The only standout mention of the capital in yesterday’s budget was a promise to bring “London-style transport settlements” to regions across the country.
On the face of it, this is an entirely sensible aspiration. Many other cities would love to have London’s mix of cheap, frequent buses with flat fares, a fast reliable and wide-ranging underground system, national and international rail connections, and integrated ticketing.
But there’s a real risk that in a few years, “London style” will be something to avoid rather than aspire to. Transport for London (TfL) has been hit hard by the pandemic. With many office workers still working from home for at least part of the week, tube ridership has only recently reached half of its pre-pandemic weekday levels and seems unlikely to ever return in full.
Compared to its international peers, revenue for London’s transport network has been particularly badly hit: it is highly reliant on fares for its income, and office commuting remains considerably lower than in other capital cities. Some have argued we should be forcing people back to the office just to alleviate this fall in revenue. This would be a mistake: home working has been a real positive for many Londoners, especially parents juggling work and childcare.
So far, the government has responded to TfL’s funding crisis by giving our world-class transport authority a series of sticking-plaster grants, accompanied by unedifying spats between ministers and the mayor about whose fault the problem is. In the medium term, the government will need to either increase investment in London transport, allow London leaders to raise their own finance by giving it more tax-raising powers, or leave TfL with no choice but to cut back its services – reducing frequency, cutting routes or maintenance.
The fate of the once world leading New York subway system in the late 20th century gives us an idea of what is at stake. Decades of underinvestment meant that New Yorkers avoided public transport if they could, instead flocking to the taxis which clogged the streets of Manhattan. It took many decades, and many hundreds of millions of dollars, to get their city’s transport system close to where it could have been all along.
The frequency of some London suburban rail services are also still well below pre-pandemic levels – at my south London commuter station, trains to and from central London are now twice an hour, down from four times an hour.
For workers whose employees can’t or won’t offer flexible working, particularly working parents, this sort of change is more than just an inconvenience. Not only do they face the UK’s longest commutes, but reduced services can make it impossible to get home in time to pick children up from school or nursery.
Services like the Night Tube have been slow to return, giving some night-time economy workers little choice but to get an infrequent bus or instead, drive a car to work. Behind the official jargon of “changes to services” and “reorganisation”, there are Londoners having to decide whether living in our city is still possible for them – and if more services are cut, there will be many more.