Visitor Perceptions of Public Transport in London

by Olivia Ruggles-Brise
Feb 2009
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The article presents the findings of research commissioned by the London Development Agency’s tourism team to understand whether and where the system could be improved. It provides recommendations to destination managers in London but also in the rest of the country to make their local transport system work to their benefit.

London has one of the world’s most extensive and complex public transport systems with

  • 268 underground stations
  • 350 mainline rail stations
  • over 700 bus routes
  • 21,500 licensed taxis

Of the 28 million journeys undertaken in the city each day, 37% are by public transport [1]. Nearly all visitors to London will use public transport at some point during their stay [2].

There has, however, been very little primary research undertaken to help transport providers and tourism bodies understand the relationship between London’s transport system and the visitors who use it. The London Visitor Survey [3] gives a useful but limited insight into aspects of transport use.

  • The average spend by overseas and UK staying visitors on transport within London is £12 a day (£9 a day for UK day visitors). Given that there were over 100m nights spent by overseas visitors and nearly 25 million nights by UK visitors in 2006, the value of this contribution to the London economy and to the network is substantial.
  • The Underground (including DLR) is the predominant mode of transport among all types of visitors to London, followed by bus, train and walking.
  • Visitors are generally satisfied with the quality of public transport but less so with the cost [4]. They are particularly dissatisfied with the cost of taxis.
  • The most common factor identified by visitors that would make their visit more enjoyable was less expensive public transport (11%). 4% stated that improving public transport in general would make their visit more enjoyable.

The London Development Agency’s tourism team commissioned the Tourism Company to deliver new research to understand whether and where the system could be improved, working more closely with London’s transport providers. This “Visitor Perceptions of Public Transport in London” research was completed in September 2008.

The aim of the survey was therefore to delve deeper into the findings of the London Visitor Survey and fill the gaps in knowledge on this topic.

The primary research took place in May and June 2008. It consisted of 748 face-to-face interviews using an interviewer-administered questionnaire at three major tourist centres in Central London. A further 121 respondents were interviewed in more depth (Central Location (CL) Tests) which took place in Leicester Square. For the purposes of this research, visitor categories were defined according to those used in the London Visitor Survey, to allow for direct comparison. They are:

  • visitors from overseas
  • people from elsewhere in the UK staying overnight in London
  • people from elsewhere in the UK on day trips to London.
  • underground
  • bus
  • train
  • taxi.
There are many different options for visitors to move around London including train, tube, bus, DLR, river boat, tram, taxi, cycling, walking, motorbike and private car. However, in order to guarantee sufficient sample sizes, this study focuses on those modes generally construed as public transport, namely:

Profile information for each respondent was captured to allow for the generation of cross-tabs and compare results to the London Visitor Survey. The profile results of this survey in general reflected those of the LVS.

  • 54% of respondents were from the UK (not London) and 46% from overseas. Of UK visitors, 48% were staying overnight in London and 52% were day visitors.
  • UK staying visitors tended to be on short breaks of one to three nights, whereas overseas visitors stayed longer, with 35% staying more than seven nights.
  • 72% of respondents were staying in zones 1 or 2, 51% in a hotel or other guest accommodation and 21% with friends or relatives. Those staying in zone 3 or further out were more likely to be staying with friends / relatives (17%) than in a hotel (11%).
  • 24% of respondents were on their first visit to London, meaning that 76% were on a repeat visit. Nearly all UK visitors, be they staying or day visitors, had been to London before (95%), whereas overseas visitors were divided more or less evenly (46% were on a first visit and 54% a repeat visit).
  • 28% of respondents were travelling alone. 41% were travelling with other adults and 31% with their husband/wife/partner. 14% were travelling with children in their party.
  • 44% of respondents were male and 56% female.
  • 3% stated they had a disability
  • 7% were under 20, 49% between 20-39, 35% 40-60 and 9% over 60.

Visitors are generally extremely satisfied with public transport in London. All four of the main modes (underground, local train, bus and black taxi) scored above 4 out of a maximum of 5 in satisfaction ratings [5].

Overseas visitors gave consistently higher scores than UK visitors for underground, local train and bus, while UK day visitors were most satisfied with black taxis. First time visitors were generally more satisfied with public transport than those who had been before.

People staying with friends or relatives outside the centre of town (zone 3 - 6) rated the underground slightly lower than those in other forms of accommodation (4.18 compared to 4.31 for people staying in central London (VFR or guest accommodation) and 4.34 for people staying in hotel / guest accommodation outside the centre). Satisfaction is still high although people staying with friends or relatives generally had lower satisfaction with local trains, buses and taxis than those staying in other accommodation. Satisfaction with the underground seems to decrease the more often a visitor has been to London. Those on their first visit gave a rating of 4.37, compared to 4.04 for those who had been more than 10 times.

Visitors’ experience of public transport in London is slightly better than expected (with a score of 0.40 where 0 is as expected and +2 is much better than expected). The CL tests showed that, in general, peoples’ expectations of London transport are high, with most people expecting it to be ‘fairly good’.

Respondents agreed that public transport was part of the ‘experience’ of visiting London as, not only did it allow them to see more places, but from the top deck of a bus you can get a different view of things. It was also felt that using public transport ‘enables you to experience how locals go about their activities’.

Visitors are most satisfied with the network aspects of the Underground such as

  • • frequency of service (4.26)
  • where services go (4.25)
  • ease of buying a ticket (4.26)
  • punctuality / reliability (4.20).
They are least satisfied with aspects of comfort and cleanliness (3.52), in particular congestion and overcrowding (3.34).

These softer aspects are typically more important to leisure users of transport than the logistical issues so it is not surprising they are less satisfied. Value for money also received a lower score (3.69).

Overseas visitors were consistently more generous with their scoring than UK visitors, and particularly so with regard to safety, attitude and helpfulness of staff, congestion / overcrowding and access.

The comments from the CL tests seemed to suggest that while certain individuals had encountered specific problems – delays, line suspensions, getting lost – most were perfectly satisfied with their experience on the Underground and only very few said that there was something that would put them off using it.

Again, it was overcrowding that was most off-putting, while safety and fear of getting lost were less so. Other one-off comments which would deter people from using the tube included ‘not good if you have luggage’, ‘drunken youths’ and ‘some lines don’t run at weekends’.

Visitors are most satisfied with access on local trains (4.17), followed by ease of buying a ticket (4.16), services that go where they want (4.12) and safety (4.12). Overseas visitors rated safety most highly of all the aspects.

Unlike with the underground, there was a mixture in how ratings differed between hard and soft aspects. For example, visitors rated punctuality / reliability and frequency of service on trains lower than on the Underground. This may be because visitors use local trains as a means to travel from where they are staying into the centre of London in order to start their visit, rather than as a means of getting from place to place, therefore they are more concerned that the network works efficiently.

As with the Underground, congestion (3.49), value for money (3.57) and cleanliness (3.69) were given the lowest rating, although it is worth noting that overseas visitors were considerably more satisfied with these aspects than domestic visitors.

The CL tests reflected the findings of the main survey with positive comments from respondents including ‘on time’, ‘easy to use’, ‘quick / fast’. Negative comments were less common but covered a wider variety of issues including:

  • ‘information given is unclear’
  • ‘last minute platform change’
  • ‘not very clean’
  • ‘crowded’
  • ‘no space for luggage’
  • ‘not enough staff’.

Visitors seemed to be more satisfied overall with the different aspects of the bus than with local trains and the Underground. The lowest rating was 3.68 for on-board information. Unlike other modes, value for money scored quite highly.

The elements receiving lower satisfaction ratings include signage and on-board information, which highlights the importance of innovations such as iBus [6]. However, the ratings for these were still relatively positive at 3.89 and 3.68 respectively.

In the CL test interviews there was little dissatisfaction with the buses. Some positive comments were that they ‘cover a wide area and go to many places’, ‘are better for sightseeing’, ‘not crowded’. There were a few negative comments which included ‘lots of congestion/ traffic problems’, ‘not sure where I was going’, and ‘no indication of next stop’.

There were high levels of satisfaction with most aspects, except for value for money. UK day visitors found it easier to find taxis than other visitors, while overseas visitors were least satisfied with value for money.

The key message emerging from the CL tests was the importance of the driver, who can ‘make or break’ the experience.

The one-day Travelcard was the most used ticket in all groups, and 54% of the total sample had one, including three quarters of all day trippers. This was followed by Oyster Pay as You Go (PAYG), which was used by 17% of all respondents (including 22% of overseas and 18% of UK staying visitors). Only 5% had a visitor Oyster card and only 2% were using a cash fare. 1% (all of which were UK day visitors) had a London Pass.

Visitors were most aware of Travelcards (80% having used one and only 8% are unaware of them). Oyster cards were well known – 51% had heard of them and 33% had used them, while 16% were completely unaware. Oyster PAYG was not as well known (24% unaware) but 28% had used it.

Levels of awareness of Oyster and PAYG were much less amongst overseas visitors than UK visitors, but in both cases overseas visitors were more likely to have used them. This shows that overseas visitors tend either to use PAYG or not know about it, whereas many UK visitors know about the system but don’t use it.

99% of respondents had used some source of information on transport during their visit. The main sources were:

  • printed timetables / maps from stations (38%)
  • the internet (26%)
  • information desks (14%)
  • printed information at stations and stops (13%)
  • friends/ family (11%).

Overseas and UK staying visitors were more likely to seek information face to face at an information desk (19% and 13% respectively) than UK day visitors (6%), and overseas visitors were significantly more likely to use a guidebook (14% compared to 1% and 5% for UK day and staying).

In terms of how people would like to get travel information in the future:

  • the Internet was most popular (55%)
  • printed information from a station (42%)
  • TfL phone line (20%)
  • information desk (18%).

An additional top up survey of non-users was undertaken to ascertain what the possible barriers are to the use of the different modes of transport. Overwhelmingly the main reason for not using a particular mode of transport, be it tube, bus, local train or taxi was that ‘I did not need to’.

Deeper probing showed that overcrowding had put some people (14%) off and that cost was a deterrent for 24 of the people interviewed.

There are generally no perceived barriers to visitors using particular modes of transport. 56% of respondents said that there was nothing that prevented them from making more use of public transport in London. Overseas visitors, however, were less put off by overcrowding (only 10%) compared to UK visitors (18%).

These findings were reflected when respondents were asked what one improvement they would like to see on London transport

  • cheaper fares / better value for money (28%)
  • less crowded (17%)
  • cleaner buses and tubes (11%).

The importance of public transport and the visitor experience of public transport in destination choice was generally felt to be low. Respondents tended to disagree with the statements ‘A city’s public transport system is an important factor influencing choice of destination’ and ‘A bad experience on public transport will put me off going back to a city’. The overwhelming majority said that their experience of public transport in London would not affect their decision to return.

Just over a third of the CL test respondents felt that there was a city with better public transport than London. The cities named were from all over the world and included Paris, Berlin, Madrid, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore, among many others. The main reasons visitors regard these cities’ transport systems as better include: they have cleaner trains;

  • • they are cheaper
  • services run more on time
  • their systems are more integrated.

The findings of the research are largely positive, with visitors generally being satisfied with all aspects of public transport in London. While there will always be incidences where a specific problem impacts negatively on a visitor’s experience of public transport, most view the system as impressive and integral to a visit to London. The main infrastructure issues raised are of overcrowding, delays and cleanliness and the general improvement programmes which are already underway on the network (such as station upgrades, escalator works etc) will help address a number of these issues.

There are, nevertheless, some opportunities for destination managers and other tourism providers to further improve the visitor experience when it comes to transport. Applying the findings of this research to other destinations across the UK is difficult as the scale and complexity of London’s public transport system is not replicated elsewhere. However, in an age of increasing congestion and environmental awareness, encouraging visitors to make more use of public transport is becoming a growing priority, and many of these opportunities are also relevant to destination managers in other towns and cities.

In London the vast majority of visitors will use the transport system at some point during their stay, and many other major cities are actively encouraging more use of public transport by visitors. It is therefore important that tourism providers see transport as an integral part of their visitors’ experience rather than a separate entity to be dealt with by other people. This can be achieved by:

  • Providing clear and up-to-date information on transport options tailored to visitors. This includes dedicated pages on visitor websites with information on how the system works, how to identify different routes, how to buy a ticket and, if available, links to existing timetable sites.
  • Ensuring front line staff, especially in TICs, are au fait with transport information and can help with basic timetable, route and ticketing information before passing people on to alternatives such as National Rail Enquiries or TFL’s Journey Planner if necessary. Likewise, accommodation providers should know where the nearest bus is, how to get to certain key places by public transport and how guests can buy tickets.

Transport in the UK, and particularly London, is perceived to be expensive and in many cases passengers can get much better value for money by being aware of the range of tickets on offer. Front line staff in TICs and accommodation providers should be aware of these options and guide visitors towards better value for money.

Despite the perceptions of overcrowding, delays and high costs, visitors still see London’s transport – particularly the tube, double-decker buses and black taxis – as iconic and part of the experience of visiting the city. Many other towns and cities also have important transport heritage. There is an opportunity to make more of the ‘iconic experience’ and promote transport as an attraction in itself, as is happening on the River Thames.

Specifically to London, this could include:

  • Highlighting the heritage aspects of the tube and stations, and suggesting them as places worth visiting in their own right (eg St Pancras, art deco stations of the Metropolitan line, award-winning architecture of new stations such as Canary Wharf).
  • Bus routes which link to areas outside central London (such as to Greenwich via Deptford, or Richmond via Hammersmith) allowing visitors to see places they would completely miss if they were underground.

In more general terms there are opportunities to:

  • Exploit the ‘novelty’ value of double-decker buses by identifying the bus routes that give the best views of particular attractions or places of interest
  • Highlight the architectural interest of stations and other transport infrastructure
  • Promote certain public transport routes as an alternative way of doing a tour of a town, city or area
  • Promote public transport as a means of experiencing the ‘real’ destination.

Visitors using public transport will come into contact with a large number of transport staff, be it ticket offices, information desks, drivers or conductors. Ensuring that these groups are able to deal with tourism-related as well as transport questions will provide better customer service and enhance the visitor experience. Opportunities include:

  • Transport operating companies run a network of information desks and offices and there is an opportunity for these outlets to supplement the service offered by TICs, by providing basic tourist information as well.
  • Drivers and conductors on key routes should be given training on how to handle basic tourism enquiries and, as a minimum, be aware of the main attractions on their routes.
  • Taxi drivers also have opportunities to communicate with visitors and in most towns there are taxi driver groups with newsletters through which updates on attractions and events can be disseminated easily.

In many big cities, and especially London, encouraging visitors to explore outlying areas is becoming a priority. Public transport is key to this aim and a number of measures can be taken to support it:

  • Highlighting fast transport links to outer areas (eg 20 mins on a train from Waterloo to Richmond in London, fast metro links between Newcastle and Gateshead / Sunderland, etc)
  • Emphasising the ease of taking public transport – quick journeys, no congestion, no parking problems – compared to driving
  • Encouraging joint promotions between transport providers and accommodation or attractions in outlying areas.

This research shows that while transport is an important part of the visitor experience in London, it is neither a driver of visits nor will a bad experience put people off coming back. Visitors are generally happy with the extent of the network and the service they receive.

London’s transport system has iconic status and there are opportunities to build on this and make more of the network as an attraction in its own right – as the London Transport Museum is already doing.

It is important that those providing tourism services recognise that transport is part of the visitor experience and that front line staff are up to date on transport issues. Journey Planner and the TfL phone line are excellent resources which should be highlighted for visitors.

  1. London Travel Report 2007. This figure refers to journey ‘stages’. A ‘stage’ is a part of a trip made up by a single mode of transport.
  2. 84% of visitors to London use at least one form of public transport. London Visitor Survey Annual Report 2007
  3. London Visitor Survey, 2007
  4. Satisfaction rating for the quality of public transport was 3.25/5, cost 2.38/5 and cost of taxis 2.02/5
  5. Respondents were asked to rate their experience on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is ‘extremely dissatisfied’ and 5 is ‘extremely satisfied’.
  6. iBus, Transport for London website

Olivia Ruggles-Brise is a Consultant with The Tourism Company, a specialist tourism and leisure management and marketing consultancy with offices in London and Herefordshire.

Until 2006 she was Policy and Communications Manager for the World Travel & Tourism Council where she managed the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards and undertook a range of policy research in countries such as Romania, Trinidad and Tobago, Greece, and Namibia.

In 2003 she obtained an MA in Tourism, Environment and Development from King's College, London, where she is now a visiting lecturer.