Public Transport's Identity Crisis
The case for maintaining our network
Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, public transport has become something of a bête noire. In reputation London’s prized network has gone from a stuffy but vital feature of the city’s urban fabric, to a serious health hazard and risk to life that should only be interacted with if absolutely necessary.
As a result, usership of the Transport for London (TfL) system has seen all-time lows of just 10% pre-Covid usage (just 6% for the Underground), rising slightly when restrictions were loosened, and dropping again with the second lockdown.
Emergency stimulus packages to the tune of more than £3 billion have had to be introduced to prevent it collapsing completely, which would leave the city’s residents more isolated than the pandemic has already forced them to be. It is believed that £5.7 billion of emergency cash is needed for it to survive the next 18 months.
London’s public transport is the only system in the world that doesn’t receive any direct government funding since it was run down in 2015 and totally eradicated in 2018. Before then it received almost £1 billion per year from the Treasury. Now, 72% of all operating costs must be covered by passenger fares. This is in comparison to New York and Paris, which rely on fares to make up only 38% of their operating budget, and Singapore, in which all but 21% of its network’s running costs are covered by government grants.
With such a high dependence on tickets, it is no wonder that TfL has just seen the hardest financial quarter of its 20-year lifespan. The substantial dip in passenger numbers has truly left TfL in a worrying state, and with strict lockdown rules set to be in place in the runup to and aftermath of Christmas and travelling into town for Christmas markets or shopping all but prohibited, the future of the much relied-upon network looks precarious.
But we at Walulel, alongside a number of public health and transport experts, remain optimistic about the prospects for urban public transport. Other than being keenly aware of how totally necessary it is to a well-functioning city, we see amongst the challenges presented to our networks plenty of room for opportunity; for innovation and improvement.
One of the key reasons people are avoiding public transport (other than quite rightly following government advice) is its perceived lack of Covid-safety. During flu-seasons, the relatively poor ventilation and cramped environment leads a regular bus or tube user in London to seek medical care for flu-related issues at a higher rate than others, and some choose not to use public transport as a result. When a deadly pandemic develops then, it’s unsurprising that huge numbers forego these networks in the interest of protecting themselves and others, and many of those who can have returned to travelling by car.
Of course, car-users importantly avoid contracting or spreading the virus from direct contact on crowded carriages, but that’s not the whole story. Though the isolation one may find in their car may keep them from the germs of others, the pollution caused by mass car travel leads directly to widespread chronic respiratory problems. Our own Air Quality data shows that even a moderate increase in PM2.5 particles can lead to a higher likelihood of heart and lung disease, and even premature death across the population.
It’s not particularly healthy for the driver either. Avoiding the crowds is certainly a bonus, but obesity is seen to rise with increased car travel as drivers tend to walk far less than public transport users. High pollution from increased car-use combined with the health issues caused by a lack of movement dramatically increase the likelihood of developing the more dangerous symptoms of Covid-19. Public health expert Lawrence Frank says that “the most vulnerable society is the one that becomes the most sedentary and the most car dependent, and that's the worst possible case when a pandemic comes”.
This is all well and good, but the pandemic is already here, and many say that until it’s over, they understandably won’t put themselves at risk by moving from their car back to public transport. According to the Guardian, attitudes towards whether or not a private car is essential has risen to two in three people now believing it is, returning us to the same rate as at the turn of the millennium. 57% believe their car to be more important now than before the pandemic, and in the interest of safety only 43% say they would use their cars less if more public transport was available – the lowest number since 2002.
However, some suggest that this fear may be misplaced, and public transport might not be so bad for you after all. The advanced safety measures imposed on transport networks in response to the pandemic, including mandatory mask-wearing and more regular cleaning, have, so Dr Julian Tang recently told Sky News, made them “the safest places on earth”. Hyperbolic perhaps, though in a French study, only 1.2% of cases were traced to transport while offices and schools contributed to 25% and 20% of cases respectively.
Hong Kong, where public transport is key to the region’s functioning, has a very low number of cases (80 per 100,000 compared to the UK’s 2,309 per 100,000), and in Japan no clusters were traced to their dense and busy network. TfL are using hospital-grade disinfectants to clean their vehicles having installed more than 2000 hand sanitation stations. As such, in early November 2020, Imperial College London’s tests couldn’t find any evidence of Covid-19 in the air or in high-touch areas on the Tube.
Other safety features like those on France’s highspeed trains, which replace the air in their carriages every 2.5 minutes, and Thameslink trains that now have real-time weight monitors that indicate which carriages are busy so you can avoid them further increase this Covid-security.
For the oft-overlooked drivers of these vehicles, London’s 9,300 buses have introduced a new ventilation system that provides their cabin with air from outside rather than inside the bus to prevent potential infection from a passenger. Such procedures have been very important in turning transport into a safer environment than many may imagine. The application of these strategies and more to all modes of transport could not only massively increase passenger and driver safety, but also public trust in the network as riders begin to feel safer.
Another reason that people may be avoiding transport is the push towards more localisation. We have seen a large and sustained increase in the number of people taking to their bikes and walking through improved infrastructure, helping tackle the environmental and health issues a city faces.
Such emphasis placed on community-minded, walkable and cyclable neighbourhoods should be supported and given the praise it deserves. But practically, this is a difficult situation for TfL, and for much of the population.
Firstly, outside of the normal taxes, people don’t pay to walk or cycle or to upgrade infrastructure. There are no fares charged directly to the operator when someone decides to take a stroll down the greenways or cycle to the office, and rightly so. Yet by prioritising these modes over working to safely encourage people back on to Covid-secure transport, TfL are losing money.
Secondly, it’s important not to forget that cities are big places. Workplaces can be many miles from one’s home, and friends and family often live far apart. While the excellent developments in cycling infrastructure have helped provide some communities with the freedom to travel further afield in a socially distanced manner, biking from Brixton to Brent Cross would still take three times as long as the tube.
Cycling also excludes those with impaired mobility or disability, the very young and the elderly, for whom public transport is a genuine lifeline. It allows them to access not only friends and family, but necessary services like hospitals and supermarkets, and for carers to visit them. Community and locality are crucial, especially during periods of lockdown and isolation, but if one lives far from their social network and safe transport links to them are inadequate, then that can also be an incredibly isolating experience.
As such, maintaining an efficient transport network is necessary for many, especially those who tend to go unseen. But a large proportion of this population are also in vulnerable categories, so maintaining the cleanliness of the transport they use must remain of the highest importance if trust is to be continued.
Furthermore, though millions have been encouraged to work from home, meaning a commute to the office is in part becoming a thing of the past, others are not afforded this luxury. Those for whom it is necessary to continue travelling into work are generally reliant upon public transport systems to get where they need to, particularly in London where owning a car can be an expensive endeavour.
Given that often these workers fall into the category of ‘key workers’, a diminishing transport service would lead to chaos amongst some of the country’s most important sectors as their employees seek alternative, and often more expensive, routes into work.
As mentioned, fewer people are commuting due to homeworking and increased cycling or walking, meaning that for now, there is more space than usual on transport networks. But in a city with a population of almost 10 million, even with diminished passenger numbers there is overcrowding, and many want more people using public transport having been encouraged out of their cars. This would certainly go some way towards making up for the shortfall in passenger fares, and support developments in protecting both the environment and citizens. But how?
Answers may be found in expansion, which would allow more people to easily access a direct route to where they need to go, without the added worry of having to change modes or walk a substantial distance to their closest stop. This could reduce the fear of infection from transitioning between types of transport or overcrowding on platforms and carriages.
Further still, Walulel data suggests that a high number of public transport links within a given location will increase the number of opportunities residents have to access education, employment, markets, and many other facilities. They may also be more secure with lower crime rates, as buses and trains have better overall security than private motor vehicles, and cultivate more ‘eyes on the street’ neighbourhoods.
Later opening times, as we have seen with the Night Tube, would also increase usage, again through preventing rushes as people try and catch the last train. This would have a knock-on effect on local retail as it will allow consumers to remain out later and stagger leaving times at entertainment venues, pubs and restaurants. On this commercial level, an expansion of the transport network would be a blessing. Our data shows that if a neighbourhood is well-connected, you can expect a much higher number of people to be willing to commute to the locality for work or come to use the facilities on offer at all times of day.
Ultimately, to encourage more people onto transport, the case needs to be made for its overwhelming utility and what is at stake if it returns to the crumbling systems of the past. Populations also crucially need to know how safe it can be and where and how to access it securely. Using WaInsight, anyone who needs it can access information to help you utilise the TfL network to its fullest extent as worry-free as possible.
We include data that tells you where to stand for the easiest exit from the station or to increase the chances of getting a seat. We can also pinpoint which neighbourhoods would need more transport investment, seeking out those areas with heavy car use and helping decision makers to deduce why a neighbourhood has developed in such a way, whether it be a higher emphasis on roads and car-parking spaces, or a long distance to the nearest bus stop or station.
We believe that public transport will make a big comeback, and Walulel can help it happen.