Monday 16 January 2012

Long-run trend in commuting into central London

[Cross-posted to London Transport Data]

The first statistics on commuting into central London were collected in the 1850s (of which more later), but the first figures comparable to the present date from around a century later. The chart below shows the trend since 1956 in the number of people (in thousands) measured as entering central during the weekday morning peak, broken down by whether they used rail (national rail, London Underground or TfL), bus or private transport (car, coach, taxi, cycle and motorcycle). NB, walking isn't included.

The number of morning commuters peaked at about 1.25 million in 1962 and then fell through most of the next twenty years. The pattern over the last thirty years is dominated by peaks and troughs linked to London's economic performance, with notable booms and busts in the late 1980s, early 2000s and in 2007-08. Rail is the dominant mode throughout this period, even more so in recent years, reaching 79% of the total in 2010. In fact the more interesting changes happened on the road and only really show up when you leave rail out. Detailed data on road traffic only starts in 1969 but the chart below interpolates back to estimates from 1961 to show the broad modal split of road commuting over a nearly 50-year span. It shows buses and cars twice swapping places as the dominant mode of transport for commuters, with bus ridership sliding throughout the 60s and 70s before shooting up again in the early 2000s. Interestingly, this latter shift seems to have started before the introduction of the congestion charge: the number of car commuters into central London fell by nearly a quarter between 2000 and 2002, before the C-charge was introduced in 2003.

The most notable trends in the last decade have been the continuing fall in the car share of commuting, and the rise in cycling. The chart below shows cycling's share of road commuting into central London since 1969. In the early 1970s cycling accounted for just 1% of road commuting (and therefore a much smaller share of total commuting), but by 2010 this had risen to 12%. Given the combined motorcycle/cycle figure in 1961 was 13%, it seems fairly plausible that cycling now accounts for a higher share of central London commuters than at any point in the past. Also, if current trends continue (a big if) it won't be long before more people are coming into central London on two-wheelers than in cars.

I mentioned at the start that these kind of statistics were first collected in the 1850s. This refers to a survey by Charles Pearson, who hired 'traffic-takers' to stand 'at all the principal entrances to the city of London, to take their station from eight o’clock in the morning till eight o’clock at night' and count the number of persons and vehicles leaving or entering the City over the twelve-hour period. The City was a much larger part of 'London' in the 1850s than it is now, and Pearson measured somewhat different flows and used a different methodology, but his results, shown in the table below, are still fascinating.  

Estimated number of persons and vehicles going into and out of the City daily in 1854, counting them all both ways.
Omnibus 88,000
Other vehicles 52,000
River steamers 30,000
Via Fenchurch St and London Bridge rail 54,000
Foot passengers 400,000

Railways were still in their infancy and there was no Tube yet, but the most striking result here is how many people walked into Central London. That's not so surprising, as London was much smaller and denser than it is today so most people would have been within an hour's walk of the City. It's frustrating that we don't have comparable figures on walking today (at least, not that we could easily find) but as the city is so much more spread out you would expect walking's share to be much lower, though still significant.

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