In a lot of ways, cities are about movement. Commuting, cultural visits, consumer binges, social trips or just staring out of the bus window, feeling part of the flow: motion makes urban life fulfilling, sometimes very tiring and occasionally sublime. Over recent years, without much discussion, the way we move around cities has changed. The change started before the pandemic, but Covid accelerated it, and it has continued as the pandemic has apparently receded.
Since 2010, the UK has acquired bike-hire schemes and Ubers, more than 1 million electric bikes and electric scooters, and a fleet of other personal transport solutions, from electric skateboards to bikes with trailers. A whole new world of what transport theorists call micromobility, some of it backed by corporations, not all of it legal, has appeared on urban roads.
For some people, it has been liberating. Owning a car in a city is expensive, especially during an energy crisis, and increasingly impractical, thanks to much-needed environmental measures such as low traffic neighbourhoods. Micromobility offers more personal choice – you can go almost anywhere; more anonymity – no need for number plates or a licence; and, especially if you’re pedalling, feelings of empowerment. In an impatient age, it’s also faster than walking. Where I live in east London, with bikes and scooters cruising past in all directions and barely a moving car in sight, the quieter residential streets feel like a vision of greener city living from the 1970s finally come to life. The future of urban travel seems to have arrived, and it’s small-scale and individualised.
So in some respects it’s an awkward time for London to open the Elizabeth line, a £19bn upgrade of a 19th-century idea: that the best way for people to move around the perpetually congested capital is in crowds in underground train carriages, according to a timetable and along routes over which they have no control. Named after a 96-year-old monarch and connecting already powerful places, such as the bankers’ towers of Canary Wharf, the elite boutiques of Bond Street and the overbearing airport at Heathrow, it’s possible to see the Elizabeth line – beautiful and ingenious though it is – as a grandiose and old-fashioned enterprise. Given that public transport in many British towns and cities means a few train stations and infrequent buses, adding another London underground line seems a luxury.
It has been done, moreover, just as the capital’s public transport use may be entering long-term decline. As in New York and Paris, passenger numbers were falling in London even before the pandemic, thanks to online shopping, home working, micromobility and the long stagnation of incomes since the financial crisis, which has made many people less willing or able to pay for leisure travel. The currently influential idea of the “15-minute city” – that residents’ needs should be within a short walking or cycling distance – could reduce the need for big transport systems further. It’s possible that the Elizabeth line, despite the impressive passenger numbers of its opening days, could be the last of its kind.
Yet if public transport use has peaked in London (one of the few British cities where it has grown in recent decades), the environmental, social and political consequences will not be benign. Going on public transport, in a place where a wide range of people still use it, is one of a diminishing number of egalitarian experiences in today’s Britain. A city bus or train carriage is a shared space: people of different classes, races, nationalities, ages and abilities mix and observe each other, not always harmoniously but often usefully. Everyone enjoys or endures the same conditions. Everyone has to wait for people to get on or off. While cycling, say, is often an individual experience, using public transport is always collective. Even if you’re the only passenger, the route has been shaped by the preferences of others.
Public transport can also be a reminder that the state can still provide and even inspire. Reservations about the Elizabeth line are hard to retain once you’ve used its elegant, spacious platforms and fast, smooth trains – which last Monday morning were full not of metropolitan elites but ordinary Londoners with prams and plastic bags. The capital’s heaviest users of public transport are minority ethnic residents, people on lower incomes, the young and the old.
Tory governments have often neglected or actively undermined urban public transport, sometimes for blatantly political reasons. In 1988, Margaret Thatcher vetoed a rail scheme that would have connected the west and centre of the capital to Hackney, a borough long known for its bad transport and leftwing residents. “Do you know what sort of people live out in Hackney?” she asked the civil servant presenting the scheme. “They are not Conservative voters!” She agreed to a plan that became the Elizabeth line instead.
Boris Johnson’s government has responded uncharitably to the collapse of London’s public transport usage and revenues since the start of the pandemic. It has given Transport for London – for which the city’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, is responsible – a series of short-term bailouts. These have been conditional on cuts severe enough to cause tube strikes, the latest of which is due on Monday; and fare rises and service reductions, potentially including the removal of a fifth of bus services from central London. The current bailout expires in three weeks’ time.
Non-Londoners weary of the capital’s privilege and dramas may be tempted to shrug. Yet how people move around London is not just a local matter. Many of these people are visitors, and the capital is a model for other British cities. The mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, is campaigning for his city to have “London-style public transport”.
People who prefer to cycle – Johnson is one of them – may in some ways be more modern. When you’re waiting ages for a bus, or stuck in traffic in one, and bikes and scooters are shooting past, public transport can feel less like social equality on wheels and more like a Victorian ordeal.
But for many elderly, underconfident or physically vulnerable people, or those who have to travel big distances across London, micromobility is probably never going to be more than an obscure buzzword – or something that occasionally makes city life more hazardous. Memo to people who ride on the pavement: your mobility is no more important than anyone else’s.