Among participants in a Centre for London webinar held earlier this week was Shashi Verma, who is Transport for London’s director of strategy and chief technology officer. He provided an invaluably clear summary of the impacts the pandemic has had on Londoners’ travel habits, the character of the recovery so far in transport terms and the issues taking shape for TfL and London’s future. These are main points he made.
Covid free fall
Verma said trends before the virus had been that “Tube traffic was growing” while “bus traffic was gently declining” as it had been for a few years. Then, in the second week of March, came a small fall in the usual figures and by 15 March “we were in complete free fall”. On Easter Sunday, the Underground carried just 64,000 people, which Verma said was “the lowest number since the 19th century” for a single day. The Tube “bottomed out at about five per cent of normal traffic” and the figure for buses plunged to “about 17 or 18 per cent”.
A slow recovery
Since Easter, numbers have been “growing very slowly but steadily,” Verma said. In weeks when lockdown measures were eased, week-on-week public transport use has grown by as much as 25 per cent, though that’s been 25 per cent of not very much. In other weeks, the percentage growth has been only in single digits. Verma said the pattern of growth is expected to be “more subdued” as we move into the summer months.
“The good thing is that people are coming back to the network,” Verma continued. He explained that data about the cards passengers have been using to swipe in show how many people are travelling, as well as the number of journeys being made: “It looks like about a third of the people who used to normally use the system are now using the system on an everyday normal basis.”
New travel patterns
Verma said: “There is a difference in the nature of journeys people have been making. Many more of the journeys are more local. There are proportionately more local journeys in Outer London, although that has now started to change and there’s more traffic now coming back to Central London. That really started with the re-opening of retail on 14 June. Since then the trend as been again very steady. There’s more and more traffic going into Central London as activity resumes there.
Active travel (walking and cycling)
“There has been a slight increase in walking trips, which you would expect if people are locked up at home and making local journeys and all that,” Verma said. With cycling, he described a “very interesting trend” in that “on weekends compared to what we saw a year ago, cycling trips are up by a lot”. On working days, though, “it’s a much more mixed picture”. He characterised cycling as “sort of up and down” day by day, and with “very different geographical trends”, with more cycling trips in Inner and, very definitely, Outer London but “very few in Central London,” which he thought unsurprising, given how empty it has been. He also mentioned year-on-year increases in Santander cycle hires: “That may be by choice, people trying to avoid public transport…it may be just because the roads are freer, and that makes it easier to cycle around”
“Even at the trough, round about Easter time, road traffic was still running at about half normal levels,” Verma said. That has now risen to around 90 per cent. He described “car led” recoveries from the virus as taking place around the world, which is “a major source of worry for us – it’s one of the reasons why the congestion charge went up and got imposed at weekends.” At 90 per cent of normal levels “there is relatively little congestion” but a rise in traffic levels to 110 per cent of what was normal before would produce “gridlock all over London”, with consequences for the economy and the environment.
Asked about the prospect of more extensive congestion charging in the future – something Centre for London has been advocating – Verma emphasised that the recent changes, in effect since 22 June, have, of themselves, been significant, affecting “a very different group of people” from those driving into the charging zone on weekdays. He added that the widening of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone to the North and South Circular roads is also on its way, scheduled for 25 October next year. He added that the virus has not made the fraught politics around road-pricing any easier: “I think we should acknowledge that. Trying to hit people with a new charge at a time when the economy is hurting and people are hurting in their own wallets is something that has to be considered very, very carefully.”
The vital importance of public transport
Verma on buses. “You have to remember that a quarter of all journeys in London are carried by 9,000 vehicles [the London bus fleet] every single day, and they deserve pride of place on the road network. They are the biggest bulk transporter in London and they deserve having priority over everything else.”
Verma on the Underground and rail: “If Central London returns to anything like the density that it has had for decades, [travel] demand cannot be served by any means other than rail – rail and Tube are the only means by which you can get one and a half million people into the city and adjoining areas and back out again every day. You can’t do that by bus, you certainly can’t do that by car, you can’t do that by active travel, you cannot do that by any other means. That is why the economics of transport and the economics of Central London are so closely tied together.”
The Central London economy – “the UK’s prime asset”
Asked about challenges for the future, Verma mentioned key questions to which answers are not yet known. Has the nature of work changed long term, so that fewer people will commute into the centre? If so, that would mean less revenue from fares, on which TfL has been made so hugely dependent. “Cities have survived for 5,000 or maybe 10,000 years on this idea of agglomeration,” he said. “Now we are in the middle of this most incredible test about whether the city can remain as productive with people working from home.”
At stake is “the viability of the Central London economy,” he said. “People say you shouldn’t be worrying about bankers, but this is not about bankers. The entire arts and culture district of London depends on people being around in Central London. If that goes, a lot of things go with it. Remember, this is the UK’s prime asset. And we’ve got to be careful not to destroy it.”
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