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The transformed reputation of London’s transport system
25 September 2020
It’s not always easy to cast your mind back 20 years. The fog of time combined with the disease of nostalgia blur the memory to the extent that it is almost impossible to recall how things once were.
So to remind ourselves of how transport in London was perceived 20 years ago, it’s worth digging out how the US press reacted when we poached one of their top transport bosses to be the first Commissioner of Transport for London. “Ex-Transit Chief Takes On London’s Ailing Subway,” exclaimed the New York Times. Ailing? Today, we’d bristle at the suggestion, but it was clear back then that we needed this help because, to be fair, our tube was ailing. As were the buses, and the rest of the transport system besides.
Londoners knew it too. We knew the tube’s rolling stock was old and dirty, and too often delayed — whilst catching a bus felt like a hit-and-miss experience which the middle classes tried to avoid.
Changing a transport system is not the work of a few months or a few years. But over two decades we can see – and most Londoners recognise – that our transport system has changed for the better. No-one would describe the tube as “ailing” anymore (today it’s a good description of the New York subway, ironically) and whilst bus ridership has slipped in the last five years, this follows 15 years of sharp growth.
The transformation of our transport system goes much wider. The list is a long one and includes the oyster card, the cycle hire scheme, cycle superhighways, night tube, tube wifi, aircon on some lines, London Overground, improved river services and the data revolution that has allowed customers to access real-time data and journey planning.
Delivering change in public services is one thing. But getting the public to recognise it is another task altogether, as the managers of the NHS and education systems will also attest.
In London, in 2012, we had one of those catalysing moments which forced Londoners to reappraise how they viewed their own transport system. The Olympics, we all knew, would put impossible strain on transport. At the first hint of a signal failure, the whole system would collapse and profound chaos would ensue.
But TfL succeeded in delivering the most remarkable job of expectation management, encouraging us Londoners to travel differently during the games. And the result was that despite a 30% increase in passenger numbers during the Games, the system didn’t fall over. It was fine. And allied to the wider triumph of those 16 days of glory, Londoners began to feel a previously unknown sensation – pride. Pride in our transport system that we realised for the first time, was actually world class.
The Olympics wasn’t just a turning point for how Londoners feel about their transport system, but also in the self-confidence of TfL as an organisation, with the “Every Journey Matters” campaign since then producing improved scores in customer satisfaction and trust.
Even before the coronavirus shook our very way of life, we all would have recognised that challenges in London’s transport system remained. The need to sustain high levels of investment is imperative and until the pandemic, congestion was on the rise and bus ridership was falling. But looking back two decades to the start of TfL’s life, things are immeasurably better than they used to be. And unusually, the average Londoner recognises this too.
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