Coronavirus: What will London transport look like after the lockdown?

By Tom Edwards
Transport and environment correspondent, London

  • Published
Cyclists in LondonImage source, AFP
Image caption,
London's transport network is facing arguably its biggest challenge

How have people's feelings changed about using public transport during the coronavirus pandemic, and what will the post-lockdown commute look like?

Carys Barton has worked in a hospital in the centre of London for the whole of lockdown and commutes in from Hertfordshire.

The overcrowding was getting too much, so the nurse has switched from the train and Tube to driving into work.

But traffic levels are increasing and she thinks she'll have go back to public transport. That makes her anxious.

Her feelings will surely be shared by millions of people who are contemplating using public transport for the first time in many weeks.

"I'm really worried about when the crowds return there won't be any chance at all to social distance and we will end up spreading the virus again," she says.

Image caption,
Carys Barton is anxious about what her commute will look like

Cities are defined by their transport systems, with their success in part due to public transport.

Indeed, major cities are on the scale they are - think of the suburbs that comprise London's Metroland - because of it.

Cities with good transport allow people to live in one area and quickly go to another to socialise and work.

Now the network faces arguably its biggest challenge: how will it operate with social distancing when the lockdown eases?

How does London, and other cities, stop a swarm to motor vehicles and total gridlock?

Image source, Pete Kenny
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Some Tube were sometimes packed with commuters, particularly at the start of the lockdown

Social distancing means the capacity of the Tube, trains and buses will be radically reduced.

A leaked report for Transport for London (TfL) given to me shows that Tube capacity will drop from 325,000 people boarding every 15 minutes to 50,000.

Buses that usually hold 85 passengers will only be able to carry 15.

Those figures show the stark reality of what London's transport system faces.

Heidi Alexander, London's deputy mayor for transport, says: "In February, you could reach your arm out and touch six people easily on the Tube.

"With a 2m social distancing rule in place, a Victoria line train could only carry 21 people in a carriage rather than the usual 125. So there are real challenges ahead."

So what are the solutions to these problems?

Home working

Image source, Getty Images
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Millions of people have been working from home due to the coronavirus outbreak

The first thing that the authorities are emphasising is that if you can still work from home, then you should: keeping people at home is part of the "new normal".

"We don't want to be replacing one public health emergency with another one, with people returning to their cars," Ms Alexander says.

"We will be running as many trains and buses as possible but if people can work from home, they must work from home."

Staggered starts

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Staggered work starts could help ease the pressure on the transport network

There will also probably be a campaign to get people to start their journeys at different times, as we saw during the 2012 London Olympics.

Workplaces will be asked to stagger their start times to help TfL and the train companies reduce volumes at peak times for travel.

But staggering work start times would have to be co-ordinated with doing the same thing for schools.

That is not going to be easy to organise.

Cycling and walking

Image source, PA Media
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More cycle lanes are set to be created after the lockdown

Cities are trying to encourage walking and cycling, with Manchester mayor Andy Burnham pushing "pop-up" cycle lanes.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has outlined his "streetscape" programme, with plans to increase the number of temporary bike lanes. He thinks cycling could increase tenfold.

Mr Khan will start with the very busy Euston Road and the famous Park Lane. These lanes could become permanent, with more to follow.

Cycling campaigners have mixed feelings, with some saying TfL should focus on local centres. They also point out New York City is putting in 110 miles of bike lanes.

And the black-cab lobby has reacted furiously, saying the mayor has become out of touch with normal Londoners and that adding bike lanes will increase congestion.

But you can expect more and more roads to be reallocated to walking and cycling.

Queuing, masks and reducing social distancing

Image source, AFP
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Commuters could be asked to wear face masks

Sources in the rail industry have told me there will probably be long queuing systems in stations similar to those in place during events like the Olympics.

Train carriages could also have one-way systems and blocked-off seats.

Interchange stations in London, where national rail meets the Tube, could see rail services cut to prevent overcrowding.

All of this would have an impact on "dwell times" so timetables are bound to be disrupted.

There is also talk of having to book a slot at the railway station via your smartphone so the staff there can manage passenger numbers.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
London mayor Sadiq Khan has spoken out in favour of face masks

But one industry insider told me: "It is the individual's responsibility to adhere to government social distancing guidelines.

"You can't expect our people to enforce the rules.

"But we really need guidance from government on how we should operate when big numbers return, and more clarity on face coverings and if that will change social distancing."

The use of face coverings is one of a number of areas where government and the mayor of London have disagreed.

Mr Khan thinks they should be compulsory on public transport - although he has not told Londoners to wear them.

The government says the benefit is marginal.

But could there be a change in policy here and could that lead to reductions in social distancing to ease the pressure on public transport?

Providing reassurance

Image source, AFP
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New measures have been introduced on London buses to improve driver safety

But how many passengers will return? Can anyone imagine squeezing on to a packed Tube train any more?

Antony Smith, from Transport Focus & London TravelWatch, says public transport will have to be looked at in the same way as supermarkets.

He says: "Any transport users who need to travel are going to need reassurance about what services are running and open and what they might expect on those journeys.

"Most of us are non-users now, out of the habit of travelling in a new, fearful environment. Information is always important in allaying anxiety."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
A post-lockdown London will face new challenges - and be presented with new opportunities

So what does all this mean for the transport authorities?

In 2019-20, 47% of TfL's income came from transport fares, at £4.9bn. Those revenues have been decimated but the system is still costing £600m a month to operate in the capital.

TfL previously had no grant support from government but it is now in talks over a bailout - although if there were to be one, it would almost certainly come with strings attached.

Insiders have told me part of any deal is that all future infrastructure projects would have to be reassessed, including Crossrail 2 and the Piccadilly line upgrade.

Many projects would face being delayed or scrapped.

Tfl has no choice other than to ask for government funding, and this could cause it to lose some of the independence it currently has under the mayor.

Prof Tony Travers, an expert in local and national government at the London School of Economics, says: "Given the politics of the national government and City Hall, it's almost certain the government will want a say in the use of any money that they hand over to Sadiq Khan.

"They could want more control of TfL, like the Tube and buses, or other conditions like access to TfL land.

"That would be a mistake. TfL has its problems but it is demonstrably better run than the national railway."

As passengers start to return to the capital after lockdown, getting around will be much more difficult and time-consuming than it has been over the past six weeks.

The new reality will be bewildering and mind-boggling for many. London and its transport system will not be the same in the near future.

As TfL says: "It is clear life simply won't be returning to what it was before."

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