Buses and taxis fill Europe’s busiest shopping street, London’s Oxford Street in 2014. Photographer: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

How London Transport Is Preparing for Life After Lockdown

The U.K. may be emerging from lockdown but the national requirement for 2-meter social distancing has urban planners in London straining to find alternatives for millions of people who depend on the city’s often crowded public transportation. Temporary measures popping up all over the city will make completing short journeys by cycling or walking easier for some, but for people accustomed to using trains and busses, staying local might be the only viable option.

Public transport is used for 49% of journeys in Greater London

Public transport

Private car

Walking

Cycling

Other

0

50

100%

London

New York

Copenhagen

Paris

Berlin

Amsterdam

Public transport

Private car

Walking

Cycling

Other

0

50

100%

London

New York

Copenhagen

Paris

Berlin

Amsterdam

Source: Deloitte City Mobility Index 2019

According to the city’s transit manager, Transport for London (TfL), maintaining social distancing means that buses and London Underground trains will only be able to carry around 13–15% of the 9 million passengers who use the services daily. One of eight carriages on a Central line train can carry 131 people in a typical peak hour crush. Only 7% of these passengers could travel if 2-meter distancing was achieved.

Limiting passengers on a Central line carriage

131 passengers in a full carriage
To maintain 2-meter distancing only 9 passengers could travel
Note: A Central line train has 272 seats and 155 square meters standing area across eight carriages. A conservative maximum standing capacity of five customers per square meter has been used.
Source: Bloomberg analysis using data from Transport for London

TfL has imposed a limit of 20 passengers on its double-decker buses, that can usually carry up to 87.

To help alleviate this precipitous drop in passenger capacity, TfL and London Mayor Sadiq Khan unveiled their ‘London Streetspace’ program in May, which aims to accommodate a possible 10-fold increase in cycling and a fivefold increase in walking. “Many Londoners have rediscovered the joys of walking and cycling during lockdown and by quickly and cheaply widening pavements, creating temporary cycle lanes and closing roads to through traffic we will enable millions more people to change the way they get around our city,” Khan said.

The Mayor’s office is consulting with the 32 boroughs to rapidly implement Streetspace funding for signs, stickers, plastic barriers and traffic diversions. These temporary measures could become permanent pending review. Boroughs including Camden and Tower Hamlets are crowd-sourcing suggestions using online maps.

On a typical workday, the City of London’s Square Mile population expands from 9,000 residents to more than half a million. Temporary restrictions on traffic, widening of streets and reduced speed limits of 15 miles per hour are in place on busy thoroughfare Cannon Street and retail hub Cheapside. The City of London has applied for £1 million ($1.3 million) of Streetspace funding to broaden the measures to several streets.

  • Walking and cycling improvements
  • Walk and cycle only
  • Convert to one-way
  • Existing traffic restrictions remain

Planned road changes in the City of London

Note: Routes have been drawn from planning documents and are intended to serve as illustration only.
Source: City of London Corporation

For those who have no choice but to travel and are arriving into London at mainline stations, TfL is asking them to complete their journeys by walking or cycling. Face coverings will become mandatory on June 15 and travelers are advised to avoid peak times of 5:45 to 8:15 a.m. and 4 to 5:30 p.m. TfL published a list of the 20 busiest stations to highlight overcrowding hotspots. As services prepare to ramp back up to 100%, one-way passages and queuing systems are being introduced at some stations, and signs on escalators asking people to stand six steps apart and limiting four people per lift are in place.

An increase in the number of people using cars, taxis and private hire vehicles to commute could lead to congestion, as well as increased air pollution. According to a study by researchers at King’s College London, nearly 9,500 people die early each year in the city due to long-term exposure to fine particulates and the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide. The Mayor’s office reinstated congestion charges, including the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in central London on May 18. Temporary increases to the charges may take effect on June 22. “London’s road to recovery cannot be clogged with cars,” Khan said.

Streetspace may reduce or eliminate access to cars on some of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. But 35% of the 6 million journeys London residents make by car as driver or passenger are less than 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) according to TfL—a distance that could be reached instead by walking or cycling for those that are able.

About a third of car journeys are shorter than 1.2 miles

14%

21%

15%

10%

7%

33%

0

0.6

1.2

1.7

2.5

>3.1 miles

14%

21%

15%

10%

100%

7%

33%

0

0.6

1.2

1.7

2.5

>3.1 miles

Source: Transport for London

Bike retailers have seen high demand since the start of lockdown and many have been left waiting on new stock. Evans Cycles described “unprecedented demand,” while Brompton, which makes folding bikes in London, said online sales had soared fivefold. The U.K.’s driest May in 124 years encouraged many Britons to get active outdoors, culminating on the week of the Spring Bank Holiday. Record numbers of journeys have been made using Santander Cycle’s bike-sharing service since travel restrictions started to ease. More than 1.6 million trips had been made since the start of the lockdown period.

Weekly journeys on Santander Cycles

300K

Lockdown

150

0

Jan 1–7

May 20–26

300K

Lockdown

150

0

Jan 1–7

May 20–26

Source: Transport for London open data

Santander Cycles and other bike sharing companies, including Uber’s JUMP e-bikes, Beryl and Peddle My Wheels Try Before You Bike made services available for free to NHS workers.

Grant Shapps, the government’s Transport Secretary announced in May a new £50 bicycle maintenance voucher designed to “help up to half-a-million people drag bikes out of retirement.” It’s part of a £2 billion ($2.5 billion) budget to promote more cycling and walking across the country. There are also plans to expedite trials of e-scooters to next month from next year.

Numerous cyclists outside Buckingham Palace on a sunny day
More cyclists than pedestrians at Buckingham Palace on Saturday May 31
Photographer: Hayley Warren/Bloomberg

Streetspace aims to make some of London’s busiest roads safer for cyclists by separating cycle lanes from other road traffic. A temporary cycle lane and reduced speed limit has been implemented on Park Lane to reduce traffic inside Hyde Park. Euston Road—a six-lane highway that runs through a cultural hub and regularly exceeds NO2 limits—has also been named in TfL’s initial proposals. Further routes are being proposed by borough councils, including a comprehensive segregated pop-up cycle network in Camden.

  • Planned cycling routes
  • Driving activity March 2-8
Loading....
Note: Anonymous sensor data from moving devices collected by Mapbox shows traffic two weeks before the government-announced lockdown.
Source: Mapbox, Transport for London open data
Cyclists using new route on Park Lane on May 28
Park Lane is one of the first routes to benefit from temporary cycle lanes.
Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Many of the Streetspace cycling routes are extensions or upgrades of existing Cycleways, a network of bicycle routes that have expanded since their inception in 2010. A Bloomberg News analysis of postcodes shows 41% of the city’s population live more than half a mile from any completed Cycleway or planned Streetspace route.

Cycling networks do not reach the whole city

  • Planned cycling routes
  • Existing Cycleways

0.5

> 3.5 miles

Note: Distance to the closest Cycleway or Streetspace route has been calculated from the center of each postcode in a straight line.
Source: Bloomberg analysis using data from Transport for London open data and Nomis Office for National Statistics

Five weeks on from the initial announcement, temporary protected lanes are beginning to appear, but many boroughs’ residents are still waiting. On June 3 Khan announced £6 million in funding for Streetspace plans in 10 boroughs, with funding being allocated on a weekly basis.

Streetspace Upgrades

New lanes have been added and sections of existing lanes reinforced
Wands reinforce Cycleway 8 in Pimlico. Source: Westminster Cycling Campaign
Wands reinforce Cycleway 8 in Pimlico. Source: Westminster Cycling Campaign
Barriers protect cyclists on busy Hammersmith Roundabout. Source: Will Norman
Barriers protect cyclists on busy Hammersmith Roundabout. Source: Will Norman
Wands reinforce existing lane in Camden. Source: Bloomberg
Wands reinforce existing lane in Camden. Source: Bloomberg

The new measures have received mixed support from cycling groups, including Westminster Cycling Campaign—they say much more can be done. Like the Cycleways, pop-up cycle lanes have been rolled out inconsistently, not all provide protection from cars on the road and some end abruptly at junctions. The temporary nature of the barriers means some have been moved out the way by motorists, and some new lanes remain obstructed by parked cars unaware of the changes.

Will Norman, London’s Walking and Cycling Commissioner said in an interview with Bloomberg News on May 21 that the plans are a necessity. “If all the people who can’t go on public transport go on the roads, we’ll end up with gridlock, our ambulances, our emergency services will get stuck. All our deliveries are going to get jammed up. Businesses won’t be able to get the supplies they need. But also, I think importantly, we’ll have a toxic air crisis. And the very last thing you need in a respiratory disease pandemic is a toxic air crisis. So there is no choice.”

Many companies with large offices seem to be in no rush to start corraling their work-from-home employees, partially because it will be difficult to get to these centralized locations. Getting the city’s economy back on track will require that movement of its residents is as fluid as it was before the pandemic, one way or another.

An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.