London transport’s overcrowding: what’s causing it & can we solve it with data?

As featured in CapGemini Business Analytics Blog

London’s transport overcrowding has become so pervasive that it has been cited as London’s #2 biggest issue – after the housing crisis, of course, but the two are heavily inter-related. It factored into every mayoral candidate’s manifesto in a big way, and impacts on each of us who calls this sprawling city home or travels through it.

In this article, I look into how bad the issue has become, assess some of its causes, and finally outline some ideas about what can be done to resolve it for the future.

How bad is the issue?

Union leaders have said that overcrowding on Tube platforms, combined with cuts in staffing levels, has created ‘a lethal cocktail’ that is ‘reaching breaking point’.  On London’s commuter trains, more than one in five passengers(139,000 in 2015, a 15.8% increase from 2014) is forced to stand.


Delays due to overcrowding on the London Underground (or the “Tube”) have reached a five-year high, according to new figures obtained through Freedom of Information requests: 237 delays due to overcrowding in 2014-15 (Apr-Mar), compared with 153 in 2010, an increase of 55%.

Unions are expressing concern about the welfare of commuters, as Tube drivers are no longer always able to see when a passenger has fallen between the train and the platform edge, because of overcrowded platforms.

Transport for London (TfL) says this is why they close stations, in order to “ensure that platforms are safe to use”, however, closing stations has the impact of inconveniencing commuters trying to get home or to work, and can also affect local businesses by reducing local footfall.

Where is most affected?

Oxford Circus is London Underground’s busiest station (nearly 100 million passengers entering or leaving the station in 2014) and figures show it had to be closed due to overcrowding 113 times over 2015, or once every 3 days. TfL blamed this on upgrade work at neighbouring stations at Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street. Bank & Monument are the next most affected, with 52 closures. These figures don’t include partial closures which are “treated as ‘business as usual’ and only recorded locally, if at all”.

The worst-affected Tube line for delays due to overcrowding is the Victoria Line, delayed 60 times in 2015, according to TfL figures – but the Jubilee and the Northern lines were not far behind.

 Figure 1: Number of delays due to overcrowding in 2015

In terms of trains, First Great Western trains arriving into Paddington had the highest level of crowding of any operator serving the capital, with 10.1% too many passengers.

Figure 2: Destination of busiest train routes into London 2014/15 (% over capacity)

TfL has also reported on where people are most frustrated with the issue.

 Figure 3: Pinch points on the rail network in London via TfL

What is causing the levels of overcrowding?

Population growth is a big factor (the capital’s population is expected to grow to almost 10 million by 2030), as is the re-routing of passengers away from cars (encouraged by the Congestion Charge), but these don’t fully explain the extent of the transport growth.

Figure 4: Growth in journey stages on transport modes 2001-2014 via TfL 

It’s not all down to the booming tourism industry either, since the overcrowding emerges at distinct rush-hours (including a new “split” rush hour evidencing differing workforce patterns, similar to Japan).

Figure 5: Weekday trips by mode and trip start time in London 2015

Changes in the workforce also influence travel: the employed population is increasing as the economy stabilises post-recession (particularly in London where there is a higher proportion of the young).

Social change such as the so-called millennial generation’s preference for portfolios of jobs and entrepreneurial working lives, can involve multiple work-related trips per day, further increasing the transport burden. And of course, there are more London workers living further out, as people are prepared to commute from further away due to soaring house prices:


Figure 6: London’s changing labour market balance via GLA and TfL

What can be done about the overcrowding?

TfL has forecasted overall overcrowding, and even taking into account the currently planned expansion projects such as Crossrail and Thameslink, TfL is predicting that there will be areas on the rail network where overcrowding will persist to 2026+, unless further measures are taken.

So given capacity restrictions, various smart city tech companies are looking into alternatives, to help distribute people across the existing network more efficiently instead.

There are already apps such as “Moovit”, that crowd-source feedback from train users, combine it with GPS train locations, to provide other travellers with real-time overcrowding updates, allowing them to find a service that is likely to have more space if they make their journey earlier or later than planned.

OpenCapacity, a British start-up, is now developing to analyse data from carriage weight sensors that show how many people are currently riding it. Matching this to historical data from CCTV footage and station ticket barriers, the software uses machine learning to discern how passengers are spaced real-time, to highlight to users where they should stand on the platform to optimise carriage capacity.

I look forward to seeing how these and other ongoing initiatives will change the future of our transport system – and give me more space in the mornings!


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