Along with tracking the capital’s economic and population trends, Centre for London’s latest London Intelligence statistical bulletin brought us up to date with bus and Underground ridership levels. The news is that both have continued to fall, maintaining the pattern of the past two or three years.
The figures, supplied by Transport for London, show that for the twelve weeks to the end of May journeys made on the Tube fell by 0.6 per cent compared with the same period the previous year, the equivalent of nearly 8,000 a day. Over the same period by the same comparison, bus ridership dropped by 1.8 per cent.
Neither are calamitous falls in their own right, but a fall of any kind contrasts sharply with the year after year of increases of the recent past. The rise of public transport use has been seen as an aspect of the rise of London, both as a thriving global city and as a progressive one that put efficient and sustainable transport modes before private car use. What do these sudden declines in the numbers signify?
The London Intelligence quotes experienced transport campaigner and consultant Nick Lester-Davis, who says they are likely to be the result of a combination of factors. He cites government policy since 2010 making public transport “progressively more expensive compared to driving”, population growth in London adding to congestion, which make bus travel slower and less attractive, and knock effects of rail franchise disruption. He thinks the ridership downturns might continue at least in the short term.
Other arguments are in circulation. Changing work cultures and the advent of Uber are often mentioned, as is anxiety about terrorism (the London Intelligence has a separate section showing that fewer overseas visitors have been coming to London since last year’s attacks). The approach of Brexit has been cited too, characterised as a dampener on economic activity. And anyone who uses the Central Line during the morning peak will be only too aware of what an ordeal it can be simply to squash into a carriage let alone endure the crush for several stops. No wonder alternative ways of getting around the city hold appeal.
The situation has done nothing for TfL’s finances, coinciding as it has with the curtailment of the transport body’s operational grant from the government. The Mayor’s TfL fares freeze is blamed by political opponents for adding to these budgetary strains, though supporters will contend that it has helped limit the damage by encouraging people to keep using public transport when they might otherwise have avoided it.
But whichever side of that argument you take, it is hard to imagine Tube and bus riderships returning to their former upward paths without more capacity in the former service and less road congestion to hamper the latter. Where will the money for the first of these keep coming from and where will the political will for tackling the second be found?
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