1. Transport
May 11, 2020

Can you really get to work without using public transport? Commuters in most of England already do

By Jonn Elledge

One of the most contentious things about Britain’s current lockdown status – or at least, one of the ones which has caused the most spluttering on Twitter, which is not quite the same thing – concerns the question of commuting. Consider this extract from Boris Johnson’s address to the nation last night:

“We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work.

“And we want it to be safe for you to get to work. So you should avoid public transport if at all possible – because we must and will maintain social distancing, and capacity will therefore be limited.”

This led to a certain amount of disquiet on social media. How would it be possible, many government critics wondered, to get to work if you were avoiding public transport? Actually, cheerleaders for the government replied, most people don’t use public transport to get to work, and (I’m paraphrasing, but not by much) the belief that they do is a sign of how Britain’s London-centric media class is out of touch with real blah blah blah.

On this one, as it happens, the government’s cheerleaders have a point. It’s not quite true to say that only people in and around London rely on public transport to get to work. But they are massively more likely to.

This graphic from consultancy CBRE contrasts workers’ usual method of commuting in London, to that in the rest of England:

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Perhaps surprisingly, similar proportions of the population walk (9-10%) or cycle (4-5%) in both samples. But twice as many take a bus or coach in London (15% vs 7%), and nearly four times as many take the train (38% vs 10%), compared to the rest of the country. On the other side of the equation, at 67%, the percentage who drive is more than twice as high in England as a whole than in London, where it’s just 30%.

This should be no surprise. Between tube, trains and buses, London has a comprehensive, and generally (no, really) pretty good public transport network. Most cities in England do not. And so, in much of the country, people who don’t live within a mile or two of their office will opt to drive.  

These charts from the Centre for Cities, based on 2011 census data and looking at England’s core cities, make the same point. On public transport use London is way out ahead:

On car use, it’s way behind:

So in much of the country, the idea of commuting to work without setting foot on public transport makes sense. It’s London that’s the outlier.

That said, in London, the Prime Minister’s advice is confusing, because the capital is hugely dependent on public transport. Large numbers of Londoners don’t just choose to take public transport to work: they don’t own a car and so don’t have a choice. The result is footage like this:

In what one suspects to be related news, Transport for London has just advised passengers to wear masks.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.


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