Blog Post

How can we create a fairer, more sustainable transport system in London?

We need bold action to accommodate growth sustainably and create a fairer transport system.

London is among the most well-connected cities in the world. But London’s world class transport system isn’t available to everyone. Some Londoners face barriers to accessing the public transport network and to walking or cycling to their destination. It could be that they can’t afford the cost of a tube ticket, or that clutter on the pavements makes using their wheelchair difficult, or that they may not live near to a reliable train service.

How can the next Mayor of London address these barriers and make the transport network fit for the future? We explored this question at this year’s London Conference. The conversations focused on policies that would create a fairer and more sustainable transport system, and the challenges around reducing the use of private vehicles.

Three key themes emerged:

Transitioning towards electric

The government has placed a shift towards electric vehicles at the centre of its industrial strategy and “The Road to Zero” emissions strategy. The Mayor of London is helping drive this shift with the Ultra Low Emission Zone, which charges the most polluting vehicles for entering central London. However, panellists raised the questions about how desirable this shift is, as electric vehicles reduce, but do not eliminate, emissions or air pollution. They also do not tackle the problem of congestion, which impacts on the streetscape and acts as a deterrent to walking and cycling.

The move towards electric vehicles also throws out new questions about fairness and equity. Electric cars are still more expensive on average than standard combustion engines. Despite Mayoral support available to those scrapping a polluting vehicle, electric cars are an unaffordable and inaccessible option for many Londoners. Thus, government policies could inadvertently create a two-tier system where only the wealthiest can access private vehicles. If we are looking to create fairer access to transport, we must have a serious conversation about who should be driving. It shouldn’t be a privilege of the wealthy but it could provide an important transport option to people who struggle to use public transport, such as older or disabled Londoners. Evidently, electric vehicles are not a simple panacea to the challenges around creating a healthier and more sustainable city, and transport that has a positive impact on space, congestion and public health should be prioritised.

Reducing private car use

If want to make a real difference to air pollution and transport emissions, we’ll need not only cleaner vehicles but fewer vehicles on the roads. The Mayor’s Transport Strategy outlines plans to reduce car usage and increase the proportion of journeys made on foot, by cycle or public transport to 80 per cent by 2041 – an increase of 17 per cent between now and then.

Motor vehicle use has negative effects that are felt by all Londoners, including those that don’t drive or use cars. At The London Conference, the Mayor of Hackney highlighted that just a third of Hackney residents own a car, yet the borough has some of the poorest air quality in the city. The negative effects of pollution do not discriminate by transport choices, they affect everyone, particularly the poorest who are more likely to live in congested areas by busy main roads. Reducing car usage would therefore help address inequalities and improve the health of all Londoners.

Some panellists highlighted that, even though the share of car and motorbike journeys in the capital is declining, the idea of reducing car use is still contentious. Many people see driving as a freedom and a matter of personal choice; we are entitled to drive from A to B if we want to. Ultimately, the panel argued that politicians should work towards achieving the modal shift objective, and use a range of stick and carrot policies to convince people to leave their cars at home – or drop them altogether.

Enable more Londoners to walk and cycle

The best way to achieve this shift, panellists suggested, was to make walking and cycling the most attractive choice through further investment in public realm and cycling infrastructure, and prioritisation of active transport in policy and planning.

Research among Londoners shows that concerns about personal safety are the biggest barrier to cycling in the city. While this concern is prevalent across demographics, some more vulnerable groups (like disabled or older Londoners) tend to feel this most profoundly. There is a reasonable consensus that we need safe, comfortable infrastructure that is protected from vehicles, but this is not provided consistently across the capital. Where steps have been taken to provide infrastructure and rebalance streets in favour of walking and cycling, clear improvements in the uptake of both these activities follow (as can be seen in schemes like Waltham Forest’s Mini-Holland).

Panellists discussed the challenges of funding new infrastructure, with Transport for London and borough budgets all squeezed. However, they also agreed there are many simple and low-cost interventions that can be make roads safer for walkers and cyclists, like bollards to filter car traffic out or yellow armadillos to separate vehicle traffic from bicycles.

With London’s population set to grow from 8.9 million to an estimated 10.5 million by 2042, shifting away from polluting vehicles and towards public transport, walking and cycling will help ensure the city grows sustainably.

Increasing the uptake of walking and cycling among all Londoners has huge potential benefits – both for the environment and for the health of Londoners. Rebalancing road priorities in favour of pedestrians and cyclists – as well as making public transport more affordable and accessible for all Londoners –  are essential to meeting the Mayor’s targets but will take political bravery from London’s leaders.


Sara Gariban is a Senior Researcher at Centre for London. Follow her on Twitter. Read more from her here.