On 25th April last, I published a blog about the proposal to pedestrianize Oxford Street in which I cast doubt about the practicability of such a scheme, whether or not it was actually desirable. By ‘practicability’, of course, I did not suggest that it was impossible for some zealot to install the necessary tonnage of pink block paving, but had in mind the problems it would create for traffic using cross routes, delivery people and the large number of through passengers using buses, which I did not think was trivial. TfL has recently intimated that it proposes to reduce or remove many bus services along Oxford Street and it is understood this is a first wave of changes designed to discourage travel along this route and once these have ‘settled down’ more will follow. There is a political target date of 2020 to pedestrianize: no later than the next mayoral election.
It seems strange that a body called Transport for London should be actively seeking to reduce and remove altogether public transport along a main London corridor. Of course the reason is that TfL is required to implement what the mayor promises, presumably digging its heels in only if it is wildly impractical or conflicts with other legal requirements. We don’t yet know whether pedestrianization is impractical, but it won’t be cheap and I notice that residents in surrounding areas are already expressing alarm.
From my own observations of the Oxford Street buses I think there are changes that should be made anyway. I have myself witnessed peak hour buses picking nobody up between Bond Street and Trafalgar Square as buses meander to some turning point at Aldwych because it has been convenient for operators. Nevertheless you will see that there may be a little more to these changes than meets the eye.
I thought I would look into the proposals for this first wave of changes.
Bus Service Reductions
I shall start of by summarizing the covering policy paper and then look at the individual proposal. Comments, and links to the consultation, will follow.
The TfL thesis is based largely on three separate propositions.
- That bus travel in Inner London has fallen. A drop of 7-8% appears typical but in the City of London and parts of the West End a fall of nearly 17% is alleged. In Outer London, changes are much less profound: in some boroughs it is negligible but in the majority bus travel has risen and a 2% increase appears typical. These numbers relate to only one year (the longer term trend is not given) and need to be considered in the light of expectations in February 2016 when an upwards trend was expected (see chart below). TfL asserts that because there are fewer passengers then there need be fewer buses. It therefore follows that this includes fewer buses along Oxford Street.
- The opening of the Elizabeth Line will impact on bus travel (I will continue here to call the new line Crossrail as it better describes the concept). Quite reasonably TfL explains that the opening of a major new Underground route has widespread impacts and a route from Liverpool Street to Paddington will reduce central London bus travel to an extent, particularly along the east-west axis. A helpful map is presented and the implication is that this, too, suggests fewer buses will be needed along Oxford Street. See diagram below. The thick lines represent expected overcapacity of 20-25 buses per hour, the thinner lines (eg Regent Street) 6 buses an hour and very thin green lines just two or so. In most areas except those just referred to the effect is very marginal in the context of existing bus volumes.
- The third plank, so to speak, is nothing whatever to do with passenger demand but the need to observe mayoral wishes and the desires of Westminster City Council. TfL has apparently signed up to ‘improving the pedestrian environment on Oxford Street’. It is asserted that crowding might get worse when Crossrail opens as it will generate extra activity, particularly around Bond Street. A 40% reduction in the number of buses along Oxford Street has apparently been agreed between TfL and Westminster Council, in advance of the public consultation, and the proposed changes are geared to delivering this.
The report this is distilled from is called: ‘West End Bus Services Review’, dated November 2016, and it is available HERE. It’s worth a good look.
Let me now summarize the changes TfL is proposing. There are several changes proposed outside the West End area and these have been omitted as not germane to the Oxford Street question, but bus service changes that are proposed to routes serving either end, or along Regent Street, are included.
Route 3. Presently serves Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus. To be re-routed via Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road and in a loop via Russell Square. Frequency unchanged at 8 minutes. Change will affect about 850 people daily who will have to change buses. Note that until early 2015, Route 3 also served Oxford Circus but was cut back owing to improve reliability owing to ‘regeneration and road works’.
Route 6. From Edgware Road presently serves Marble Arch, Oxford Street, Oxford Circus, Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and Aldwych. To be rerouted between Marble Arch and Piccadilly Circus via Park Lane, Hyde Park Corner and Piccadilly. Frequency unchanged at 7-8 minutes (which was reduced from 6 minutes in January 2015 owing to construction work in Regent Street but found to match demand). TfL observes this will introduce a new service ‘for first time’, running between Park Lane and Piccadilly direct. TfL state this will affect 1700 weekday customers who will have to change buses (at Marble Arch or near Piccadilly Circus).
Route 8. This presently runs from Bow to Tottenham Court Road via High Holborn and New Oxford/Bloomsbury Way Street and via a loop at Tottenham Court Road taking it virtually to Goodge Street station, Chenies Street and return via Gower Street/Bloomsbury Street. TfL intends to reroute westbound buses via St Giles High Street and Earnshaw Street, returning via New Oxford Street and Bloomsbury Way. No ‘numbers inconvenienced’ given. It must be noted that TfL claims weekday usage has dropped 14% over five years. This route continued beyond Tottenham Court Road to Oxford Circus and whilst TfL gives no date the reason given is ‘ongoing works on Oxford Street’. The cut-back appears to have been 2013.
Route 13. This presently approaches London along the Finchley Road/Baker Street axis and terminates at Aldwych via Oxford Street, Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square. TfL proposes to divert the route where it meets Oxford Street to run to Victoria via Marble Arch and Park Lane (replacing the 82). No passenger impact is given though the 113 which shares much of the route would serve Oxford Circus.
Route 15. This runs from East London to Aldywch and Trafalgar Square and before May 2013 continued to Piccadilly Circus and Regent Street. The service was cut back ‘temporarily’ owing to roadworks and traffic congestion, TfL states. It is proposed to make this change permanent.
Route 22. This presently runs Putney to Piccadilly Circus via Hyde Park Corner and Piccadilly. The proposal is to divert the route to Oxford Circus via Green Park, Berkeley Square, Conduit Street and Regent Street (replacing part of the C2). This is felt likely to affect 860 passengers daily who presently use the 22. Frequency unchanged.
Route 23. No immediate changes are proposed for this service in the West End, but it is planned to withdraw it between Liverpool Street and Aldwych ‘to restore the reliability of the service’. Frequencies would be unchanged. In the longer term TfL proposes to withdraw the route east of Paddington when Crossrail opens. The present changes will affect about 2300 people daily who would require to change buses.
Route 73. Presently runs from Stoke Newington to Victoria via Tottenham Court Road/Gower Street, Oxford Street, Marble Arch and Park Lane and TfL propose to curtail the route at Oxford Circus. This will affect about 1050 people daily. No passenger-specific reason is given for this particular change is given.
Route 113. This presently runs along the Finchley Road/Baker Street axis but presently stops at Marble Arch. TfL propose to divert it at Oxford Street to terminate at Oxford Circus (where it historically terminated).
Route 137. Presently serves Park Lane, Marble Arch, Bond Street and turns at Oxford Circus. To be turned at Marble Arch and withdrawn along Oxford Street. Will affect about 2300 people daily who will have to change buses or use the Underground.
Route 189. Presently runs from Brent Cross to Oxford Circus via Baker Street. TfL proposes to divert the route at Oxford Street to terminate at Marble Arch and no longer serve Oxford Circus.
Route 242. Presently runs from Homerton to Tottenham Court Road via Bank, Holborn, St Giles High Street and returns via New Oxford Street and Bloomsbury Way. TfL proposes to cut route back to St Pauls with no change in frequencies. The implied reason is to free up the bus stand at Tottenham Court Road so it can be used by Route 8, though it is observed that usage over 5 years is down 17% (though we are not told between which points); Tfl says ‘Some of this decline is down to the service not running as reliably as it should. Our proposals seek to address this. By shortening the route and avoiding certain pinch points we can manage the service more efficiently and restore reliability and confidence in the service. Around 1,800 weekday customers would need to change.
Route 390. This route presently runs Archway to Notting Hill Gate via Tottenham Court Road/Gower Street, Oxford Street and Marble Arch. TfL propose to divert the route at Marble Arch to run to Victoria via Park Lane (this largely to replace the 73, it appears). This will affect about 1350 people daily.
Route C2. Presently runs from Parliament Hill to Victoria via Great Portland Street, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Berkeley Square, Green Park, Hyde Park Corner. To be curtailed at Regent Street (Conduit Street) and Victoria section cut out. TfL states reason is to improve reliability.
The first observation is that whatever the merits of the proposals, the published schemes as a whole are designed to save TfL £8.4 million annual costs with a loss of revenue estimated at £1.4 million, a net saving of about £7 million cash each year. We are, I think, all aware that TfL has a bit of a funding shortfall, so such savings are likely to be sought all over the system, but the Oxford Street and Regent Street corridors are prime targets given the political desire to reduce (and perhaps eliminate) buses, at least along Oxford Street. Annual bus mileage will fall by 1.1 million miles and save 39 vehicles. The cost to passengers is generally reckoned as time. About 17,000 transport links will be broken which will require an extra walk or a change of buses along the passenger’s route. TfL and most government bodies convert this to a notional cash cost, based on experience and research, and this represents how an average passenger responds to paying more or less for savings in, or additions to, journey time – it is a proxy designed to help identify the better of otherwise similar projects but it is not entirely fanciful – and the passenger ‘cost’ of these changes is about £5.3 million. The total ‘cost’ is established by adding the passenger disbenefits and the loss of revenue which gives you a cost/disbenefit of £6.75 million against cash savings of savings of £8.4 million, equating to a cost-benefit ratio of 0.8 (where savings are made, the rules are that this ratio must be less than 2.0, making this scheme ‘very worthwhile’). The savings would be attractive to any bus operator and the unasked question is ’why now’.
The above diagram extracts are included to do no more than give a flavour of the scale of the changes that are proposed. The complete change maps cover the whole of the affected routes and can be downloaded as follows and do deserve study:
Map showing all the affected routes as they are now – Click HERE
Map showing all the affected routes if all the alterations are implemented – Click HERE
Map showing the services as they are now with the alterations marked on as well – Click HERE
It would be tedious to repeat here what anyone can read in the report where TfL has explained its reasoning to each of the changes, usually in some detail. In most cases changes have been grouped so that sets of routes are treated as a logical whole for passengers travelling between central London and particular outside areas. The work is set out in Section 7 which should be a ‘must read’.
Having said that I think that there are a few points that are unsaid and may be susceptible to more intimate probing.
Permanent changes because of short terms road works
A number of changes are predicated on roadworks and other construction work (including Crossrail works) that are of a temporary nature. This is in a few cases acknowledged, but the heavy reduction in some central London usage against a generally rising trend in bus usage that, with population growth seems set to increase, seems a risky starting point for claiming buses can be permanently withdrawn.
Improved parallel Underground Services
The reduction in usage along some bus corridors owing to improvements in Underground services is acknowledged, especially parallel to Jubilee and Victoria Lines. However this space will fill up and that having been done it is unfeasible to add further capacity to those existing lines. Increases on other lines (particularly the east-west tube lines), is some way off.
Crossrail is clearly going to have some effect. We must remind ourselves the route is Liverpool Street – Farringdon– Tottenham Court Road – Bond Street – Paddington. The major reduction in local traffic is likely to be along the Marylebone Road corridor, Liverpool Street to Tottenham Court Road / Bond Street and Bond Street to Paddington. This will relief the Metropolitan / Circle and (particularly) the Central Line which in turn will make more space for local journeys along these corridors and relief some pressure on buses. Having said that the Underground is too often a poor choice for making comparatively short trips across central London owing to the need to get to a station, get down to a platform, often not get a seat (even in so-called off peak), get back to the surface and then walk from the station to where you want to go. For many, getting a bus is much to be preferred and is often pleasanter. I am not persuaded Crossrail will be much relief to the buses along Oxford Street except for the Bond Street-Paddington routes and the ‘Railplan’ table above rather supports the effect as being marginal along Oxford Street East. I would be cautious about the ‘Crossrail will fix it’ implications promoted only cautiously by TfL and more exuberantly by one or two others who might not have seen the TfL analysis or who just want to ignore it.
Bus Stands not Passengers Define Bus Routes?
A number of changes are clearly steered by the availability of bus stands. As a transport person I do realize that such things are important; a random distribution of bus arrival times needs correcting before buses depart the other way if the service stands any chance of running regularly, so buses need to have stand time. However the sheer number of references to bus stands doesn’t make me feel as though passengers are coming first in the thinking. So far as ‘strategy’ is concerned (and there’s a word I hate using) we seem to have returned to those dark days of the 1970s when LT had all but given up on running buses regularly, with the combination of enforced one person operation (and thus long boarding times) and ‘traffic congestion’ making schedules a work of fiction. The answer then was to cut route length so buses ran in overlapping sections, requiring many people to change buses. This, of course, involved introducing many more bus stands to accompany the larger number of shorter routes (this approach was not particularly successful, for several reasons).
The present report could almost have been written in those awful days. We are now informed that many of the routes are unacceptably unreliable because of traffic or construction work or some other reason and shortening routes would improve reliability. Hmm. This sounds like the thin end of the (very old) wedge with the passenger very much not in the driving seat! I will go no further than to suggest that if there is a wider bus service reliability problem in London (and I think there might be) then let us have a paper on bus reliability by all means. Indeed, it would make very interesting reading to see what measures are being taken to protect the interests of bus passengers against the assault on our streets from the various competing interests. However, darkly referring to the unreliability problems here in order to support a bus cull in Oxford Street in a consultation where passengers can’t really challenge it is not very helpful and I think could reasonably invite further probing.
Those for whom the Underground is not an option
We should not overlook the interests of those who for one reason or another cannot use the Underground, of whom I suspect are more than you might think (especially when it is busy). I saw no mention of such people in the report.
The Undesirability of Changing Buses
It is accepted that quite large numbers of people will now need to change buses and the report suggests that in many cases this can be done at many bus stops where the arriving and the required buses shares stops along common sections of road (though these are not individually set out in the data). Frequent mention is made of the new Hoppa Ticket entitling someone to a free journey on a second bus where one has clocked in on the first one within the hour. A few of the route alterations are along quite lengthy routes passing along notoriously congested roads where it is quite possible an hour might not be sufficient. This would seem a legitimate cause for complaint.
More generally, the need to change buses along ones journey is a serious turn-off. You wait for a bus, endure the undisciplined fight to get on and may then need to stand for a while before getting a seat. It is bad enough once but to have to repeat it, amplifying the overall journey uncertainty, is very unwelcome. It is more unwelcome in wet weather, of course, as sheltering provision is minimal at a busy stop. These are legitimate concerns ineffectually addressed in the report and I think that some of this is not thought through. Particular objection might be levelled at what is intended at Tottenham Court Road (where the road layout is not finished) and Marble Arch which despite recent improvements is still a horrid place with circumlocutory pedestrian movements and bus stops chaotically arranged. Many stops are presently split, which is exceedingly irksome for short-distance passengers (nothing is said about reducing the number of split stops in the culling, though it would be a good opportunity).
For example the routes along Edgware Road to Oxford Street reduce from four to two. The logical change is stop H in Edgware Road but in view of reductions it is better to walk 250 metres to stop K or L in Oxford Street. This is really a split stop where the component stops are a long way apart in a very, very crowded bit of street. Not a pleasant change at all. Similar considerations apply to 137 users (where a large number of bus changes is expected). If buses are to turn at Marble Arch they will have to drop off in Park Lane. One can wait at windswept stop W for one of the two surviving routes but it is a much better option from stops K or L but a really long and unpleasant treck if you do brave it. Not something you would be looking forward to every day. It is my experience that stops on outbound services at Marble Arch tend to be very, very busy already. You won’t be expecting a seat, I think.
Finally, one of the drivers behind the reduction of bus services is the amount of air pollution. We all know that TfL is increasing the use of hybrid buses and looking closely at new technology vehicles that are virtually pollution-free at point of service delivery. The report doesn’t really go into any of this but I would have thought that, in fairness, anyone believing that reducing buses will reduce air pollution should be benchmarking against the new zero or low pollution buses rather than some of the grottier vehicles that are being phased out anyway. I agree that reducing the pollution from vehicles other than buses is harder and there is considerable opposition to the redistribution of pollution-generating vehicles to neighbouring areas as that is hardly a cure. We all want fresher air, I think, but wishing the buses away isn’t really going to deliver it.
I have been through the consultation material and I suppose it is as workmanlike as one could expect, but there is quite a lot of it and this might be felt a bit daunting. I actually agree with some of the changes from my own observations. However I think the overall quantity of the reductions in one go might be found to be a step too far and begin to impinge on our ability to get about.