Six things we learnt last week about the future of London's rail services

A street performer pretending to be a traditional commuter at London Bridge station during the 2012 Olympics. Image: Getty.

Geoff Hobbs is a man who revels in the exciting-if-you-work-at-CityMetric title of the head of planning for Transport for London's rail division. Last week, he gave a presentation at a Centre for London event on the future of the capital’s rail services.

In the name of full disclosure, we should admit upfront that we weren't actually there. (Boo.) But we were watching on Twitter, and have had a good read of his powerpoint presentation. Here are some things that we learned.

1. London is growing really, really fast

By the equivalent of two tube trains of people every week, in fact. That means 50 per cent more rail trips in the capital as soon as 2031.

So far, much of that growth has been handled through upgrading the tube – bigger trains that can carry more passengers; better signalling systems that allow you to run more trains on a line; that sort of thing.

But, Hobbs’ presentation tells us, the Tube will hit a limit on this by the end of the 2020s. So – the extra capacity has to come from elsewhere.

2. Most of the growth is likely to be north of the river

Here's where all those new Londoners are going to live:

And here's where they're going to work:

Much of the growth on both maps is happening directly to the east of central London, in the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham. That's not surprising: as the city's former industrial heartland, that's where the most brownfield land is.

But look at where the growth isn't happening. The huge chunk of London south of the river is expected to see relatively little change.

There's a reason for that.

3. Transport in south London is, relatively, rubbish.

We've written before about why the best transport maps show frequency as well as route – here's a worked example of what such a “frequency map” would look like in London.

The lines coloured red are those you can turn up to at any time and have a pretty good chance there'll be a train along shortly. Those coloured grey are those that you can't. See if you can spot any patterns.

To an extent this is just a reflection of the fact the Tube, DLR and parts of the Overground are better than most national rail services. (Duh.) But since South London is disproportionately reliant on national rail services, it is – relatively speaking – a right pain to get to.

4. So it takes longer to get there

Consequently, this happens:

This is travel times from Oxford Circus. Green is relatively good; red is relatively bad.

Note the way the green areas fade out a lot quicker south of the river than north.

5. Baby steps can get you places

A number of new lines are proposed for the southern half of the capital: extensions to the northern and Bakerloo lines; Crossrail 2. But Hobbs argued that another part of the plan should be making national rail more like the underground.

That means a huge swathe of incremental improvements: simplified service patterns, higher frequency routes, the changes to the layouts of junctions that you need to allow them, trains that can accelerate and brake more quickly.

Most of these are the sort of improvements that tend to get ignored by map fanatics like us – but they can have a major impact on service quality.

Here's an illustration of what this would mean in practice, if TfL took over the south London train services currently operated by the train operating company Southern:

At the moment, south London has a complicated tangle of different routes. In this version, they’ve been replaced by just six: two into Victoria, three into London Bridge, and one across town.

It would, Hobbs says, give nearly all the London stations on the network service frequencies of 6tph. And the only bit of major infrastructure work envisioned here would be new platforms on the London Bridge-Sutton line, to turn it into an interchange.

6. London doesn't stop at the city boundary

We already knew this, of course, but nonetheless, this is a pretty striking map. Look at the way the city's tentacles spread across the whole of the south east:


At the moment, TfL only has its eye on the "inner suburban services" – those that terminate at or near the city boundary. In the long term, though, it may make sense to give the city's transport authority control of trains that go well beyond that.

All images reproduced courtesy of Transport for London. Thanks also to the Centre for London.


How can cities build a better bike culture? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.