Yesterday (28/6/2022) the Office of National Statistics released the first results from the 2021 Census in the UK. The population of England and Wales rose to 59.6 million which is an increase of 6.3% since the last census 10 years ago.
This substantial change which directly affects our quality of life was barely covered in the national media. More people mean more stress on housing provision, more vehicles on our roads and a bigger demand for health services (particularly as the population has aged – there are more older people and they are living longer). Some of the age increase can be blamed on baby boomers growing old.
The population increase has been concentrated in London and the South-East but older people have tended to move out of London being replaced by young immigrants (not just from overseas but from within the UK). The census data might also have been distorted as people tended to move out of central London boroughs to the country during the pandemic.
England now has the highest population density of all major European countries.
One major impact of more population is degradation of the environment – more air pollution and more waste. Here’s a good quote from Sir David Attenborough that is very relevant: “All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people”.
What is the Government doing to try and tackle this problem? In essence very little apart from rather feebly trying to restrict immigration. The birth rate is forecast to fall, but there is as yet no sign of any reduction in the population growth. A growing population might mean a healthy economy but the shortage of housing, particularly in the South-East, has been a major factor in political unrest while the elderly are facing problems in getting medical treatment as the NHS is over-stretched to cope.
The Government is being distracted by many other issues at present in a reactive fashion. Such problems as food and energy security would not be a problem if the UK population was reduced.
Likewise the growth of population, particularly in London and the South-East, has put great stress on the road network. Population growth has zoomed ahead of road capacity which has barely changed in the last few years. This is a recipe for more traffic congestion.
The Government surely needs to be less reactive to short-term problems and look at the longer-term issue of excessive population growth.
Before Christmas Transport for London (TfL) published its 14th Report on Travel in London. It’s basically a collection of data on transport trends in the capital. At 263 pages I’ll only provide a brief summary of some of the key points here – see link below for the full report.
The Report includes data showing the impact of the pandemic. By November 2021 the demand for public transport overall was down to around 70% from pre-pandemic levels. London Underground was 65% and bus demand was about 75%. But road traffic only reduced to about 95% as people chose to avoid using public transport by using private transport (i.e. cars or PHVs) or walking.
Walking actually increased substantially and cycling did increase but mainly for leisure cycling at weekends. Weekday peak commuter travel is not recovering rapidly as there is more working from home, and this is particularly noticeable in central London.
The mode share proportion since 2000 is shown in the above chart. You can see that despite the encouragement for cycling in recent years and particularly by the LTNs of late, cycling has remained a very small proportion and any increase during the pandemic was mainly for leisure.
To quote from page 11 of the Report: “The overall active, efficient and sustainable mode share for travel in 2020 is estimated at 58.3 per cent, compared to 63.2 per cent in 2019”. That includes walking, cycling and public transport use, although why public transport should be considered “sustainable” is not clear. But clearly the effect of the pandemic has been to frustrate the Mayor’s objective to get us all out of our cars and increase “sustainable travel” modes to 80% by 2041. In fact, the active travel mode objective of 20 minutes per day (walking/cycling) for 70% of the population has instead fallen to 35% in the latest quarter probably due to less by those working from home.
The Report contains some data on air pollution some of which comes from road and other transport of course. But it shows how air pollution has been substantially reducing in the last few years. One interesting comment in the Report is that “The Mayor’s Transport Strategy set a target for London to be a zero carbon city by 2050. However, the Mayor has recently called for this to be brought forward to 2030, recognising the importance of the climate change emergency we face”. That’s news to me. So a diesel/petrol car bought this year might be banned in eight years time if the Mayor has his way!
The good news is that limited data suggests the population of London has decreased with significant reductions in international inward migration. The pandemic has deterred international travel while Londoners have moved out to homes in the country and there may have been some “excess deaths” from the pandemic.
Low Traffic Neighbourhoods
The Report comments on the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) on page 123 but the data reported is very selective and biased. They conclude with this statement: “In summary, LTNs have a wide range of different and interconnected impacts but the evidence suggests that these are largely positive and that it is in the longer term where most of the benefits become apparent. Therefore, TfL shall continue to support and, where appropriate, conduct further research for a complete and thorough evaluation of LTN impacts”. It seems they have not yet accepted that the majority of residents do not support LTNs as is clear from recent surveys and public consultations in local boroughs, Lewisham being the latest one which we will comment on later.
A section of the Report covers traffic congestion (pages 143 on). It reports that over the last decade “A slow but generally consistent trend of reducing traffic volumes in central and inner London…”; “Traffic volumes in outer London have, however, grown over this period; and “Generally lower car traffic, higher freight traffic, particularly LGVs, and dramatic changes to the numbers of private hire vehicles”. But this comment shows the impact of the Mayor’s policies: “Continued reductions to the effective capacity of London’s roads, generally reflecting other Mayoral priorities such as reducing road danger, requiring enhanced operational management of the road network”. Yes as we all know, London has become more congested in the last few years due to damaging policies.
There has been an allegation widely reported that traffic on minor roads in London has increased substantially in recent years but the Report contradicts that. It says: “Notably, the volume estimates for London’s major roads remained broadly unchanged, and there was no evidence of an (observed) increasing year-on-year trend in minor road traffic from available independent data over the preceding decade”. It seems the claimed increase might have been an aberration based on misleading statistical data.
How do you measure traffic congestion? One way is by traffic speed but that can be misleading. The best way is to look at “excess delay” which compares actual travel time versus that under “free-flow” conditions. The Report actually shows some data on this which is the first for some time to my knowledge. The chart below shows congestion worsening from 2010 and particularly in the period 2015-2019, but a big improvement thereafter as travel generally was reduced due to the pandemic. But it is still worse than ten years ago!
In conclusion, the Travel in London Report does contain some very interesting data, albeit distorted by the pandemic as travel patterns and volume changed. But it shows how defective has been the Mayor’s Transport Strategy as people have resisted change to modes while road capacity has been reduced.