Latest Travel in London survey reveals some interesting contrasts between travel before and during the pandemic

28 January 2021

Transport for London (TfL) has published its latest annual review of how Londoners and visitors to the city are travelling. It gives a fascinating insight into travel trends and focuses on how the Mayor of London’s policies are changing travel behaviour. This year’s edition includes data on the dramatic changes in travel caused by the pandemic. It draws data from a variety of sources including Department for Transport statistics, TfL’s own data and London’s household travel survey[1]. Here’s a summary of the highlights.

Overall trip-making by Londoners has been declining since 2013/14, but with an increase in 2018/19.

Walking remains by far the most important way of getting around, accounting for 35% of trips in 2019. The pandemic gave people more free time at home and we were encouraged to shop and exercise locally. The result was a dramatic rise in the proportion of walking to 50% of all trips.

Traffic levels were generally falling across central and inner London before the pandemic, although they had risen at the Greater London boundary. The rise in traffic had been mainly due to light vans. The pandemic lockdowns led to rapid declines in all traffic although levels steadily climbed to 90%, and sometimes 100%, of pre-pandemic levels as lockdowns were eased.

Bus use rose steadily between 2000 and 2015. However, there has been a worrying decline in ridership since then. The decline has been attributed by TfL to slower bus journey times. Pre-pandemic there had been little sign of improvement, with buses travelling at a snail-like 9.3mph for the last three years.

During the pandemic the bus has been the most used part of London’s public transport system. Ridership bounced back after the first two lockdowns to much higher levels than the Tube or train, as many of the people that have to travel were taking the bus. Reversing the decline in bus journey times and ridership has to be a key area of work as London rebuilds after the pandemic.

There had been steady rises in rail and Tube passenger numbers as population and capacity grew in the years before the pandemic. The report records a notable increase in both National Rail trips (3.2 per cent) and Tube trips (2.6 per cent) compared to previous years.

However, all rail-based modes saw rapid and unprecedented declines, with passenger levels falling to as low as 5% in the first days of the pandemic. The recoveries were slow, even when lockdown measures were removed. This has particularly affected rail due to the decline of long-distance travel and commuting.

There has been a great focus on cycling over a number of years and there is some evidence of increasing volume, though there was a year-on-year decline of 2.7% in 2019. TfL’s counts do suggest an upward trend, though from a low base. Last year’s report put this down to population growth and people who already cycle making more trips. Cycling made up 2.4% of all trips in 2019.

During the pandemic there has been even more focus on cycling due to the need to promote social distancing, the reduction in the effective capacity on public transport, promotion of exercise and an ambition that fear of the virus should not result in more private car use post pandemic – what has been called a car-led recovery. There have been increases in cycling, particularly at weekends during the spring and summer when dramatic increases compared to the same day in 2019 were reported. This increase in cycling for leisure and exercise broadly balanced the decline in commuting by bike.

Overall, the key aim of the Mayor’s Transport Strategy is to change travel behaviour, with an ambitious target of 80% of all trips using public transport, cycling or walking by 2041. The 2019 share for these modes is 63.2%, up from 63% in 2018. In the previous year there had been a 0.3% rise. TfL recognise that there is much work to be done, noting in their monitoring; ‘Acceleration needed’.

In conclusion, this is a fascinating report, packed with good data. It’s well worth a read. We look forward to next year’s edition.

[1] Formerly called The London Travel Demand Survey. It is a continuous survey of 8,000 random households across Greater London. The survey gets a good response rate of 50% to questions about household make up and demographics. The travel data is obtained from travel diaries recording each element of a trip of one sample day. It’s a good statistic Londonwide, but TfL’s statisticians combine three years for smaller geographical areas.


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