Can you really get to work without using public transport? Commuters in most of England already do

London’s tube, this morning. Image: Getty.

One of the most contentious things about Britain’s current lockdown status – or at least, one of the ones which has caused the most spluttering on Twitter, which is not quite the same thing – concerns the question of commuting. Consider this extract from Boris Johnson’s address to the nation last night:

“We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work.

“And we want it to be safe for you to get to work. So you should avoid public transport if at all possible – because we must and will maintain social distancing, and capacity will therefore be limited.”

This led to a certain amount of disquiet on social media. How would it be possible, many government critics wondered, to get to work if you were avoiding public transport? Actually, cheerleaders for the government replied, most people don’t use public transport to get to work, and (I’m paraphrasing, but not by much) the belief that they do is a sign of how Britain’s London-centric media class is out of touch with real blah blah blah.

On this one, as it happens, the government’s cheerleaders have a point. It’s not quite true to say that only people in and around London rely on public transport to get to work. But they are massively more likely to.

This graphic from consultancy CBRE contrasts workers’ usual method of commuting in London, to that in the rest of England:

Perhaps surprisingly, similar proportions of the population walk (9-10%) or cycle (4-5%) in both samples. But twice as many take a bus or coach in London (15% vs 7%), and nearly four times as many take the train (38% vs 10%), compared to the rest of the country. On the other side of the equation, at 67%, the percentage who drive is more than twice as high in England as a whole than in London, where it’s just 30%.

This should be no surprise. Between tube, trains and buses, London has a comprehensive, and generally (no, really) pretty good public transport network. Most cities in England do not. And so, in much of the country, people who don’t live within a mile or two of their office will opt to drive.  

These charts from the Centre for Cities, based on 2011 census data and looking at England’s core cities, make the same point. On public transport use London is way out ahead:

On car use, it’s way behind:

So in much of the country, the idea of commuting to work without setting foot on public transport makes sense. It’s London that’s the outlier.

That said, in London, the Prime Minister’s advice is confusing, because the capital is hugely dependent on public transport. Large numbers of Londoners don’t just choose to take public transport to work: they don’t own a car and so don’t have a choice. The result is footage like this:

In what one suspects to be related news, Transport for London has just advised passengers to wear masks.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.



What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.