TfL says London’s roads are being subsidised by public transport users. Is it true?

Traffic in London in 2005. Image: Getty.

Are public transport users subsidising London’s roads?

The idea sounds faintly ridiculous, because it goes against all received wisdom. Everyone knows that it’s public transport that gets all the subsidies, right? Poor old drivers are taxed through the nose. Right? Right?

Nonetheless: “passengers subsidise motorists” is now the official line over at Transport for London (TfL). From its latest business plan:

From next year we have to, for the first time, address the critical issues of London’s road network, including congestion, road danger, maintenance and air quality, without any Government operating grant. Furthermore, from 2021, the £500m raised every year from Londoners paying Vehicle Excise Duty will be collected by central Government and only invested in roads outside the Capital.

This means the net operating costs of London’s roads, currently almost £200m each year, and the cost of renewing these roads, between £100m to £150m each year, are effectively being cross subsidised from fare-paying public transport users.

The next paragraph gets a bit “go ahead punk, make my day”. Emphasis mine:

This is neither sustainable nor equitable. As a result, in the short to medium term we will have to significantly reduce our programme of proactive capital renewals on the road network, although we will ensure safety of the network is maintained

There’s a certain amount to unpick here. It’s true that TfL has historically had a grant from central government: that comes from the Department of Transport, and is paid via the Greater London Authority.

And, yes, that grant is indeed tapering off. That’s been happening since April 2013, and will conclude in 2019-20, making 2021 the first year that TfL will operate without a penny of cash from central government. TfL’s responsibilities, what’s more, do include a certain amount of maintenance of London’s road network, and the budget puts their cost at £350m per year.

Since the tax road users pay – Vehicle Excise Duty – is going to central government, and by 2021, central government won’t be giving TfL a penny – and since it’s true that TfL does get most of its money from public transport fares – then, yes, TfL is maintaining London’s roads using cash provided by public transport users rather than drivers.

But there are three things which slightly complicate this argument. One is that TfL isn’t the only body investing in London’s roads: the boroughs and Highways England are also involved. So central government money may still arrive by other means.

Another is that fares aren’t the only source of revenue for TfL. Okay, they’re a big one (see below). But as TfL itself admits, that central government grant has been replaced by Business Rates – a form of property taxes – retained by the GLA. “Businesses subsidising London’s road” doesn’t make for quite as sexy a headline.

TfL’s sources of income, as shown in its 2017-18 budget.

Another complicating factor is that Vehicle Excise Duty is, despite what shouty drivers like to yell at cyclists, not actually a road tax. The money was briefly hypothecated for road maintenance – in the 1920s and 30s. Since 1937, though, it’s just been a form of general taxation: maintenance is also funded from income tax, VAT, and so on.

And so, it’s a bit silly to argue that the money London’s drivers pay to maintain London’s roads is not going to London’s roads because they don’t really pay to maintain London’s roads, and that’s been true for 80 years.

But all this feels like nit-picking. It is true that TfL gets a lot of money from public transport users, and remarkably little – central London congestion charge aside – from drivers. That, given that cars cause pollution and congestion while trains, trams and bikes don’t, feels like the wrong way round.


And, for what it’s worth, the claim that public transport users are subsidising roads is one I first heard from a TfL staffer a couple of weeks back. Even if TfL doesn’t believe it’s true, it’s clearly decided to convince us that it’s true.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.