Is Sadiq Khan’s hopper fare encouraging Londoners onto the buses?

Some London buses, in London. Image: Getty.

London’s buses form the backbone of the capital’s public transport system. Its 10,000 buses operating nearly 700 routes serve many areas that are not reached by London’s tube and rail, and provide an essential service to many Londoners, especially those on lower incomes who are more likely to use them.

But despite this, the number of people choosing to travel by bus has been falling since 2014, and it is predicted to fall by a further 2.3 per cent per year from 2016-17. Vehicle congestion – on the rise in the capital – is often cited as a major contributing factor, as it means buses have become a less reliable, slower option for commenters.

With ballooning bike numbers, many areas have seen cyclists and buses come into direct conflict, slowing them down further. Private Hire Vehicles emerging as competitors on some routes (especially off-peak), have also contributed to the drop. With fewer passengers choosing to travel by bus, tube ridership and London's suburban rail network are increasing overcrowded.

Reversing the downward trend in bus ridership would ease pressure across London’s transport network. The current mayor has introduced a number of changes to the bus network, made all the more pressing given Transport for London’s declining revenues and rising operating costs, with the view of turning around its fortunes.

One of the first measures introduced was the Hopper fare, which gives passengers the right to a second free bus journey within an hour of their previous one. Its popularity has meant an improved Hopper, allowing unlimited journeys within the hour, will launch in 2018. The mayor has also taken steps to renew bus prioritisation measures, improve information and customer service, and reviewed traffic signals to improve bus journey speeds and reliability.


Are these measures starting to have an effect? Recent TfL journey data suggests at least a slowing down of the decline in use. While four-week periods during 2016 saw year-on-year declines of up to 23 per cent, since May this year, the available data (to 16 September) shows three out of five periods saw year-on-year growth, something not seen since late 2014.

Whether this is just a blip in the longer term trend downwards, or a ‘bottoming out’ is hard to tell – future passenger number releases will start to build up a fuller picture.

On a positive note meanwhile, GLA analysis suggests 100m Hopper fares were used within the first year of operation, although this is small drop in the ocean (compared to over 2.2bn bus journeys in total over the same period), and the net addition of journeys is likely to be lower than this. Other measures – having only been announced earlier this year – are likely to take longer to result in significant changes.

There is certainly more the mayor can do. His draft Transport Strategy contains ambitious targets for reducing private car use, which will be particularly tricky in outer London, and buses will surely play a role in this. The introduction of demand-responsive hybrid bus-taxi services, as suggested in Centre for London’s Street Smarts report on the future of surface transport in London, could be a way to improve the network. Similar in nature to CityMapper’s recently launched ‘Black Bus’ route, these would be smaller than traditional buses, and operate routes where travel demand is high and possibly infrequent, but supply is lacking.

In Central London, more bus prioritisation measures such as developing bus rapid transit corridors would help bypass issues of congestion, although managing the conflicting demands for limited road space is a tricky balancing act.

The game is a long and complex one for London’s buses, and a definitive judgement on the effectiveness of the policies already introduced must wait, but even more can be done to ensure they continue to serve the city and Londoners’ mobility needs.

Tom Colthorpe is a researcher at Centre for London.

Bus journeys are one of a number of indicators analysed in ‘The London Intelligence’, the Centre’s quarterly report which analyses London’s performance across a range of sectors and issues. The Centre’s ‘Street Smarts’ report was launched in October.

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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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