Why fewer Londoners are taking the tube: a transport researcher explains

This guest blog was written by Nicole Badstuber, Researcher in Urban Transport Governance at the Centre for Transport Studies, UCL.

For the first time since 2008, the number of people using the world-famous London Underground – locally known as “the tube” – has fallen. After over two decades of long-term growth, passenger numbers are down 2%, from 1.38 billion in the financial year 2016-17, to 1.35 billion in 2017-18. Bus use also peaked in 2014, and has been falling steadily each year. Simply put, fewer people in London are using public transport – and this means fewer ticket sales. This has created a funding gap that puts plans for improvements and upgrades in serious jeopardy.

Since the national government cut its £700m a year grant, London’s transport agency, Transport for London (TfL), has been banking on ticket sales to fund the capital’s transport system. But this year, TfL has had to revise its income from tickets sales down by £240m.

This spells trouble for the agency, which plans for ticket sales to generate up to £6.2 billion, or 62%, of the £10.2 billion budget for 2022-23 – a step increase from today’s £4.6 billion, or 45% of this year’s budget. Since London Mayor Sadiq Khan is committed to freezing single fares, additional growth will need to come from more passengers.

This is, in some ways, a reasonable expectation: population and employment – the key drivers of transport demand – are still growing in London. TfL points towards economic factors, including the uncertainty of Brexit, to explain the downturn in demand for public transport. But this year’s lower passenger numbers point instead towards lifestyle changes, which are affecting when and how people choose to travel.

London’s missing passengers

Travel surveys show that the average Londoner made only 2.2 trips (across all transport modes) a day in 2016-17, down 20% from 2006-7. So despite population growth, transport demand has not risen as much as expected. This decline is mirrored across England: between 2002 and 2016 a 9% drop in trips across all modes was recorded.

Passenger numbers and journey stages on London Underground. Travel in London Report 10/TfL, Author provided

Flexible and remote working practices are contributing to this trend: instead of commuting to work five days, the new normal for Londoners is now four. Over the past decade, commuting trips have dropped by 14.2%.

At the same time, the cost of travel has been increasing. While single fares on the bus and the tube cost approximately the same in real terms between 2000 and 2012, they have increased 5% and 3% respectively since then. The cost of season tickets is up even more; 8% on the bus and 6% on the London Underground in real terms since 2012.

Greater transport costs mean less disposable income, which partially explains why Londoners are making fewer leisure and shopping trips, instead opting to stay home and shop online. Meanwhile, London’s changing mix of traffic suggests that personal trips are being substituted with deliveries. This shifts the burden from the public transport network to the road network. Across London, light goods vans are making up a growing proportion of traffic: accounting for 14% of traffic in 2016, up from 10% in 1993 and 11% in 2000.

Trouble for TFL

To avoid a major shortfall, TfL will need to look at new ways to fund transport. One solution might be to reform London’s congestion charge. Currently, the congestion charge covers less than 1.5% of the city, applies only between 7am and 6pm, consists of a simple, daily flat rate, and exempts private hire vehicles – your Uber drivers and minicabs.

Over the past four years, there has been a 75% increase in the number of registered private hire vehicles. On Friday and Saturday nights, 18,000 cars flood the streets of Central London. With New York City set to introduce a surcharge for taxis and private hire vehicles (US$2.50 and US$2.75 respectively), London might also want to follow suit.

A more comprehensive road pricing strategy would be an effective tool to manage traffic and generate funds for the transport system. A reformed congestion charge alongside good public transport, cycling infrastructure and public space could encourage Londoners to shift away from their cars toward travelling by public transport, walking and cycling.

TfL predicts that most of its revenue growth – £3.2 billion over the next five years – will come from the new Elizabeth Line, which is set to start running in December 2018. By 2022-23, TfL expects passenger numbers on the Elizabeth Line to increase by 200m to 269m, and tickets sales to earn £913m. Over the same period, passenger numbers on the London Underground and bus network are forecast to rise by just 5% and 3% respectively.

The income from the Elizabeth Line is crucial to TfL balancing its books. As outgoing deputy mayor for transport, Val Shawcross, warned, delays to the Elizabeth Line opening on time are TfL’s greatest revenue risk. So as engineering challenges threaten to push back the opening date, TfL’s money worries look set to worsen.

The funding conundrum

TfL is also seeking to earn from developments on some of the 300 acres of land it owns in the city. By 2022-23, the property partnerships agreed between TfL and thirteen large property development companies in 2016 are set to generate £3.4 billion of income to reinvest into London’s transport system. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is pushing for further sites to be unlocked, to generate more funds and meet his manifesto commitment to build more affordable homes for Londoners.

Khan’s manifesto pledge to freeze single fare tickets throughout his term is estimated to cost £640m. Arguably, reneging on that promise could return £640m to TfL’s purse. TfL points to national rail services where fares are higher and the reduction in passenger numbers has been greater, and argue that the fare freeze blunted the drop in passenger numbers.

If TfL fails to find new ways to fund its network, more cuts to upgrade and capital programmes are only a matter of time. The agency has already cut its funding for streets, cycling and public spaces in London’s boroughs, and suspended its roads renewal programme and underground capacity upgrades. TfL’s reliance on ticket sales to fund the capital’s transport system makes it very vulnerable to unexpected changes in demand. To ensure London continues to have a world-class transport system, both Khan and TfL must urgently find new sources of funding.


Nicole Badstuber is Researcher in Urban Transport Governance at the Centre for Transport Studies, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Destination stations: the role of railways in regeneration

King’s Cross Station, London © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

From Roman roads, to Victorian ‘cathedrals of steam’, transport has played a pivotal role in the development of societies and economies throughout history.

Today, rising energy prices, road congestion, and climate change, as well as reduced household sizes and an increased demand for urban living have put the potential benefits of urban transport hubs back in the spotlight.

Transit-orientated development

Transit-orientated development (TOD) is one response. An American-concept, it involves the creation of high-density mixed-use developments around a transit station or stop, such as a railway station, usually within a half-mile radius (a 10-minute walk approximately).  It may include office space, retail, leisure facilities and housing, as well as public areas and green space, and a variety of public transport options.

The aim is to create attractive, diverse, walkable places.  TOD can also help to significantly reduce traffic congestion and air pollution.

Stations as ‘destinations’

In Europe, TOD has yet to ‘catch on’. However, it shares many similar principles with the increasingly popular concept of developing railway stations as destinations in their own right – for shopping, working and socialising.  Railways often form an important part of a town or city centre, and the combination of transport node and central location has the potential to attract people in great numbers.

The redevelopment of London King’s Cross station and the surrounding industrial wasteland made it one of the first ‘destination stations’ in the UK.  Around the station, new homes, shops, offices, galleries, bars, restaurants, a hotel, schools and a university were created, along with 20 new streets, 10 new public parks and squares, and 26 acres of open space.  In fact, the redevelopment was on such a scale that the area now has its own postcode – N1C.

Some other key examples of newly developed ‘destination stations’ in the UK include Manchester Victoria Station and Birmingham New Street Station. Network Rail last year stated that they intend to create many more such ‘destination stations’.

Economic and social benefits

As well as environmental benefits such as reduced air pollution and traffic congestion, mixed-use developments in and around railway stations can help meet housing demand, and spur the economic and social regeneration of their surrounding communities.  Particular benefits can include:

  • Improved passenger experience/satisfaction
  • Attracting more businesses into an area
  • Improving the supply of labour for businesses
  • New job creation
  • Increased demand for food, retail and leisure facilities from greater numbers of commuters, residents and workers
  • Helping high streets to compete with online retailers and out of town developments
  • Contributing to public health goals through increased walkability of areas
  • Making good use of previously inaccessible/waste land

Government support

There is strong government support for delivering improvements around railway stations.

The recent Housing white paper recognises the regenerative potential of railway stations, viewing them as key anchors for the next generation of urban housing developments.

Two new sources of funding for railway station developments have also recently been announced: the second round of the New Stations Fund – a £20 million pot to build new stations or reopen previously closed stations; and the Station Regeneration programme – which aims to develop railway stations and surrounding land, while delivering up to 10,000 new homes.

Alongside this, there are also plans to release large amounts of unused railway land for housing – enough to build 12,000 houses across 200 sites.

Large and small

In addition to developments focused around one particular station or city, there are also a number of major railway-based infrastructure projects currently taking place.  Among these are the Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement Programme (including recently approved plans to redevelop Glasgow Queen Street station), Great Western Electrification, Crossrail and HS2.  All of these have the potential to catalyse regeneration in their surrounding areas.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are also a number of successful smaller scale regeneration projects involving railways.

Addressing the challenges

The development of railway sites can pose a number of challenges, including contaminated land, fragmented land ownership and reconciling short-term economic development goals with the longer time scales necessary in larger infrastructure projects.

However, according to James Harris, a policy officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute, planners are ‘uniquely’ placed to work with landowners, infrastructure providers, developers and the local community to help deliver a strategic vision for these locations.

Planners should also be flexible and creative in their approach towards station redevelopments, focusing on outcomes rather than processes, says David Crook, assistant director of station regeneration at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Cities and Local Growth Unit.  In doing so, he says, planners can help make a station regeneration project ‘more than the sum of its parts’.


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