Transit authorities worldwide have a golden opportunity, despite the profound challenges, to rethink urban transportation coming out of the pandemic, stresses the Transport for London Commissioner, Plymouth Argyle lifer and former NYCTA chief turned Gotham folk hero. It takes, among other things, courageous, accountable, principled leadership. Here, Byford on his expanded remit for London’s transit system, striking a pragmatic balance with cars and private mobility services, the essential qualities for leaders, and his newfound affinity for cycling.
What’s more: he’s not done with New York.
By NOAH DAVIS
This article is one of a series, Football and the Global City, examining the nexus of sport, urbanism, and civic innovation.
ND: How has the pandemic changed your thinking about the role of transit authorities and public transportation generally?
AB: The pandemic undoubtedly has changed the way that all transit professionals look at the challenges ahead of them. And I’d say that primarily, for two reasons. Number one is the direct consequence of pandemic, which is that ridership has plummeted and taken revenue with it. Let me just touch upon my own organization. The farebox revenue at Transport for London—the percentage of operating revenue that comes through the fares that passengers pay—is 72 percent. That’s particularly high. For comparison, the New York City Transit Authority is around 38 percent, and the norm will be around 40 or maybe 50 percent. The TfL is a real outlier, because we’re so dependent on fares through the farebox. That’s been brutally exposed by the pandemic. That’s acted as a wake-up call. As we pull out of this thing, we must find ways to diversify the revenue. That’s challenge number one.
Challenge number two, though, is of course inextricably linked. What will people do post-the virus? Will offices be repopulated? Will businesses take the opportunity to divest themselves of some expensive office accommodations? Will the cultural attractions rebound in the center of cities? And, therefore, what will the impact upon revenues be for cash-strapped transit authorities? I think we are already seeing a change in approach of customers with a lot of people taking up cycling and walking. There’s a huge environmental benefit there, but you don’t get a direct source of income. These are certainly challenging times. We have a problem; we have to find a way of fixing it.
You’ve talked about it also being a golden opportunity to try things and to change the system just because it’s been such a shock. What do you see are some of those opportunities?
One of my philosophies in life is that adversity always brings opportunity. Invariably, in the depths of despair, you suddenly think, actually, we could do things differently. This is our opportunity to do things that we’ve always talked about but never had the impetus, the catalyst, or the incentive to try. Maybe it’s also a time for the government and the riding public to say, hey, we’ve got to do something different. Certainly, it’s an opportunity to change the model, to look at such things as the actual modes, to expand use of cycling or provision of cycling with safe, segmented cycle lanes. It’s absolutely an opportunity to encourage walking, which obviously has a lot of health benefits and environmental benefits with it, and it’s an opportunity to create the infrastructure around those two active means of travel.
People have this view that public transport is inherently unsafe from a COVID perspective. The facts don’t bear that out, but if we’re not careful, we will get a car-led recovery. We have to resist that, and I’m pushing for the government to invest in expedited greening of the biggest bus fleet initiative in the UK as well as electric bikes. We also want to have electrification paraphernalia within the garages. We need the charging infrastructure so that, more than ever, you are associated with dedicated, 24/7 bus routes. You really make public transport an attractive offering so that people aren’t incentivized to get into their cars. And then, finally, it gives you the opportunity to look at things like road pricing, all sorts of clever schemes that incentivize people to do the right thing, to use public transport and to recycle the money into ever better public transport.
Do you feel like the general public is more aware of these things now than they were in the past and the importance of how people move around cities? Do you see the politics of transportation in cities and public transportation changing?
Certainly, politics is a factor. It was for me in my job in New York and it is here. What you need from a politics perspective is visionary politicians who are prepared to try something new and to do things that may be initially—or in certain sections of the population—unpopular. We have a mayor here in London who has been courageous in introducing lower speeds across the city in certain areas, particularly around schools, but also in expanding the Streetspace program. We’ve been widening sidewalks. We’ve been implementing 24/7 bus lanes, and we’ve been generally expanding the provision of cycle lanes. You need to create the environment in order to encourage people to change their habits. They won’t necessarily just do it. By providing the infrastructure, people then will give it a go. I want to stress that this is no way a war on the cars. Cars clearly have a part to play. But you are creating the opportunity and the infrastructure to give people a healthy, green alternative. We found that there’s been an explosion in cycling, the cycle lanes are being expanded at an expedited rate as are the low traffic neighborhoods, and a lot of people have bought bikes. I went and bought my wife and myself an electric bike, and I’m a total convert. It’s been really fun to bike around the city.
At the end of the day, in any good transport system, you’ve got to have a mix of modes. Having visibility into all of them is essential. My job in New York was an awesome job, and I loved every minute of it, but the job I have now at TfL is way bigger. It’s an amalgam of the New York City Transit President, the Bridges and Tunnels President, the City DOT Commissioner, and the City Taxi and Limousine Commissioner. We oversee all the modes. And I think that does make for more informed decision-making, because you really do have the big picture.
It’s a much more enlightened way of doing things: a cradle-to-grave transit authority where you go from initial conception of ideas through to execution, and then a planning function that plans the next phase.
Do you think that position is something that could, and should, be implemented in New York?
Well, of course, the big difference in New York is that the MTA is a state entity, whereas DOT is a city entity, and I certainly think there’s a lot of sense in having an integrated transit authority. My responsibilities even stretch as far as property, where in the past, the forerunner of TfL, London Transport, in extreme times sold off land and it was almost like a fire sale. You’d sell off redundant property in order to make a quick buck. But now we have a much more enlightened approach to it. We use land that’s typically adjacent or very near to transit infrastructure that may not be the easiest to develop. We work in conjunction with specialist builders to build homes for Londoners, but we don’t sell the land. We work with the partner organization to build affordable homes, and we get the rent from the future tenants. Because it’s right next to a transport stop, you also build in ridership. It’s a much more enlightened way of doing things: a cradle-to-grave transit authority where you go from initial conception of ideas through to execution, and then a planning function that plans the next phase.
Uber and London have had a bit of a back-and-forth. Where do you see private mobility companies, like Uber or Citibike here in New York, fitting into the transportation landscape in cities around the globe?
They’ve shaken things up. They certainly are disruptive. They’ve come up with some very interesting business models. They have filled a gap in the market. They have provided, in some cases, a form of public transport where previously there was none or it was not economic to provide. But I do think there needs to be some regulation. And I feel sorry for yellow cab drivers in New York, and for that matter, black cab drivers here in London. They have complained that they’re held to a higher account than some of these startups are held to, and that they have to comply with more legislation, shall we say, then some of these startups. I think there’s some legitimacy to those arguments on occasion. I do see at the moment that there’s a certain leveling up going on. Obviously, there’s been the well documented case just recently in the UK of Uber being required to treat its workers as employees. So to give them benefits, to give them vacations, to give them pensions, I believe. I think the model will find its feet going forward. But I do think that there is a place for innovation in transport. Smaller companies can be more dynamic at the end of the day. In the public bodies, such as TfL, you can’t. I’d love to be more innovative, I’d love to be more dynamic: just come up with an idea overnight and the next day say let’s just do it. It doesn’t really work that way. We’re recipients of public funding, so we have to follow a certain process. The startups can be much more dynamic, which they’ve done before and I think they keep everyone else on their toes. They may need to be reined in periodically. And that’s certainly happened. But it certainly makes for a more vibrant and a more rich transit offer.
Another thing I would say, and I feel very strongly about this, is that you must have a moral compass. You must have principles, and you should stick to them. If someone asks you to do something that’s inherently wrong, immoral, or illegal, no way should you turn a blind eye.
What do you think are some essential qualities for leaders?
The ability to manage and motivate and inspire people. You have to have the technical skills as well, and that’s something that comes with training, but also with experience. I don’t think you can just teach the ability to interact with people. You have to have a certain humility. You have to have an ability to understand where others are coming from and be able to interact with a range of people. I’m as comfortable talking to the cleaner in the station as I am talking to a very senior politician. I probably prefer the former. I like being out and about with the troops and my frontline colleagues, but I’ve never forgotten that I started as a station foreman back in 1989. My first job was station foreman at Regent’s park on the Bakerloo line. Somehow I made it to the Commissioner of TfL. I still pinch myself. You’ve got to have drive, you’ve got to have determination, you’ve got to have a thick skin. And I certainly knew that in New York. It’s a tough place to work. Another thing I would say, and I feel very strongly about this, is that you must have a moral compass. You must have principles, and you should stick to them. If someone asks you to do something that’s inherently wrong, immoral, or illegal, no way should you turn a blind eye. You’ve got to stick to your principles and do the right thing. You stick up for your organization. You tenaciously represent the organization that you run. You’re accountable. If you do something wrong, you hold your hands up to it. But if you’re not wrong, you absolutely stick up for the troops. What kind of a message are you giving to your frontline colleagues if you just let the organization be used as a punching bag without responding? I stick up for my people. They’re the ones that make me look good. And I’m very proud of my 27,000 colleagues here at TfL.
I know you’re a long-suffering Plymouth Argyle supporter. How goes the season? Do you think something about supporting the underperformer drew you to transit, which is perhaps a frustrating and unloved field in some ways?
I’ve been a fan of the Greens for a long time. It makes me feel old! I went to school just near Plymouth and first saw Argyle in 1978. Argyle have never been in the top flight—the biggest city in England never to have had a Premiership team. Never once been in the top tier. Back in the day—the late ‘70s, early ‘80s—everyone was a ManU fan, Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa, and I used to be somewhat ridiculed at school for wearing the very unusual color for a football team: the green jersey of Plymouth Argyle. I’ve been a season ticket-holder now for 20 years. All my time in Australia, in Canada and New York, I kept my season ticket because that’s my team. I want to support them. You can’t go to the games at the moment, but every weekend and most Tuesday nights I’m glued to the games and watching how they get on.
It’s been a bit of a topsy-turvy season, but we’re now doing a bit better again. We’re about mid-table. We have a great manager, Ryan Lowe. I’m confident we’ll stay up. That’s job number one, stay up in League One, which, actually, most Brits would still call the third division. As long as we stay up, I’m happy. That’s my passion, I always support local teams, and I like to support a team that plays in green, so you might be interested to know this made me a Jets fan in New York: local team that plays in green, very similar to Argyle, though, a bit of a perennial underperformer.
But I’ve always liked a challenge, and I had big challenges in Sydney, in Toronto, certainly in New York City. That was a huge challenge. I loved my two years there, and I’m not done with New York. I love the place. But then, obviously, coming to London, there are huge challenges with two big things on my to-do list: number one, lead TfL through COVID, and number two, we have a three-year late, horribly over budget massive subway running through the center of London that needs to be finished. The opening date is the first half of 2022, but watch this space because we’re determined to do better than that. Wait until you see it: it is just spectacular.
Obviously, the TfL team has delivered, and my job’s just really that last bit to get it across the line, but sometimes you do wonder why you choose the hard gigs. Back to football: you know, anyone can support ManU or Chelsea, and respect to those people who genuinely do, but I’m not a glory hunter. I like to support a smaller team because there have been so many lows that when they do hit the highs, it feels really good. So that’s me in a nutshell. I like to follow the underdog.