It is clear that life won’t be returning to normal for some time, with the government stating on Monday (11th May) that all those able to work from home must continue to do so until at least July. The impact on London’s public transport services has been significant with ridership on the tube and bus network reported as being 95% and 85% below normal levels at the end of April (BBC).The loss in income from fares impacts both the delivery of future projects and the ability to operate the service – which costs around £600m per month to operate. Earlier this week, reports suggested that TfL has requested a £2bn bailout (CityAM) which won’t go far to cover lost revenue considering operating costs alone.
Last week’s event hosted by London TravelWatch provided useful insights into the challenges and opportunities ahead. Heidi Alexander, Deputy Mayor for Transport, discussed some of the measures that will need to be taken to ensure travel safety and enable social distancing as the number of passengers begin to increase in line with the government’s advice. To manage demand, Alexander outlined a four-pronged approach: discourage travel as much as possible; spread demand across modes; re-time travel to avoid peak hours; and re-plan journeys to avoid crowded stations. Most importantly: avoid a car-based recovery.
If social distancing requirements remain in place, the total carrying capacity of the Tube will have to be reduced to between 13% to 20% of pre-crisis levels, at the least (BBC). London has followed other cities to implement temporary infrastructure to increase space for cycling and walking. The GLA’s Streetspace plan foresees several changes from the expansion of the strategic cycling network to traffic reduction measures and transforming high streets (GLA). Hackney was among the first to introduce adaptive measures by closing roads to provide more space for pedestrians and cyclists while Lambeth has produced a COVID Transport Plan (to name a few initiatives). These initiatives highlight the quick action and responsiveness of boroughs to deliver the needed changes.
In the long-term, the resilience of the transport network to COVID-19 could be aided by prioritising the planned delivery of new trains across the TfL rail network and safeguarding bus routes in inner London to manage demand across the network. The longer, walk-through trains would facilitate social distancing while a continued bus service will ensure that demand is spread across the network.
Ultimately, planning for London’s transport projects will depend substantially on the government’s support package for TfL. Local authorities should also receive funding to ensure they can carry out the work that is needed to enable social distancing in public spaces, which will be essential to allow local economies to recover. There is an opportunity to use the temporary interventions to the cycle and pedestrian infrastructure to pilot routes and design, and identify opportunities to make walking and cycling widely accessible. Facilitating modal shift and increasing the number of journeys that are walked or cycled is at the core of London’s Transport Strategy. The investment in streetscapes should be maximised by thinking strategically and long-term about how these temporary measures might become permanent.
A question that has not yet received much attention is the impact of COVID-19 on the planned extension of the ULEZ (currently set for October 2021), and whether the need to manage the space on our roads does not suggest that an extended ULEZ should be delivered ahead of schedule. This could reduce the risk of a potential car-based recovery that would undermine on-going initiatives to create space for all.
Alison Noehrbass – 14.5.2020