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Solving The Transport Conundrum Keeping People Out Of The Office Is Tough, But Not Impossible

London

The government, office owners, and café and restaurant operators: London’s office workers are being urged from all sides to head back into the city centre after six months of working from home. But they are steadfastly refusing, and there is one big factor: transport.

Millions of words have been written about the 6-foot office, temperature scanners in lobbies or how to social distance in restaurants. In spite of research that public transport isn’t a major vector of coronavirus transmission, polls show that public transport is a big worry factor for Londoners, with 70% saying they were afraid to use the capital’s transit system. London First produced similar findings.

For a city like London or New York, where a high proportion of office workers use public transport and face long commutes, getting people back on public transport is vital, and city centres won’t be back in business until they do.

“The government has done a good job in scaring people and keeping them off public transport,” London Property Alliance Executive Director Charles Begley said. “It is hard to unwind that quickly.” 

Usage of London's transport system has dropped dramatically.

Solving London’s coronavirus transport conundrum is a tricky problem. It involves understanding our psychology and nudging our behaviour, but also creating new financial incentives. Issues like the way we pay for train season tickets, seemingly simple on the surface, actually require significant changes to long-standing economic practices. 

But the fact that we are choosing not to get back on the train and head into city centres also raises bigger questions about whether the economic, real estate and transport policies that London was pursuing before the pandemic were already broken. Coronavirus might be the symptom of a need for change, not the cause. 

Mounting data indicates Brits are far slower than other large European cities to head back into the office, and city centres more generally. According to Morgan Stanley, 34% of British workers had returned to the office by the start of August, compared to an average of 68% in Continental Europe. In London, Transport for London said London Underground usage was down by 74% in August compared to the same period last year. 

And while companies might have been able to maintain productivity while staff work from home, it does have a genuine knock-on impact. For every 100 central London office jobs, 18 are supported in the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors, research by Arup for the Westminster Property Association found. If those office workers stay at home, those jobs disappear.

In a letter to Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps, The London Property Alliance, a representative body for London property owners, outlined four measures it felt would help get people back on London transport and back into the city centre. These include more secure funding for transport operators, better messaging that going on transport is safe if you act responsibly, a review of the rail ticketing system and better incentives to get workers cycling, walking and running into work.

“Compared to the famous ‘15-minute city’ of Paris, people in cities like London and New York have a long commute,” Begley said. “This lack of confidence in using public transport networks is causing devastating impacts to central London’s economy.”

On the funding side, the LPA points out that political fights between the Labour London mayor and Conservative central government over London transport funding need to be parked until the crisis is over, to give people confidence that the network is properly funded and operated. Greater central government funding, which would bring London in line with European cities that have greater subsidies for public transport, would also encourage greater use. 

Convincing people that the network is safe from a health perspective is more subtle and complex. 

People who normally use public transport think back to the crowded commuter trains, underground or bus system they used before the coronavirus and shudder at the prospect of being so close to people, especially when we have been told to stay distant for so long. And there is the worry that, even if we act sensibly ourselves and wear masks and gloves, other people won’t follow suit. In a pandemic, hell really is other people. 

“There is a perception that it is risky and then there is the actuality,” CBRE Head of Strategic Advisory Amanda Clack said. “There is the feeling that we are a bit more laissez faire about wearing masks than in other countries.”

“People are worried about whether everyone is really doing their bit,” said Patricia Brown, a director at consultancy Central. “How do we get ourselves comfortable with the way other people act?”

Begley and the LPA urged Shapps to put out stronger messaging about the fact that trains are regularly deep cleaned, and that most people actually are observing social distancing and wearing face coverings.

We are herd animals, and deep down we want to do what other people are doing, according to behavioural psychologists like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Pictures on social media of people not obeying social distancing or face covering regulations are unhelpful, and government messaging that most people do follow the rules could be beneficial.

Londoners are worried that other transport users won't wear masks, which may not actually be the case.

Begley also said the government and transport companies providing better information about times of high and low usage would be helpful. TfL and the companies that run the main rail services into London are now operating the same number of services as they were pre-pandemic, but usage is around 25%. These trains are not busy, and tweaking the way people think about when they travel could be hugely beneficial.

“People have started to come back in to the office and have been given the choice of when to come in, and guess what, everyone chose Tuesday and Thursday,” Arup Director of Integrated City Planning Sowmya Parthasarathy said. “For those people that chose Monday and Friday, the trains and the office were empty.”

Promoting active travel is important, and can help reduce the burden on the transport system, the LPA pointed out, putting forward solutions such as increased government grants to help employers subsidise bikes for workers. Property owners can do their bit too, by putting in more space for workers to safely park bikes and plenty of nice showers to clean up after a sweaty run or cycle. 

However, as Parthasarathy points out, given the long distances many commuters travel into London, this is only ever going to be a part of the solution.

One proposal put forward by the LPA is at the same time delightfully simple but also highly complex: Changing the way commuters pay for rail tickets. In the UK, commuters can get a reduced price on their travel cost if they pay for a season ticket, buying a ticket providing unlimited use (within certain limits) over a set period, usually one month, three months or a year.

But this payment system does not promote flexible usage: If you are only travelling two or three days a week but have to pay for a full season ticket, you don’t actually get any discount.

The LPA proposed a change to a “carnet” ticket system, common in many European cities, where you pay for a bulk amount of journeys up front at a discounted price, but can use each journey whenever you like.

“At the moment this is being viewed as a transport problem, but actually it’s a financial issue,” Begley said. “People are essentially being penalised if they want to be flexible.”

The issue with the introduction of the scheme is that it would have to be agreed by both the transport operators and the transport regulator, and would change the type of revenue stream the operators receive — the current system gives them a lot of money up front. 

Central's Patricia Brown

But Begley argued this should not be beyond the wit of humanity to achieve.

“You’ve seen what government, business and society has been able to do when it has come together during the crisis,” he said. “Where there is a will there is a way.”

Brown, who is on the advisory board of rail operator Great Western Railways, said it is something train companies were already examining before the pandemic. 

But Brown said the fact that Londoners are choosing not to head back to the city centre is perhaps indicative of a larger problem in the direction the city has taken in recent years and decades. 

“The model was close to broken anyway,” she said. “You were trying to get more and more people in to the centre from ever further away on ever more crowded trains. You can’t go on adding capacity and trying to bring people in to the centre. People have maybe voted with their feet and with their travel cards to have a different lifestyle, and explore and enjoy their own neighbourhoods more.”

London has always wrestled with a debate between whether to focus on its central activity zone focused on the City and West End, or on the disparate neighbourhoods that surround these areas, Parthasarathy said. In the past the centre has held sway. Now that dominance is being challenged.

“If central London didn’t come back in quite the same way, would that be such a bad thing, if it meant other neighbourhoods were opened more?” she said. “The centre has to give people more than just work and shopping to come back to. It is about culture and community as well. We talk a lot about meanwhile uses, but we have to extend that beyond just using small overlooked sites. We need a broader programme of culture, festivals and fairs to draw people back in.”

Solving the problem of transport might not involve seeing it as a problem at all. Even a small shift in the dominance of the centre in a city like London would involve a radical change to the built environment. Outer neighbourhoods would require different and better infrastructure. New uses would be required for city centre assets no longer fit for purpose. But then, that is what the property industry is here for, right?