We cannot allow Covid’s impact on transport to turn inner cities into urban deserts

Christian Wolmar

At times I feel like crying. I recently did when I met a railway manager at St Pancras station at 9 o’clock in the morning. Instead of the usual hustle and bustle along the walkway between the underground and Thameslink, there was a handful of people – few of whom showed any urgency to reach their destination. Outside, the picture was the same. The usually jammed bike racks had plenty of spaces. My friend who had travelled in from Woking on a rush-hour train with just four people in his carriage showed me pictures of Waterloo at 8.30am. “There were most staff than passengers,” he said wryly.

This was after the schools had reopened and Boris Johnson had called on people to come back to their offices. Clearly they are not doing so. The anecdotal evidence among my friends and business contacts is unequivocal: companies big and small are planning to downsize their office space in central London. One told me of a business with 400 staff members that is now just planning to accommodate between 20 and 40, an architect pal said his practice with 25 people is now going almost entirely online, and so on.

I have lived all my life in the capital and it is difficult not to feel emotional about what is happening. Public transport is the most obvious area affected. There is a double whammy: the short term impact of Covid and the consequent fear of catching the disease, and – much more important – the long-term impact of people working from home or having virtual meetings rather than real face-to-face contact. In fact, the fear of travelling on public transport has been greatly exaggerated and the messaging at the height of the pandemic was far too negative. Research in France, Austria and Japan found that there was no evidence that cases had been spread through the use of public transport. However, the perception that there is a high risk, greatly increased by the messaging, remains.

It is the longer-term impact that is of far greater import. While few people are likely to work from home five days per week, there are probably even fewer who want to go to the office every weekday given that the advantages and ease of working from home have now been understood. Local government expert and London School of Economics academic Tony Travers does not foresee any quick recovery: “This is a game changer. The whole inner city is dependent on masses of people coming in to work. It is not just the trains and buses. It is theatres, restaurants, concert halls and even shoe shine people and heel bars.” Meanwhile, my optician tells me that his colleagues in the suburbs “have never been so busy”. And it is, of course, not just London. In his interview for LabourList, Shadow Transport Secretary Jim McMahon talked about the impact of the local HMRC office and magistrates court closing in his Oldham constituency.

All of this demands a coherent strategy to prevent inner cities becoming the urban deserts, neglected and impoverished, that they declined into in the post-war period. It is easy to forget that the inner cities were characterised by slums and abandoned warehouses and factories. It was a similar set of circumstances that began their decline – an emphasis on motorised transport, urban sprawl into the suburbs and the relocation of many jobs away from city centres. It is Labour councils that are in control of many of these areas, and a Tory government may seek to act in a politically partisan way in restricting much needed funds to them – as has already happened in London. The response from Labour must be to highlight the risks to these areas and to develop politics to support them.

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