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.

The death of nightclubs?

by Stacey Dingwall

Last month, Islington Council confirmed that one of London’s biggest clubs, fabric, would not be reopening. The nightclub’s licence had been suspended following two-drug related deaths at the venue. Over 150,000 people, including the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan (whose Greater London Authority has no power to intervene in licensing decisions) have since signed a change.org petition demanding the club be allowed to reopen. Ironically, Khan has recently announced that he will be appointing a ‘Night Czar’ for the city. This new figure will be responsible for developing London’s night time economy, which is currently worth £41 billion and supports more than 1.25m jobs. The recent launch of the night tube is also intended to grow the city’s night time economy.

The night time economy

We’ve previously looked at the importance of the night time economy to the UK’s economic growth. A 2015 report from the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) placed the economic value of UK’s night time economy at £66 billion, employing 1.3 million people and representing 6% of the country’s GDP.

The Arches in Glasgow closed in similar circumstances to fabric last year. These clubs are just two of many that have closed their doors in the last decade. Between 2005 and 2015, the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) estimate that the number of clubs in the UK fell from 3,144 to 1,733. The body believes that if this trend continues, the country will be left worse off “culturally, socially and economically”. Others have also highlighted the potential impact on youth employment, which is already a significant problem for the UK.

Who or what is to blame?

Some within the industry have pointed to the introduction of the smoking ban, longer pub opening hours and the recession as potential explanations for a decrease in the popularity of nightclubs. Others have placed the blame on planning policy and a “hostile” licensing climate. This is particularly evident in London, where widespread property development is prioritised in order to create the affordable housing the city so desperately needs.

There are also those that criticise the police’s “heavy handed” attitude towards drugs, and a stereotyping of clubs and those that frequent them. Police Scotland have come under particular criticism for the way in which they engaged with the Arches when it was still open. According to Dr Jack McPhee, a drugs and alcohol policy expert at the University of the West of Scotland, since the amalgamation of Scottish police forces, “…the recovery of controlled drugs and successful prosecutions became performance indicators in Scotland. So that in itself began to dictate police activity”. Scotland’s prosecution rate for drugs related offences is almost twice that of the other UK nations.

Comparisons with the rest of Europe

In comparison, drugs policy on the continent tend to focus more on harm reduction. In the Netherlands, for example, clubs use the Drug Information and Monitoring System (DIMS), which allows users to test the safety of their drugs. Rather than focusing on criminalisation, systems like these focus on public health, recognising that people will continue to take drugs regardless of how many venues the police close down. Indeed, some have voiced their concern that a continuation of current UK policy will only increase their use in the dangerous, underground market, whereas moving towards proper regulation could save lives.

A brighter future?

Despite this, the recently appointed director of government and public affairs at industry body UK Music, Tom Kiehl, believes that the night time industry has a “bright future” under the new government. Recent comments from Sadiq Khan in particular have given Kiehl confidence that planning and licensing restrictions may be lifted in order to support the growth of the night time economy. In addition, a successful club based drug testing system is currently being tested on a small scale in the UK, which may see a shift in current law enforcement attitudes depending on the results.

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