Changes to how much people pay for their peak-hours commute could be considered as a way of encouraging people to commute at different times, according to a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).
The report says that in order to reduce crowding on public transport, there needs to be ways of encouraging both employers and employees to spread the commute over a wider time frame.
In normal times, as much as 20% of Londoners who travel by public transport do so at 8:30am. If that could be reduced by encouraging earlier or later starts, then crowding would be reduced. Not just good during the era of the virus, but a general good in of itself.
To use the phrase of the moment – we need to flatten the curve.
Knowing that sin taxes and incentives will change behaviour, the IFS suggests that TfL could “increase the relative price of commuting at peak times”.
This has the advantage of encouraging a shift in when people commute while slightly helping to repair TfL’s shattered finances. Pricing by time of rush-hour commute could include a return of something that used to exist a century ago — the workers fare — cheaper tickets offered to people who travelled to work early in the morning before the professional workers.
Your correspondent used to work for a company which had a start time of “between 8am and 10am”, with corresponding departure times, and it not only allowed people to commute to work when they preferred, it had the huge advantage of making meetings before 10am or after 4:30pm impossible, giving everyone a couple of hours of meeting-free work time.
Unless you wanted to deliberately exclude someone by scheduling a meeting for 8:30am, which your correspondent would never have done. Certainly not.
The IFS also suggests temporarily encouraging more people to travel by cars, by reducing fuel duties and congestion charges, although it also warns that such reductions tend to be much harder to reverse later on due to political lobbying.
London suffers from the problem that a far larger percentage of commuters rely on public transport, which raises the risk to commuters of catching the virus. However, it’s also balanced by the fact that an estimated 60% of workers could work from home, at least for some of the time.
While many employers were already encouraging some working from home before the virus struck, the lockdown will have forced many die-hard laggards to realise that it is possible to do this, at least some of the days of the week.
This is likely to have a long term impact on how people work in the future, with fewer people commuting every day, and many only going into the office a few days per week. The impact can be considerable. If half of commuters into central London worked from home one day per week, then that releases capacity on the London Underground equivalent to what Crossrail is promising to deliver.
More home working has good and bad news for public transport, as fewer commuters reduces the need for capacity upgrades, but also reduces the revenues needed to pay for essential maintenance and upgrades.
How TfL squares this particular circle is something to be looked out for in the next few months.