Time to close London’s public transport system and buy everyone a bike?

I don’t like commuting. Readers of this blog may have already noticed this. So strong was my desire to reduce everyone’s commute, I even founded a commute-time-reducing property search engine.

Cyclists can now use Find Properly to minimise their commute (previously only public transport users could).

However when we shared the good news with cyclists on Facebook, we were surprised by the reaction – cyclists seem to love commuting!

Marketing fail or brilliant viral tactic? You decide (hint: we haven't gone viral)

Marketing fail or ingenious viral advertising? You decide (hint: we haven’t gone viral)

So is cycling the answer to spending less time underground or waiting for a bus? For a short trip down the road, cycling may be quicker, but travelling across London has got to be faster by tube or bus… right?

It was time to whip out Excel and do some analysis (I have never sounded so nerdy).

~0.4HP vs ~300HP - but which is faster?

~300 horsepower vs ~0.4 horsepower – but which is faster?

How long does a journey need to be before it is quicker to take public transport than cycle?

For our commute time minimisation algorithm, we gathered travel time data for over 750,000 journeys. For each journey we have the time it would take by public transport and by cycling.

Therefore we know which method is faster for each journey. And since we know where the journey started and ended, we know the length of the journey (as the crow flies).

Using this information I was able to generate the chart below:

Chart showing the proportion of journeys which are faster by cycle against the length of the journey (km)

Chart showing the proportion of journeys that are faster by cycle against the length of the journey (km)

I was really surprised by this. Nearly all journeys less than 5km are faster by cycling. Only until journeys are longer than ~13km is it quicker in most cases to take public transport!

For context: the average bus journey is 5.7km when travelling through multiple zones, and 1.9km for journeys in zone 1 only. So nearly everyone using the bus could save time by cycling instead (pensioners and pram-pushers aside)!

Caveat – as pointed out by podaris, these results should be interpreted with care. Short journeys by public transport in zone 1 are likely to be more efficient, due to the density of the transport network – i.e there is probably a bus route or tube line going in the direction you want. For suburban areas, public transport is likely to be less direct, and therefore slower than cycling.

So if cycling is faster than public transport in many cases, just how slow is public transport?

To generate the chart below I divided the journey distance (as the crow flies) by the time the journey takes by public transport, and by cycling. If the speeds look very low to you this is because (a) London roads don’t follow a straight line, so the travelled distance will be longer than the crow flies, and (b) that’s the point.

Chart showing the average speed of cycling and public transport depending on journey length

Chart showing the average speed of cycling and public transport depending on journey length (km)

I remember being shocked when hearing that the average traffic speed in central London was only 9mph (14km/h).

But public transport is even worse – for short journeys, public transport is slower than walking!

This is because of all the time you waste with public transport: walking to and from the nearest stop and waiting for the bus or descending to the bowels of the earth tube platform all add significant time. These wasted times are largely avoided by cycling.

Let’s throw away our public transport system and only use bikes

OK, not really.

London has, in my opinion, one of the best transport systems in the world. Is there anything more beautiful than seven 38 buses arriving at the stop together?

And yet, despite this, for many journeys I could out-jog you on public transport – that’s how slow it is!

Even a snail can out-run a bus

Even a snail can out-run a bus

And finally, we have a present for you…

We’ve created a cool visualisation showing whether it is quicker to cycle or take public transport from a specific point.

Check it out and let us know what you think!


6 thoughts on “Time to close London’s public transport system and buy everyone a bike?

  1. My journey to work from Croydon to Marylebone is around 25km and without a doubt the bicycle is quicker every single day! What matters is your average speed, if you are fit and powerful then you can go faster and get to places quicker. Whilst the train I would take to work can and regularly reaches speeds of +50mph, my well chosen route with minimal traffic lights and light traffic allows me to float to work with 10 minutes to spare on a bad day for the bike. However a bad day on public transport at the bike can be 4x quicker!

    • With you, I do Earlsfield to St Pancras plenty faster than public transport (had the fortune one morning to time against my housemate who was over the road at the British Library!) – a very average morning and was circa 10min quicker.

      And did a few weeks of Coulsdon (south of South Croydon) to St Pancras before I moved house which was a commute of around 70min, certainly quicker than public transport. Definitely wasn’t busting a gut either. I did that reasonably early so not terrible traffic, but likewise no real dedicated cycle paths on that route until you hit Brixton/Kennington way.

  2. Full disclosure: I’m a transport planner. This is interesting stuff — and your broader observations are generally correct — but I’m afraid that a lot of your specific claims have been skewed by bad data and incorrect analysis.

    First, the bad data: the map is simply not showing correct results. If you set the origin directly on top of Brixton station, for example, then it shows very nearly the whole of London is faster to access by bicycle. If you move the origin a few streets away from Brixton station — in any direction — then it shows much *less* of London is more rapidly accessed by cycle. That is exactly the inverse of reality, wherein being very close to a station gives a significant advantage to public transport, and being farther from a station incurs a significant penalty due to the increased walking times. I’ve checked a number of different places on the map and seen the same sort of discrepancies, which tells me that something is going categorically wrong with either the TFL Journey Planner API, or the way that your algorithm is interpreting the data.

    I’ve also cross-checked the travel times against the TFL Journey Planner itself, and they don’t correspond with the map. Eg., from Brixton to Walthamstow Central — station to station — takes 34 minutes during the mid-week AM peak, according to Journey Planner. The same cycle trip should take 1 hour and 14 minutes, according to Journey Planner. Yet the map shows that it is not only faster to cycle to Walthamstow, but to continue for miles past it. So: you’ve got a very serious error somewhere in either your inputs or in your calculations.

    Second, the methodology for looking at the average journey time by trip-length doesn’t actually lead to the conclusions you make. You’re absolutely correct that the average speed of public transport — for all trips and across all public modes — is shockingly low. This is because most trips (~60%) are “incidental travel” — irregular non-commuting activities like going shopping or visiting friends — and many of these take place in suburban areas where there is no Tube service and no bus which actually goes in the direction you need. This means that in suburban areas, you’re almost always better off cycling for short (<5k) trips — and are often better off walking, for that matter. But while this claim may be true for the *average* 5k trip across the whole of the metropolitan area, it is certainly does not hold true in areas which contain dense, high-frequency, and relatively omnidirectional transport lines. So your claim that it is always faster to cycle across zone 1 than to take public transport is certainly wrong; it would only be true if the transport service in zone 1 was equivalent to the average transport service across the entire city.

    I don't mean to be negative, and think this is valuable analysis that you're attempting. I'd urge you to revisit your data, make sure it's correct, and have another go at this analysis. Like I say, the overall gist won't change: Cycling is a GOOD thing to do, and definitely saves time in places which are not linked by direct transport lines — but it this conclusion would be a lot stronger if it were based on more accurate data and analysis.

    • Thanks for the comment – I’ve added a caveat to our conclusions, and we’ll be doing some work to improve the map. The data is correct, but in some areas there isn’t sufficient data density to display the results accurately.

      We’re working to improve this!

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