The plan comes amid warnings that even a small shift from public transport to driving would see London “grinding to a halt” and pollution levels soaring. “To prevent this happening, TfL will rapidly repurpose London’s streets to serve this unprecedented demand for walking and cycling in a major new strategic shift,” City Hall announced yesterday.
The programme will initially see temporary cycle lanes on Euston Road, one of the busiest routes in the capital, with further cycle schemes coming forward alongside pavement widening on shopping streets and plans to reduce traffic on residential streets, creating new “low-traffic” neighbourhoods.
“The capacity of our public transport will be dramatically reduced post-coronavirus as a result of the huge challenges we face around social distancing,” said Khan. “I urge the government and boroughs to work with us to enable Londoners to switch to cleaner, more sustainable forms of transport and reduce the pressure on other parts of our transport network once the lockdown is eased.”
Meanwhile Tory MPs were ramping up pressure on City Hall, with Kensington’s Felicity Buchan using an urgent question to the health secretary to call for Khan to get more Tubes running and Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) making the same point at Prime Minister’s Questions, accusing Khan of “wrongly” saying that only key workers could use the Underground.
While supporting the call for a “bigger and more expansive” Tube service, Johnson also stressed the need to maintain social distancing and hinted at work with City Hall on “helping people get to work other than by mass transit”, suggesting that “this should be a new golden age for cycling”.
With income collapsing and TfL heading rapidly towards financial crisis, focus is shifting towards the detail of the government’s recovery plans and how new ways to travel in London will be paid for.
“We are in a very live discussion with government about the financial support government will give to TfL over the coming year,” said Alexander. “All these things we would like to be doing, we need money to be able to do them. I’m hoping for some good news within the next week.”
Also speaking on the TravelWatch webinar, Robert Nisbet of the Rail Delivery Group, representing UK train operators and Network Rail, highlighted differences in the government’s approach to TfL and the train industry: “The government has stood behind us. Effectively, franchises have been paused…government has now assumed the revenue risk.”
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