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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To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.