Steve Chambers Blog

Can we ration public transport?

When social distancing is not possible

Steve Chambers

Steve Chambers

13 May 2020

The government two metre social distancing guidance is impossible to follow on public transport. Within a day of people returning to work this became apparent from images circulating on Twitter. In a city the size of London rationing of transit is the only way of ensuring anything close to compliance with the government guidelines. But I don't think we'll see rationaing any time soon, because it is difficult to implement, would be unpopular and will cause new problems.

There are three main ways transit could be rationed. They are price, delay and eligibility. Or a combination of these three. Government is already rationing very crudely by keeping workers who can work from home where they are. In theory the only workers on the transit network are those who cannot work from home and cannot complete the journey through active travel or by car.

Price is already used as a means to ration the Underground when it is at capacity. A peak journey costs more than off-peak, especially when coming in from the outer zones. We could adjust pricing to smooth out the demand. However, this might have the effect of simply impoverishing lower paid workers who have no choice when to travel.

We’d also have to revisit the concessions programme which discounts fares for the young and the elderly. These would not be popular moves. But is it really fair to discount the economically inactive and punishment price keyworkers at this time? No. It isn’t. And is unlikely to result in much change in demand anyway.

Delay has more potential as a rationing device, but is also far from perfect. Put simply we make people queue to get on the bus or train. This would require members of staff at busy bus stops to police it. I would not want the job of telling someone the bus is full. We’ve already seen transport workers spat at, who then went on to die of COVID-19.

Underground stations are used to demand management. But in normal times they simply close the ticket barriers and wait for the congestion at the station to pass. Ticket halls are no longer places where people can safely congregate, and the queues will need to be moved outside with staff to police them. Also leaving them open to abuse.

Most crucially for delay it is a crude method of controlling overcrowding within the train carriages. It would be quite a complex operation to anticipate more crowded trains coming down the line and prevent people reaching them. Queues are only really good for controlling station congestion.

Rationing by delay in this way also treats all transit users equally, but that could see a doctor or nurse wait much longer to access transport than somebody who just fancies a ride.

Which brings us on to the final method, eligibility. This would see journeys rationed by purpose. The keyworker would be treated differently to the person who just fancies a ride to another part of town. But to do this there would need to be some technology involved. Many travellers already have their Oyster card or contactless bank card linked to a Transport for London website account. This could be used to ration access to transit.

The problem, for Transport for London, is they will most likely not want to get into the business of assessing eligibility. It is not a completely unknown process for them. They already do this for concessionary passes, but things like age and student status is fairly clear cut. How do you define ‘keyworker’? How do you establish that the employer requires the employee at their workplace? It is a process that would be very difficult to administer.

And then once you have all this data, what do you do with it? Capacity will be lower than demand, so how do you decide who travels, and when?

Rationing by eligibility would be the only way to ensure social distancing on the Underground, but it will be difficult to implement, the results will be unpopular and who knows what new problems will spring up.

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