Pandemic London: How have the city’s travel habits changed?

Pandemic London: How have the city’s travel habits changed?

With the second anniversary of Covid-19 on the horizon, Transport for London’s compendious annual Travel in London report provides insights into how, how much, in what ways and why peoples’ movement around the capital varied during 2020 and much of 2021.

We are all aware of the devastation caused to TfL’s finances by the effects of the pandemic – even Boris Johnson, despite his and some fellow Tories’ attempts to kid voters that it’s somehow all the Mayor’s fault. The particular value of the Travel in London report is that it burrows beneath the headline data to find the underlying stories they also tell.

Before the Omicron variant had its recent and, we hope, fairly temporary effect of putting more people off public transport, demand for it had recovered to an overall 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, with Underground use described in the report as back to “typically over 65 per cent of” normal levels over the course of a full week and the equivalent bus demand at “over 75 per cent”.

The smaller scale of the Tube ridership’s comeback is attributed in the report to “the greater loss of commuting and tourism related journeys”, reflecting in particular the collapse of international visitor numbers and the increase in working from home. Along with this, weekend figures have been higher than weekday ones compared with pre-pandemic times, especially on Saturdays.

The relative strength of such “leisure travel” is taken to “suggest a widespread acceptance of mass public transport travel by Londoners” in the circumstances. In other words, once you factor in new flexible workplace regimes and the absence of tourists and business travellers, the comeback on the principal public transport modes has been quite strong.

The three other major ways of getting around London are National Rail and London Overground services, private motor vehicles and walking.

The two rail modes saw shrinkages in use of very similar percentage to the Tube. By contrast, traffic levels on London major roads – the ones TfL is responsible for – has, for some time, been almost back to where it started at “typically 95 per cent of pre-pandemic levels”. And the proportion of excursions made on foot has markedly increased, accounting for 33 per cent of trips in 2020 compared with 25 per cent in 2019. Car use was also up as a share in 2020, in its case from 35 per cent to 39 per cent. Public transport use as whole plunged from a 36 per cent share to just 22 per cent.

The amount and types of travel in London have been different in different parts of it. Levels have been relatively higher outside the centre. The report says this contrast has “lessened in intensity as more people have returned to the central area for work and leisure purposes”, but notes that it is is probably related to the large increase in walking and a much smaller one in the minor mode of cycling by people in their local areas, often for leisure and recreation purposes. However, the report says that although trips (by all transport modes) were more localised in 2020/21 than before the pandemic they were “not dramatically so”.

Addressing the notion of the “15-minute city”, the report says that prior to the pandemic 47 per cent of all trips made by Londoners were undertaken in 15 minutes or less, of which 39 per cent were made by car. In the second quarter of 2020 (July-September) when Covid restrictions were limited, the percentage rose to 51 per cent and increased during the ensuing second and third lockdowns. In summary, the tighter the Covid constraints the more local our travel. “It remains to be seen whether, as we recover from the pandemic, these trends will persist,” the report says.

Among the more significant features of Londoners’ changed travel behaviour in the pandemic was a slump in the number of trips made per person per day, which fell from an average of 2.1 to 1.7, or by 21 per cent. The report thinks this fall “relatively modest” in all the circumstances, probably substantially due to, for example, Londoners going out for a walk near their homes more frequently while using buses, trains and the Tube less.

Read the whole of TfL’s Travel in London Report 14 here. Photograph from TfL.

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Categories: Analysis

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