ITC discusses crowding on public transport

How can we address crowding on public transport in our cities?

The Occasion

Many of the UK’s major cities are experiencing significant population growth, while at the same time policies are encouraging urban travellers to ditch their cars and use passenger transport to help reduce road congestion and improve air quality. However, many of our urban transport systems already face a problem with overcrowding, especially at peak hours, resulting in journeys that are frustrating, unpleasant and uncomfortable for many users. How can we increase capacity on our urban transport systems to address this problem? Are there design innovations that can help reduce crowding, or do we also need to generate behaviour change and make it easier for commuters to travel at off peak times?

To debate this important topic the ITC was delighted to welcome a distinguished panel of experts from the industry to our Summer Discussion Evening on 11th July 2017. Introduced by ITC Commissioner and host Sarah Kendall, over 70 senior guests attended and the subject was introduced through talks from a panel comprising: Rebeka Sellick, Director of SellickRail; James Angus, Principal Policy Lead, System Operator, at Network Rail; and Philip Ridley from the Enfield Transport Users’ Group.


Crowding on public transport – Key issues raised by the speakers:

  • Rebeka Sellick provided an overview of the capacity crunch on public transport and discussed potential solutions. She explained that rising demand had doubled passenger numbers on the national rail network and London Underground over the past 20 years, and with urban growth continuing this was a challenge that was likely to increase. Drawing on examples including the Victoria line upgrade she observed that cities would have to use a combination of innovative design, better delivery and development in order to spread the load from extra passenger numbers. She suggested that the UK needed to develop a coherent vision for a connected transport system and a joined-up industrial strategy, which could result in a framework for action. Several areas needed to be addressed, including infrastructure innovation, such as automated trains, changing behaviour and better customer access to cross-modal options for travel, with more research into infrastructure delivery and the travel impacts of economic change and vice versa.

Rebeka Sellick provides delegates with information about crowding

  • James Angus provided a network operator’s perspective on crowding on the rail system. He observed that in London more than a million commuters enter the central area during the morning peak, which puts enormous pressure on the whole transport network. While option exist to upgrade existing networks, there are fundamental constraints that could not be simply addressed without very high cost. It may therefore be more cost effective to focus capacity improvements on certain routes rather than trying to increase capacity everywhere. He suggested that more attention should be given to spreading peak travel, although he cautioned that this would require changes in behaviour, for example employment practices. Additionally, he pointed out that capacity improvements were not only about reducing crowding but also providing faster and more regular services.
  • Philip Ridley provided insights on solutions to reduce crowding on urban rail. He suggested that passengers preferred ‘turn-up-and-go’ services, which created an evenness of service that helped to address crowding, but such provision often appeared difficult to achieve. However, he used local examples of services in north London to explore capacity solutions, linking the location of such initiatives to planned housing development and local population growth. Mr Ridley noted that a regular service could be achieved through improved timetabling and route planning, and although some investment would be required further down the line to provide new rail paths and station platforms, these were less costly than building new routes.

Philip Ridley outlines some ‘quick wins’ for London transport

Key themes raised in the discussion:

  • By designing for disabled passengers across the transport system, we can ease delays for all users. A delegate noted that by designing for shared areas across the whole transport system – including stations and rolling stock – it is possible to reduce conflicts and speed up flows for all passengers. The existing urban transport infrastructure is in many cases too outdated and ill-equipped to handle wheelchairs, buggies, large suitcases, and larger people. Innovations like TfL’s S-Stock Underground trains, currently running on the Circle and Hammersmith & City lines, were considered to be a step in the right direction.
  • Delegates suggested that more research into crowding and the funding of solutions is required. There was some concern that the costs and dis-benefits of crowding were not currently being measured, including the number of people prevented from travelling. The way in which capacity solutions were funded and appraised should also be reconsidered. New opportunities exist for ensuring that capacity investments result in extra revenue, as well as for demand management solutions from technological innovation and differential pricing.
  • Several attendees argued that transport planners should look at capacity solutions across all modes and not just rail. It was observed that congestion also existed on roads and metro systems. A multi-modal approach was therefore needed that made the best use of capacity across the whole transport network. Additionally, it was suggested that crowding manifested itself differently on transport networks in different cities, and therefore tailored solutions would be necessary. Without coherent multi-modal planning, improved rail capacity could simply transfer congestion to other modes or to the roads outside the station. More coherent timetabling across modes would also help.

Commissioner Sarah Kendall moderates the audience discussion

  • Cities should consider holistically new strategies for tackling the issue of crowding. Some attendees called for a rethink across a broad range of fronts to address overcrowding. For instance, in northern cities it was observed that inter-city rail connections were currently poor and congested, and more thought also was required to address the end-to-end journey experience. In particular, the unintended consequences of addressing pinch points needs to be considered: will solutions merely shift crowding to the interchange or push the problem from platform to street level? With cities continuing to grow better demand management was called for, as well as more intelligent station design.
  • Behavioural issues have as important a role to play as infrastructure upgrades. Several delegates noted that behavioural nudging could have an important role in improving capacity and reducing overcrowding. Technology now allowed flexible working patterns, and employers, particularly in the public sector, could do more to embrace these developments. However, such flexibility in working hours and location would need to be staggered in order to spread the capacity benefits across the working week. TfL was already using real-time communications technology to help people re-plan journeys outside the busiest hours, and evidence showed that this was moving 3-5% of journeys to the shoulders of the peak.