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Why are fewer people riding the Underground? The reason is not what you think

Nicole Badstuber reveals the hidden demographic shift that is changing traffic and hitting TfL where it hurts

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Oxford Circus Photo: Getty
Oxford Circus Photo: Getty

In 2017, London Underground transported fewer passengers than it did the year before. Then in 2018, numbers went down again.


There had been a boom in the use of public transport in London for the past two decades. Since 2000, improvements in the bus network and transformations to the London Underground and Overground all encouraged a major shift to public transport from travel by car. While the capital’s population grew 22%, public transport use rose 65%.


There was strong, steady passenger growth on the London Underground of 2-6% each year between 2009 and 2015, while across all of London’s public transport modes, passenger numbers grew on average 1% each year after 2000. But then passenger numbers fell by 1.1% in 2017. And the certainty of growing public-transport use ends there.


Growth in demand (journey stages) on the principal public transport modes  Source: TfL City Planning
Growth in demand (journey stages) on the principal public transport modes Source: TfL City Planning
Relationship between population, jobs and trips in London, 2010-2017  Source: ONS
Relationship between population, jobs and trips in London, 2010-2017 Source: ONS


Historically, London’s population has been a good predictor of demand for travel; as the population went up, so did demand. Employment is another driver because, simply put, a large share of travel is to and from where people live and work.


The number of trips-per-day by passengers has also broadly mirrored the growth of London’s ‘daytime population’ – the combined total of residents, commuters and visitors. Travel demand also reflected the state of the economy, in part through the inclusion of commuters in London’s daytime population.


But since 2014, travel demand has not kept step with the growth in London’s daytime population: while the latter continued to grow, the total trips made in the capital remained flat. This decoupling suggests that the average Londoner is making fewer trips – in fact, TfL figures show Londoners are making 20% fewer trips per day than a decade ago.


Purpose of trip Source:TfL City Planning
Purpose of trip Source:TfL City Planning
Trip rate per day per person Source:TfL City Planning
Trip rate per day per person Source:TfL City Planning


Steady population growth seems to have masked a longer-term fall in trip rates reaching back to 2007/08. From 2013/14, travel rates have fallen even more sharply: from 2.52 trips a day to only 2.13 – a 15% drop.


‘Discretionary’ trips have been cut disproportionately: shopping and personal trips have declined by 30% since 2011/12, while leisure trips are down 20% since 2013/4. By comparison, Londoners are making broadly the same number of trips for education and work as they did a decade ago.


Overall population growth has also masked changes in the demographics of London. Young people now account for a smaller share of London’s population. Estimates show that in recent years there has been no growth in the number of 17-24 year-olds in London and a flattening of growth in the number of 25-44 year-olds.


Younger age groups travel more in general and use public transport more in particular, so as their share of London’s population has shrunk, there has been a resulting disproportionate fall in public transport use.


“Young people now account for a smaller share of London’s population and these age groups travel and use public transport more”


The affordability crisis could be one reason why, as a proportion, fewer young people are living in London. High housing costs are a significant barrier to relocating to and staying in London, particularly for younger adults. London house prices have increased by almost 50% in real terms since 2011, putting homeownership out of reach for many.


The share of Londoners renting has increased notably in the past decade, even though rental prices have become increasingly unaffordable too: the average private rent in London rose by 41% between 2005 and 2017, compared with wage growth of just 25%.


Workers are commuting fewer days per week but longer distances than they did two decades ago. Both occasional and regular working from home has grown. The number of commutes per worker per week fell from 7.1 to 5.7 between 1988/92 and 2013/14.


Across the nation, trip rates have been falling, too – but less steeply than in London. In the UK, they are down 16% but are now rates are relatively static. Discretionary trips have been cut the most: trips to play sports and trips for personal business have both dropped 22% in the past decade. In comparison, trips to escort others to education are up 19%.


Trip rates appear to be continuing to fall in London, however.


“High housing costs are a significant barrier to relocating to and staying in London from elsewhere in the UK, with London house prices up 50% in real terms and private rental costs up 41%”


In recent years, there have been changes not only in how often we travel but which modes of transport we use. Car trips have declined sharply, falling 34% since 2005/06 and 22% since 2013/14 alone – more than 1.5 times the average fall in trip rate. By comparison, trip rates on National Rail and London Underground have grown 22% and 26% respectively since 2005/06.


While we might be travelling less, our travel footprint is growing. London’s roads are getting more congested. Most of the growth in traffic comes from vans, the number of which has increased 24% in the past five years to now account for 16% of road traffic in London. Research commissioned by the RAC Foundation estimates vans’ share of traffic will rise to 21% nationally and 23% in London, compared to 14% and 15% respectively in 2010.


Why so many vans? The increase in the popularity of internet shopping and associated changes in freight and distribution are responsible. The home is increasingly becoming the place to shop: online shopping sales are growing at around 10-12% each year and now represent almost 17% of the UK’s total retail sales. Around 22% of London’s residents receive at least one online shopping delivery a week. Almost all online purchases (94%) made by London residents were delivered to their homes, rather than their workplaces or ‘click and collect’ locations.


“The average Londoner is making 20% fewer trips per day than a decade ago. Steady population growth seems to have masked a longer-term fall in trips dating back to 2006”


Private hire vehicles (PHVs) – Uber and minicabs – have also flooded London’s streets. Registrations soared 75% from 49,854 in 2013 to 87,409 in 2017, while the number of people licensed to drive PHVs also grew 75% from 66,975 to 117,712. In 2016/17 alone, the number of registered drivers of PHVs increased 17%. However, the growth in registrations slowed to only 1% in 2017/18 and the number of registered drivers fell 2% – the first time since 2013/14.


Travel by taxi and PHV is up, mainly around central London and during the late evening. On Friday and Saturday nights, 18,000 PHVs drive into central London. Use of PHVs could be one of the reasons for the 24% drop in the number of night bus passengers since the start of 2014/15.


“In 2016/17 alone, the number of Uber registered drivers and other private-hire vehicles increased 17% but fell by 2% in in 2017/18 for the first time since 2013/14”


However, the introduction of night services on London Underground on Friday and Saturday nights and the subsequent changes to the bus network will also have contributed to a shift away from the night bus.


The annual growth in travel by taxi and PHV is slowing: it was only 2.6% in 2017/18 compared to 9.8% in 2016/17. “[I]t is notable that the increase in taxi and private hire trips is not as high as the increase in licensed PHVs and PHV drivers,” London’s citywide transport authority, Transport for London (TfL), concluded in its latest annual report on travel behaviour. In other words, the growth in the number of PHVs and registered drivers of PHVs has far outstripped demand for the services. This means many drivers are circling London’s streets without passengers, adding to congestion.


Major cities across the US are also grappling with declines in passenger numbers on their public transport systems, with research suggesting Uber and its competitors are the cause. On average, passenger numbers fell 1.3% on rail and 1.7% on buses each year across the 22 cities studied by researchers at the University of Kentucky. Bus use in San Francisco has fallen 12.7% since Uber and its competitor Lyft entered the market in 2010, and the researchers estimate that San Francisco would need to expand its bus services by 25% to lure passengers back and offset the effects of that fall. In New York, daily Uber and Lyft trips grew from 60,000 in 2015 to 600,000 in 2018, while trips on public transport fell by 580,000.


“Infrastructure plans across the country assume continued growth in population and demand for travel to make the case for large upgrades and investment”


As more and more passengers opt for a private hire ride home, cities must consider how to manage their streets effectively. Many will not be able to afford the extra public transport services needed to compete with the door-to-door service provided by cars, taxis or PHVs.


One cheaper option is to redesign the bus network, to better align routes with where the travelling public want to go. Another is to introduce road pricing, such as a per-ride surcharge on taxi and PHV trips or congestion charging for all motorised road users. A third is to rethink the allocation of road space – assigning more space to bus and cycle lanes can encourage the public to switch from cars to public transport, cycling and walking.


Falling trip rates could be cause for celebration. The Commission on Travel Demand, an independent research group of academics, found that developments at higher densities, close to amenities, and good public transport and cycle routes lead to reductions in trip lengths and trip frequencies. They allowed people to co-ordinate their activities more as part of daily life. Falling trip rates could be a reflection of more people adopting lifestyles in dense neighbourhoods with good public transport and cycling links.


"TfL’s growing reliance on fares to balance its books makes it very vulnerable and it faces a net loss from falling demand"


With this in mind, mayor Sadiq Khan should strongly encourage denser living and developments adjacent to transport, to support his ambitious goal of 80% of trips in London being completed using public transport, walking or cycling in 2041, given only 63% of all trips currently use one of these modes. This will need a yearly shift of 0.7 percentage points to public transport, walking and cycling, when there was a shift of only 0.1 percentage points between 2016 and 2017.


Mode of transport
Mode of transport


Unfortunately, falling trip rates exacerbate TfL’s money worries. It is banking on increasing the percentage of its £10bn-plus annual budget that comes from fares from 47% to 64% over the next five years, to cover the loss of its annual £700m grant from central government. But with the mayor committed to freezing single fares until the end of his term in 2020, any growth in income from fares will have to come from more passengers.


TfL’s growing reliance on fares to balance its books makes it very vulnerable to unexpected changes in demand. Without comprehensive road pricing, TfL faces a net loss from falling demand.


Falling trip rates and the flattening of travel demand should be seen as a call for caution beyond the capital as well. Infrastructure investment plans across the country assume continued growth in population and large increases in demand for travel – indeed, these are the pillars upon which the case for large upgrades and investment programmes rest, with the government planning to spend more than £90bn on transport infrastructure in the next five years, to accommodate the perceived growing demand for travel.


"If trip rates continue to decline, by 2040, 70 billion fewer vehicle miles will be travelled each year. That is important to what we invest in"


Yet these changes in travel behaviour suggest significant lifestyle and social changes, which will alter the trajectory of travel demand significantly.


The Department for Transport’s 2015 national road traffic forecasts highlight the importance of trends in trip rates. If trip rates continue to decline, by 2040, 70 billion fewer vehicle miles will be travelled each year than if the rates stay static. This is important to what we invest in and what the impact of our travel will be.


Any travel forecasts are vulnerable to inaccuracy as they inherently include many assumptions. Strong, transparent evidence remains key in convincing decision-makers and funders, so one needs to assess what evidence counts as good evidence. The sudden drop in trip rates exposes the risks of the sector’s dependence planning for ‘core’ or ‘most likely’ demand scenarios.


Infrastructure investment planning should therefore not rely solely on a ‘predict-and-provide’ strategy. Instead, the guiding questions should be: what places do we want to live in and what kinds of activities do we need to travel for?


Nicole Badstuber is an urban infrastructure researcher at the Centre for Digital Built Britain and University of Cambridge

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