Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A street-by-street breakdown of where city residents ride, drive, bike, or walk to work.
Londoners as a whole take the train to work. East Londoners love their bikes more than anyone else in the capital. And a large share of the city’s walking commuters seem to come from a religious minority.
These are some of the interesting conclusions to be drawn from an unexpectedly beautiful, incredibly detailed map of London’s commuter habits. Created by Oliver O’Brien, a researcher for the Consumer Data Research Centre based at University College London, the map uses data from the U.K.’s 2011 national census (the most recent) to provide an almost street-by-street breakdown of how Londoners get to and from work.
Public transit enthusiasts will be pleased to see that the city is mainly a great sea of orange, denoting areas where people use trains or subways. A closer look at the map, which zooms out to reveal commuter habits across the U.K. and can be viewed in full here, also reveals some highly specific quirks and pitfalls in the way the city’s transit network functions.
On first glance, a Londoner will likely pick out something locals have been discussing for decades: the boroughs of Southwark and Hackney both need more Tube stations. These areas aren’t hard to find; they’re the purple patches due south and northeast of the city center, respectively. The purple shading shows that most people here commute by bus or coach (the British term for a long-distance bus).
These options may be better for congestion and pollution than private car use, but as a former resident of both areas, I can vouch that commuting this way is slower, and too often means crawling through traffic—an experience made more uncomfortable by the tendency of London’s double decker buses to vibrate heavily when not driving at reasonable speed.
To be fair, both these areas have benefited from one of London great recent transit successes, the Overground network, which has pieced together closed or underused pieces of track to create a speedy, well-connected alternative to the Tube. But the lines the network uses still typically circle Central London rather than connect to it, which explains why most commuters are still stuck on the bus.
Central London, meanwhile, is a dense thicket of green, showing that residents who walk to work are the largest group here. The intensity of the green patch still might mislead you into thinking that walking to work is more common than it is. The heart of the green block here is in fact the City of London, London’s financial district, where barely more than 7,000 people live in streets dominated by offices.
Beyond the city’s heart, there’s one notable exception to the rule of foot commuters living centrally. If you scan to the north of Central London, you’ll notice another patch of dense green around the neighborhood of Stamford Hill, where most people seem to walk to their places of employment. Anyone with local knowledge could tell you the reason for this: the area is home to a 30,000-strong community of Hasidic Jews, many of whom work in businesses that are located almost on their doorsteps.
When it comes to bike commuters, the map shows how far London still has to come in making people feel safe. In a sea of orange, green, and purple, there’s only one area that has many streets shaded red, signifying that most people here commute by bike. That area is East London’s Hackney.
There could be several factors in play here. The area is near enough to jobs to make commuting by bike relatively brief. Also, this is a gentrifying area, popular with younger middle-class residents who tend to be early adopters of cycling. The area does have some quieter back street routes into town, but its cycling infrastructure isn’t notably better than elsewhere. In itself this is inconclusive, but it might suggest that, when it comes to getting people on two wheels, location and social habits can have more influence than an excellent lane network, per se.
While the map uses the most up-to-date figures available, the five years since they were gathered is still a long time. London has some major transit changes on the way, including Crossrail, a 73-mile long heavy rail link tunneled across London that should ease pressure on the Tube and attract some people in the London region away from their cars. (Current Tube expansions, however, are routed neither to Hackney or Southwark.) The city is also building some properly protected cycle highways.
If all goes well, an updated version of the map may soon show more people using bikes and trains and, on the outskirts, far fewer cars.