Stand back, make room

 [Published by OnLondon and Centre for London, 12 May 2020]

London has been at the forefront of the UK’s Covid-19 epidemic. Cases and deaths rose fast and peaked early in the capital. But the city seems to have adapted quickly to lockdown and continuing recruitment activity shows some of the resilience the capital demonstrated after the financial crisis of 2008. And, after the wave of infections hit London first, it now seems to be retreating quickest, with new cases being identified at half the rate of some UK regions.

But what comes next could be a lot tougher. Having plunged much of day-to-day life into the deep freeze, the government is seeking a way to defrost it, of getting the country back to work. The much-debated change in government messaging gives an indication of the direction of change: from an unambiguous instruction to stay at home, to a cautious emergence.

As London’s economy tentatively tries to get back on its feet, some of its gaps and inequities will start to show through. During the crisis, working from home has been an inconvenience for workers like me, whose jobs involve talking, reading, writing and analysing. For other workers, such remote working is impossible. Some have been put at risk by continuing to work, while others have been furloughed. For those people to go back to work safely, they will have to travel.

And that’s where the problem is. From his experience as the Mayor of London, the Prime Minister will know that telling people to “avoid public transport if at all possible” is a really tall order in the capital. London’s commuters are heavily dependent on public transport: 46 per cent of London’s workers use trains, light rail or the Tube to get to work, and a further 12 per cent use buses, compared to around three per cent and six per cent respectively for the rest of Great Britain.

Avoiding public transport means that almost 60 per cent of London’s workers have to find an alternative way to work. Even if Tube, rail and buses are operating at around 15 per cent capacity, as some estimates suggest, 2.5 million London commuters will be displaced.

Some of the slack can be taken up by an increase in walking and cycling, which together account for around 14 per cent of London commutes. There is certainly a strong argument for this, for re-allocation of road space to encourage new cyclists (though it is not clear whether the funding support announced by Grant Shapps on Friday will be deployed in the capital), and for a more rapid roll-out of new rules for e-scooters.

But cycling would need to increase almost tenfold to replace the lost public transport capacity. Data from the 2011 census indicated the average London commuting distance was more than 11 miles (and is likely to be higher for many rail and Tube commuters), so there are a limited number of journeys where cycling will be a viable option – particularly for those new to the saddle and to London’s traffic.

There may be some increase in car-based commuting in the short-term, but this is not what any policy-makers want. It would not only unpick the progress made on air quality and carbon emissions in recent years, but also quite quickly result in gridlock – especially as roads are being remodelled to prioritise walking and cycling. In any case, there simply aren’t the workplace parking spaces in Central London for any mass switch.

So some form of “demand management” (a phrase heavily used when trying to limit travel during the London Olympics) will be needed, if London’s economy is to return to anything like normal. Changing work patterns will be part of this, and may need extensions of the night tube and some relaxation of current regulations on deliveries, as London shifts further towards becoming a 24-hour city.

But, as London rebuilds public transport capacity and public confidence, we may also need to prioritise some workers over others. The capital has been helped to date by the fact that many of us can work remotely. Given the risk of overwhelming the transport system, those who can do so should perhaps hold back from using public transport to get to work, however much we long for the social interactions that make the city what it is.

The Tube has been kept running for essential workers during the crisis. As the crisis eases, this priority should be extended to people who work in shops, factories, construction sites, and workshops – those who need to have access to their workplaces and to be able to travel to them safely.

You could even see permits to travel introduced, but such a system would be intrusive, complex and hard to enforce. However, the successful implementation of the government’s lockdown measures has shown that limiting use of the Tube can be self-policing. To enable essential workers to reach their destinations safely, perhaps those of us who trade in words, calculations and conversations should stand back and wait our turn.

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