Commuting again, cheek-to-cheek?

People are starting to come back to Central London, even if caution about rising case numbers, new variants and the onset of summer holidays mean the recovery is slow burn rather than big bang.

The graph below compares Transport for London (TfL) data on use of contactless and Oyster cards to tap in and out of stations on three sample days, according to different types of station (more detailed data and the station typology can be seen here). The days, chosen by me, are the last Thursday in July this year and last year, and the last Thursday in February last year. 

Screenshot 2021 08 12 at 14.14.00

The change between July 2020 and July 2021 is striking. Each group of stations saw around twice as many taps at the end of last month compared to the previous July, when restrictions were similarly relaxed, with a slightly stronger recovery for ‘City’ and ‘Tourist’ destinations, though ‘City’ station usage (which includes Canary Wharf, Holborn and Clerkenwell) remains only a third of pre-pandemic levels.

Comparisons with February 2020 show we are still a long way from business as usual, and it will be interesting to see whether change accelerates in September. But the overall picture looks positive for those who want to see people – the lifeblood of Central London – return to its streets, and is in line with the “organic” return to cities that James Forsyth wrote about in The Times last week.  

However, there could be bumps in the track ahead. One relates to human behaviour. Like many people, I have found my recent train and Tube trips a pretty pleasant experience. I’ve had a seat and not been too close to other people, even if wearing a mask is a minor spec-fogging inconvenience.

The closer we get to pre-pandemic levels of loading, however, the closer we will get to crowding levels that we find uncomfortable. It’s hard to say in advance what these will be – standing room only, shoulder-to-shoulder, armpit-to-nostril? – and tolerances will vary, but I suspect each of us could reach a tipping point where we no longer feel so happy using the Tube, however low Covid cases may be. 

More staggered commuting hours may mitigate crowding. And we can expect some reduction in demand from increased working from home, though if everyone works from home on Monday and Friday it will do little to ameliorate crowding midweek. But I suspect there will be a self-regulating brake on levels of Tube usage over the next few years at least, and that brake will apply itself at a lower level than before the pandemic.

The problem will become a whole lot worse if Transport for London’s funding deal, still being thrashed out with government, forces cuts in service frequency and capacity, as government has suggested it might. A recent national poll suggested that 23 per cent of people anticipate using public transport less, with most of those expecting to use cars more. In London, congestion, the soon-to-be enlarged Ultra Low Emission Zone and parking charges may make that less of an option. But squeezing services could increase crowding, and in turn drive more people away from public transport – maybe to walk or cycle, but maybe just to stay away from Central London altogether.

TfL needs a funding deal that recognises how precarious London’s recovery could be, and how easily service cutbacks could push the Tube into spiral of overcrowding, falling passenger numbers and falling revenues. This means looking beyond reliance on fares for the next few years at least, to run the system as a vital amenity for urban recovery, rather than a commercial service to customers. If the government wants people to come back into London and other city centres, it needs to support public transport systems that marry environmental sustainability with economic vitality.

First published by OnLondon.

Now is time for a TfL deal

Transport for London (TfL) is the seat of the Mayor of London’s most significant power and responsibility. Welded together in 2000 from an assortment of public corporations, government agencies and joint committees, TfL spends more than £10 billion every year and employs more than 25,000 people. While London’s Mayor is underpowered in many respects, their control of this integrated transport authority is envied by many other cities in the UK and beyond.

Right now, transport is also Sadiq Khan’s biggest headache and biggest priority. TfL’s revenues collapsed during the pandemic, as passengers stayed home, and the network has only been saved from bankruptcy by government support packages, repeatedly agreed at the last minute and accompanied by terms and conditions that have nibbled away at the Mayor’s authority.

The latest support package is due to expire on 18 May, so the next cliff-edge is approaching fast. TfL have been arguing for a longer-term settlement, and their scenario planning predicts suppressed income till 2024/25 in almost any conceivable future. With neither mayoral or general elections scheduled till 2024, and the pandemic in what we all hope is irreversible retreat, obstacles towards striking a longer-term deal should now be surmountable.

Doing the right deal will require radical thinking from the mayor and government alike. Pushed to find new sources of funding for infrastructure investment as well as operations, Sadiq Khan has argued that TfL should receive the £500 million that Londoners pay in vehicle excise duty (VED), which is currently ring-fenced to pay for road repairs outside the capital. Alternatively, there have been discussions of a charge for people driving into London from outside.

Neither proposal bears much scrutiny: the VED settlement is indeed unfair to London, but is a declining revenue source, and allocating more to London would mean allocating less outside the capital (or government making up the balance). A boundary charge would be another way of making those who live outside the capital pay towards the services that they use, but would likely have a negative effect on people living and working around the edge of London, and could generate more hostility to the capital at a time when it needs support and visitors.

A more equitable approach would be London-wide road user charging, to replace the increasingly complex hierarchy of charging zones and fees, as recommended in Centre for London’s 2019 report, Green Light. A pay-by-the-mile scheme, which reflected congestion, pollution and the availability of public transport alternatives, could raise substantial sums. For example, an average charge of 5p/mile for cars and light goods vehicles, and 50p/mile for HGVs, could raise as much as £1.5 billion every year – twice as much as is currently raised by the congestion charge.

Such a scheme would also make policy sense. It creates incentives for lower carbon transport options, rather than using public transport revenues to cross-subsidise highways maintenance, as is currently the case. The Green and Lib Dem candidates both argued the case for road user charging during the mayoral election campaign, but Sadiq Khan was more cautious, committing only to “ask TfL to consider other ways of raising income to make up for the loss of VED” if the Government refuses to pay up. And you can see why – the politics of restrictions on car use have become a hot button issue in this election. But now, at the beginning of a three-year term, is the time to make the case for bolder action.

But if transport funding is the elephant sat solidly in Sadiq Khan’s in-tray, it should have at least one foot planted in Government’s. Under a deal negotiated with Boris Johnson, when he was Mayor, central government grant support for TfL was phased out, with business rates and fares plugging the gap. All very well when London’s economy was booming, but even the most optimistic scenarios see business rate revenues and fares alike suppressed in the short- to medium-term.

London’s transport system could be allowed to decline, and this is one the scenarios explored by TfL, but this would be a hugely retrograde step, which would deal a substantial blow to the capital’s chances of recovery and of achieving zero carbon targets, and to tax revenues from London supporting public services across the country.

Government knows this, so they know how costly it could be to starve London’s transport system of resources. If the Mayor can show he has the vision to transform London’s public transport funding model, the Government should make available the funding to support him during an economic crisis that has hit London particularly hard.

[First published by Centre for London, 10 May 2021]

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.

Moving out of the crisis

[Originally published on Centre for London website, 30 March 2020]
Strange days, when a transport authority claims an 80 to 90 per cent drop in passenger numbers as a success, as Transport for London’s Mike Brown did on Thursday.  It’s a success which could take a £1 billion bite out of TfL’s annual income just over the next three months (together with the loss of congestion charging revenue) – at a time when Crossrail delays were already hitting the balance sheet (and will even more while works are at a standstill).
Making up that shortfall will be one of a million urgent negotiations over coming months (and given ministerial demands to keep the Tube and buses running, the Treasury will surely have to pay a fair share), but it also prompts a more fundamental question – is it right that the operation of London’s transport system is so heavily dependent on fares and other user charges?
As Table 1 below shows, fares account for about 72 per cent of TfL’s revenues, with a further four per cent coming from congestion charging. The rest is made up of other commercial revenues, plus just over £1 billion (15 per cent of the total) coming from taxes – mainly retained business rates, with smaller amounts from general taxation and mayoral council tax.
Table 1: London transport revenue sources
Transport for London
Congestion charge
Media and rental
Retained business rates
Council tax
But is that the right balance?  Is transport a product to be bought by individual customers, or is it an urban service, something that is provided as much to the city as a whole as it is to individual passengers? Cities rely on mass transit just as tall buildings rely on lifts. Without transport systems that can move millions every day as efficiently as possible, cities grind to a halt – or hollow out as corporations flee congestion. In both cases, reliance on private cars rises, with all the pollution that entails.
Supporting mass transit is therefore in the interests of businesses, of the environment and of the city as a whole – whether or not individual citizens use the system, they rely to some extent on other people being able to move around the city (and on roads being kept free for freight). So there is a case for public sector support, of the system as a whole and for the people who cannot affordto pay full price.
But relying so heavily on passenger revenues does not just make TfL vulnerable to events such as the current crisis, but also makes revenue dependent on mass transit systems that are themselves under strain. To address those pressures and reduce carbon impacts, the Mayor and TfL have committed to promote ‘active travel’ (walking and cycling), but it is only public transport (and congestion charging) that makes money. With some of the highest fares in the world, TfL’s commercial and strategic interests are not well aligned.
It’s not always been this way. The reliance on passenger revenues is a relatively new phenomenon: as recently as 2010/11, more than 50 per cent of TfL’s revenues were in the form of a grant from central government.
And it’s not the way other cities operate either. Comparisons are imprecise and no city is perfect, but New York and Paris both have very different funding models (tables 2 and 3 below). Both cities have some subsidy from different tiers of government – around eight per cent of the NY total, and 18 per cent in Paris (or rather the larger region of Île de France). 
Table 2: New York transport revenue sources
Metropolitan Transport Authority (2018)
Media, rental etc
Fuel taxes
Mortgage and property taxes
Payroll taxes
Other taxes
City and state subsidies
Table 3: Paris (Île de France) transport revenue sources
Île de France Mobilités (2017)
Media, fines etc
Fuel taxes (TICPE)
Payroll tax (VT)
Public subsidies
Both cities also draw some revenue from taxes on petrol and diesel: 15 per cent in New York compared to just one per cent in Paris. In the UK, fuel duty and vehicle excise duty are collected and retained nationally, with VED ring-fenced for road maintenance outside London.  Allocating London its share would give the city around £500m extra per annum, but both fuel duty and VED are set to decline in coming years, as more efficient vehicles proliferate. Centre for London has arguedfor a comprehensive approach to road user charging, rather than tethering London’s transport to an eroding tax base.
New York draws another 7 per cent of its revenues from taxes on mortgages and property transactions, but both comparator cities also rely heavily on payroll taxes. In New York, employers pay from 0.11 to 0.34 per cent of payroll costs (depending on payroll size); in Île de France, rates range from 1.4 to 2.6 per cent (depending on location).
The sums generated by these business taxes are higher than retained business rates in London, much higher in the case of Paris, and could be argued to relate more directly to how far companies rely on the public transport network to enable employees (and customers) to travel across the city. Payroll taxes may not be the right answer for London, though a devolved alternative to business rates is long overdue, but the current crisis should prompt longer-term thinking about the right mix of taxes for a 21stCentury transport system.
Seeking higher government grants is one way to reflect the civic value of London’s transport system, but seems likely to have limited mileage at a time of regional rebalancing (and persistent allegations that London already receives more than its share of transport funding). Even Paris draws less than 20 per cent of its funding from national, regional and local subsidies.
London should seek devolution to enable innovation, not a squabble about regional allocation. How much should businesses and residents pay for the infrastructure that keeps the city running? Should tourists and other visitors pay through a hotel tax? Should taxis and minicabs, and new arrivals such as electric bike and scooter companies, pay more for their use of London roads? 
When London’s economy and civic life begin to defrost, and the Tube once again feels the – once tiresome but now longed-for – strain of urban rush hours, it will be time to think again about who pays what for the hundreds of millions of journeys that take place in London every year.

5 ways mayors have changed London (Nov 2018)

[Originally published on Centre for London blog, 7 November 2018]

This year, the London Mayoralty turns 18 years old and ‘comes of age’. During this time, London’s three Mayors – Ken, Boris, Sadiq – have used the limited levers that they had – sometimes to breaking point –  to improve the city.

But what impact have they actually had? Here’s five ways that the Mayors have transformed our city since the Mayoralty was established.

1. Leading London’s urban renaissance

The London Plan, as adapted and evolved by the three Mayors, set a world standard in promoting smart growth, sustainable development, urban renaissance.  The plans committed to accommodating growth within the city, focusing on public transport walking and cycling, developing ever more ambitious housing targets, renewing the public realm, and harnessing the dynamics of development to create a fairer and greener city.

2. Driving transport innovation

The Mayor’s ability to integrate transport and development – the envy of other cities like New York – has been central to the London Plan.  But Transport for London – chaired by all three Mayors in a signal of its significance – has also led policy innovation in transport – from the original congestion charging zone, to bike rentals, to the Oyster card and contactless payment, to the ultra-low emissions zone.

3. Providing civic leadership

The Mayors have also provided a focal point for civic leadership. This has not just been a matter of fronting bids for major events, and representing the city in trade fairs and Whitehall spending rounds. It has also sadly meant leading the city at times of tragedy – after the London bombings in 2005, and the terrorist attacks and Grenfell Tower fire that the city faced last summer. The Mayors have, with differing emphases and tone, presented London and the world with an image of capital that is inclusive, tolerant, diverse, open, united.  It’s an aspect of the Mayor’s role that is not mentioned in any statute, but eighteen years on you wonder how we lived without it.

4. Doing deals with central Government

Having a Mayor has enabled London to do deals with central Government on how to finance and deliver major infrastructure projects.  These deals – on the London 2012 Olympics and legacy, on Crossrail and on the Northern Line Extension – have helped London to accommodate its growth, to weather the storms of the financial crisis, and to transform areas benighted by decades of underinvestment – while also building world-leading capacity in major projects.

5. Making the case for more power

And the Mayors have secured new powers through statute.

  • In 2006, the Mayor was given powers to stage the London 2012 Olympics – which was fortunate given that he and the government had committed to do so the previous year.
  • In 2007, planning powers and housing powers were strengthened, as was the London Assembly’s role in approving mayoral appointments.
  • In 2011, policing oversight – always a bone of contention between the Mayor and Home Secretary was reformed, as the Metropolitan Police Authority was replaced by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime
  • Also in 2011 the Localism Act empowered the London Assembly to reject mayoral strategies, and passed control of HCA and LDA land to the Mayor, delegated the affordable housing budget, enabled the Mayor to establish Mayor Development Corporations – shifting the focus of the GLA from strategy to delivery.But progress since 2011 has been faltering.  There have been devolution deals on the Adult Education Budget, agreements on health and social care, and discussions on justice devolution.  But despite two London finance commissions, and strong representations from the Mayor and London Councils, further devolution feels like unfinished business.

And at no time since the Mayoralty was set up 18 years ago have the challenges facing the capital looked more daunting. Local government services are under increasing pressure. A cooling housing market is leading to a slowdown in the construction and availability of affordable homes. Migration from the EU and across the country is falling. And all of this before Brexit.

Against that background, we need to rethink the way London operates for new times. We need to continue to make the case for new powers for the Mayor – across housing, taxes, and skills, to help London meet the challenges ahead.

Transport of no delight

When does \’disruption\’ tip over into irresponsibility? That was one of the fundamental tensions underpinning the tech manifesto published by Centre for London, with Tech London Advocates and London First, in February 2016. The row over Uber\’s licence suspension in London shows that we are still some way from an answer.

The Tech Manifesto argued for an approach that balanced \”open innovation, with consideration of citizens\’ needs\”, and identified \”the disruption to the private hire markets caused by the introduction of Uber in London [as] a prime example of regulators failing to keep pace with the scale and speed of a particular innovation\”.

On Friday, it felt like regulators finally caught up, when Transport for London announced that Uber\’s licence to operate in London would be revoked from the end of September. But the racing metaphor quickly implodes: the events of the last few days look like an object lesson in how not to do digital regulation. Transport for London\’s decision to pull Uber\’s licence appears to have come out of the blue, with little opportunity for Uber to address the concerns about driver and passenger safety that have been raised.  At the same time, Uber, so rich in political networks, has responded with petitions and media campaigns about its 40,000 workers and millions of customers, blowing squid ink rather than trying to engage with the concerns about its systems and policies.

It may be that TfL has announced the \’surprise\’ revocation to force the pace with a company that would otherwise happily deploy lobbyists and lawyers to haggle for months over sanctions and compliance, and it may also be that Uber is sincere in the sentiment expressed by its CEO in a tweet on Saturday, asking London to \”work with us to make things right\”.

But this clash – more interesting because it is more textured than other cities\’ decision to ban Uber outright – does not inspire much faith in the future for intelligent discussions about regulating the digital economy. We cannot preserve business as usual for every element of city services, but we shouldn\’t give \’disruption\’ a free pass an unalloyed benefit to urban life – individually or in aggregate – either.