Public transport overload – will London’s transport system cope post-lockdown?

We live in extraordinary times. The pandemic has touched every aspect of how we live, work and travel, leading to a myriad of concerns about post-lockdown and beyond. What will the new ‘normal’ look like? Will London’s transport system cope? A recent report suggests perhaps not. 

 

people on tube

 

The stories from lockdown have shown the human face of the pandemic. Whilst those who could work from home did, key workers still needed to use London’s transport system to get to, and from, work.

Photos of packed tube carriages at a time when social distancing was a must were common in newspapers and across social media. The outcry was loud, but largely fell on deaf ears.

"Under normal circumstances, 2 million people use the London Underground daily."


The problem looks set to continue. In a report seen by the BBC, post-lockdown social distancing measures could overwhelm London’s transport system. The combination of reducing carrying capacity (that is, the number of people allowed on each tube carriage at one time) and not being able to increase services would lead to the system becoming choked, a situation the London Strategic Coordination Group says would happen quickly.

The figures are mind-boggling. To maintain social distancing between commuters of at least 2m on London buses, capacity would be reduced to 12% of normal levels. Imposing the same on the Underground would reduce capacity to 15% of normal levels.

big red bus

 

The report also states there would be extra pressure on police to manage crowds at stations across the network. The report further suggests a planning period of up to four weeks would be needed before the transport system in London was in the right shape to cope with post-lockdown, socially-distant commuting.

Worryingly, there are concerns about congested roads and the inevitable increase in air pollution, especially at peak times such as the morning and evening rush hours, and the school run.

Finding a solution

Everyone is being primed that life will look very different for some time, months or even years post-pandemic, depending on the production and viability of a vaccine. And even with a vaccine, life may never be the same again. In the interim, we will need to maintain ‘social distancing’ wherever we go in public, including in the workplace and on public transport.

Under normal circumstances, 2 million people use the London Underground daily. Three times as many people use London’s iconic red buses every day. So how will all these commuters cope with an 85% reduction in capacity on the tube and an 88% reduction in the capacity of London’s buses?

Of course, these issues don’t just relate to London’s transport system. All major cities across the UK, large towns and rural communities are braced for post-lockdown life, especially when it comes to transport. With some areas of the UK already at the mercy of poor transport systems with limited capacity, the idea of a reduced service will bring yet more hardship to the commuting public.

What are the options for commuting in London post-lockdown?

It has to be stressed that at the point of publication, official UK Government advice and regulation has not been released about how lockdown will be eased, who can leave home and which shops and businesses will be able to re-open.

There is ongoing discussion, for example, over the wearing of face masks on public transport and other areas deemed to be ‘high risk’. Some experts say wearing a face mask affords protection but others say the benefits are limited.

 

person walking with mask

 

That aside, finding different ways of commuting in London - and in towns and cities across the UK - should be at the forefront of discussion.

But London suffers from a major issue that doesn’t affect other European cities – innovation stifled by out-of-date transport laws.

Under the Highways Act 1835, e-scooters are classified as ‘motorised vehicles’ and the Road Traffic Act 1988 prohibits their use on roads and pavements. At a time when other European cities are relying on e-scooters and e-bikes to ease congestion on busy streets, the UK lags behind.

All is not lost, however. The recent announcement that the consultation on allowing e-scooters on our roads has started, with submissions encouraged up until the deadline of 2 June.

Is the e-scooter the answer to post-lockdown commuting?

 

stack of toilet rolls

 

In Australia, the bike has become the new toilet paper. The panic buying pre-lockdown shifted thousands of rolls off supermarket shelves across the globe but Aussies, unsure about whether riding public transport is safe, have done the same for bicycle sales.

The e-bike can make life easier and for the commuter, it is a welcome tool. Potentially, the e-scooter can be an even more effective aid to commuting - if legislation in the UK allows it.

But still, on the immediate post-lockdown streets of London, the Department of Transport maintains it is an offence to use an e-scooter on roads as they do not comply with motorised vehicle requirements. In other words, they have no insurance, no tax and no driver testing thus making their use illegal, a situation that prevails.

But here’s the thing – there are potentially 5 to 6 million commuters in London who will have to find a new way of travelling in and around the city each day because there will be limited capacity on public transport. This is happening NOW and so change needs to come urgently.

 

tube at platform

 

If e-scooter riders took to post-lockdown London streets en masse, would the Metropolitan Police enforce fines? In the past, enforcement has been infrequent. A flurry of fines was issued in summer 2019 after a tragic fatality when an e-scooter collided with a lorry. Increasing the scale of enforcement en masse probably wouldn’t be feasible.

The rules against riding e-scooters on public roads are restrictive, as they currently stand:

  •         Defined as a motor vehicle, they must adhere to motor laws with riders needing to have current third party insurance (as a minimum), number plates and an annual MoT certificate
  •         They must have mirrors, brake lights and indicators
  •         Riders could be fined £300 with 6 penalty points and have their e-scooter confiscated.

And yet, the e-scooter is far closer to a bike than it is to a car. A simple change in the law would make the e-scooter a safe and legal mode of transport thus helping to reduce the impact of the problems that Transport for London is set to face in the coming weeks and months.

Responsible riders would be more than happy to comply with mandatory helmet wearing, as well as insuring their machine. Riding within prescribed speed limits also wouldn’t be a problem for the majority of e-scooter riders. Just like a 15mph limit for e-bikes is in force, e-scooters could stick within the same limits.

E-scooters are a green option too, fitting right in with the UK Government and Mayor of London’s desire to reduce air pollution in the capital.

It’s time for change

The pandemic has pushed many issues to the fore and, more importantly, the need to effect change – and quickly.

London and UK cities have been left behind their European counterparts who have a range of transport options open to residents including the e-scooter. We need change now more than ever so commuters can get to and from work safely. And the e-scooter is part of this solution.