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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.