Hurrah, TfL have silently published their annual spreadsheet listing the number of passengers using every London bus route and how many kilometres those buses travelled. Data is for April 2020 - March 2021.
Normally these updates have some kind of statistical relevance, but the pandemic has impacted travel and data collection to such an extent that much of the information is intrinsically meaningless. The survey period began one week into lockdown when hardly anyone was travelling. For a couple of months only essential travel was permitted so buses were shuttling mostly air. From mid-April passengers didn't have to pay to board so TfL don't have any data about number of passengers carried. Some routes returned to normal payment sooner than others which'll have distorted the ultimate rankings. As regulations eased ridership remained way down on normal, rarely creeping above two-thirds of previous levels. And then the end of the survey period coincided with yet another lockdown when passenger numbers collapsed again.
The data is so incomparable with previous years that TfL's spreadsheet even includes an extra column excluding the three most atypical months. I've instead chosen to use the full 12 months of data to demonstrate total pandemic impact, and have knocked up my usual Top 10 lists anyway (including changes in ranking since the heady days of 2019/20). The following lists should give some indication of travel, but best read nothing definitive into any of them.
London's ten busiest bus routes (2020/21) 1) -- 18 Euston - Sudbury (6.1m) 2) -- 149 London Bridge - Edmonton Green (6.1m) 3) -- 29 Trafalgar Square - Wood Green (5.3m) 4) ↑9 279 Manor House - Waltham Cross (5.1m) 5) ↑6 5 Canning Town - Romford (5.1m) 6) ↑2 86 Stratford - Romford (5.0m) 7) ↓1 25 Holborn Circus - Ilford (4.9m) 8) ↓4 207 White City - Southall (4.9m) 9) ↑1 109 Brixton - Croydon (4.6m) 10) ↓1 36 Queens Park - New Cross Gate (4.5m)
The next ten: 53, 243, 254, 253, 140, 182, 55, 35, 183, 185
The 18 remains London's busiest bus route, although this year it was nearly overtaken by the 149. To give you some idea of how passenger numbers have tumbled, in the year before the pandemic route 18 recorded 16 million passengers but in the last year it's only managed 6 million. Meanwhile only thirteen bus routes managed to convey more than four million passengers, which is down from over 200 last year.
Note that the Top 10 are all services along busy radial corridors, thus key routes for moving key workers. Note too that half the top 10 don't serve central London, because that's not where the busiest patronage has been. Southwest London is not represented.
The next ten: 375, 146, 497, 327, U10, 467, 485, 404, 346, R2
Most of these are the usual suspects, topped off by a pair of brief turns in Barnet connecting daytime residents to the shops. Peripheral infrequent buses don't attract much custom, and during a pandemic especially so. None of these ten routes averaged more than 100 passegers a day.
Last year's Top 10 included heritage Routemasters on route 15, but these have now been retired allowing other routes to climb slightly. The biggest turbulence comes from the replacement of route W10 (four buses a day) with the extended 456 (a half-hourly service). This change took place in mid-March 2021, just before the end of the survey period, with 5000 passengers in those three weeks and only 9000 passengers in the previous 49 weeks, so don't expect to see route 456 troubling this list again.
Last year's newcomer was the 497, a minor route running not very far not very often in outer Havering. Its first year with a complete set of figures sees it settle in 13th place, confirming it's very much not a route that's making TfL any money. As for the 404, extending its route in March 2020 hasn't done much for its overall ranking, merely nudged it from 15th to 18th place.
The next ten: 183, 96, 34, 65, 149, 207, 55, 13, 466, 174
This is a chart of the routes whose vehicles travelled the greatest distance in one year. High frequency buses (like the 38 and 18) and long distance buses (like the 111 and 113) tend to travel the furthest. These are the stalwarts of the London bus network.
What's particularly significant is that their mileages are incredibly similar to last year's. Buses carried on pounding the streets at regular intervals even in the absence of passengers, requiring the same outlay on staff and vehicles but with a considerably lower income from fares. Providing a public service by running the same timetable with a 60% drop in passengers won't have helped TfL's bottom line, which helps to explain why substantial government grants have been needed to keep the system operational.
More than 160 different London bus routes exceeded 1 million km in annual service, which is pretty much the same number as last year. Meanwhile the 389 remains London's least travelled bus route, covering just under 8000 km per year.
London's ten most crowded bus routes (2020/21) 1) ↑1 330 Canning Town - Forest Gate (4.3 passengers per km) 2) ↑2 238 Stratford - Barking (4.2) 3) ↑4 69 Canning Town - Walthamstow (3.9) 4) ↓1 104 Stratford - Manor Park (3.9) 5) ↑3 58 East Ham - Walthamstow (3.8) 6) ↓1 41 Archway - Tottenham Hale (3.8) 7) ↑4 149 London Bridge - Edmonton Green (3.7) 8) ↑1 109 Brixton - Croydon (3.7) 9) ↓3 29 Trafalgar Square - Wood Green (3.5) 10) ↑10 279 Manor House - Waltham Cross (3.5)
This Top 10 is determined by dividing the number of passengers by the number of km travelled to get a 'number of passengers per km'. In normal times this means the higher the number, the less likely it is you'll be able to find a seat. During a pandemic it suggests something rather different, namely that these are the routes people continued to use even during lockdown while others worked or shopped from home. It's therefore not unsurprising to see that the top 5 all serve East London, particularly Newham, where residents are more likely to be car-less key workers. No routes in the western half of the capital appear in the Top 10.
The biggest upset is that the 'most crowded' bus of the last few years, the W7, has tumbled from the top spot to 14th place. It exists to deliver residents of Muswell Hill and Crouch End to the tube station at Finsbury Park, but the slump in commuters heading into central London has meant that considerably fewer people have needed to ride it.
Half of these buses run round the lanes of rural Bromley and Orpington. The wilds of Hadley Wood, Hampstead, North Ockendon, Coulsdon and Harold Hill also get a look in. These are very much the buses TfL provide as a public service without expecting financial payback.
The five routes with the biggest fall in passengers (2019/20 to 2020/21) 1)209 Mortlake - Castelnau (↓ 89%) 2)521 Waterloo - London Bridge (↓ 87%) 3)507 Waterloo - Victoria (↓ 76%) 4)129 North Greenwich - Greenwich (↓ 76%) 5)X68 West Croydon - Russell Square (↓ 75%)
The next ten: 452, 346, A10, 22, 33, 146, 138, W7, 9, 100
The average TfL route lost 60% of its passengers in 2020/21, but some have properly plummeted because they no longer perform a useful function. The four biggest decreases are all on short routes designed to feed passengers to or from a station, topped by the 209 whose normal route has been stymied by the closure of Hammersmith Bridge. Next come the two high frequency peak hour single deckers in central London, the 507 and 521, because they've had far far fewer commuters to distribute. The X68 in contrast is a long distance express route, but again operates in peak hours which is where the greatest impact has been felt.
In terms of rankings, London's ten busiest nightbuses remain in a similar order to before the pandemic. In terms of passengers, however, numbers are down by about two thirds.
The busiest single deckers: W15, 235, 195, 170, 276, 316, 450, C10, 366, C11
The least busy double deckers: 467, X68, 129, 412, 317, 423, 498, 335, 492, 406
As I said earlier, it's unwise to draw long-term conclusions from these atypical and unreliable figures. But the biggest takeaway is that TfL continued to deliver a near-full bus service over an unprecedentedly difficult year with far fewer passengers, which was outstanding public service management but won't have done anything to help the organisation's finances. They'll be fervently hoping that 2021/22 edges back towards a more sustainable pattern of bus travel, and this time next year we can come back and see how things turned out.