Talk of the town

London's transport - Observations on media coverage

Transport is one of the capital's major talking points. If business meetings, lunches or dinner parties in the past began with swapping commuter horror stories, they now commence with wonderful tales of buses arriving on time or traffic flowing freely through town. Yet public perceptions of London's transport are not always accurately reflected in the media. In fact, public perceptions and the media appear to operate in two, if not three, parallel universes.

Universe one is the real world in which officials and politicians struggle to keep London moving with a transport infrastructure best described as "creaking". This world occasionally features in media coverage, but by and large journalists are happier dwelling in their own universe. This universe has two sides. On one side, London's transport problems are caused by bungling bureaucrats, malign politicians or old-fashioned "loonies" who come together to thwart London's hard-pressed commuters, particularly the car drivers among them. On the other side, bright young things never have to bother about when the last Tube goes, or where the night bus to Crouch End stops, and instead criss-cross London in taxis (which they never have to wait for). In the first, "public" universe, people face shared problems and find collective solutions; in the other, individuals face their own problems and seek private solutions. Transport for London (TfL) struggles to cater for these very different perceptions.

At the heart of the matter is that, even though around 90 per cent of London's commuters travel by bus, Tube or rail, the media agenda is largely the motorist's. When TfL embarks on a major road improvement scheme, it is invariably reported in terms of the potential disruption to traffic. When the Mayor announced his plan for controlled emission zones, the media focused not on the environmental benefits, but on the protests of taxi drivers about the cost.

But nothing has demonstrated the bias in favour of the motorist more than the coverage of the introduction of congestion charging last year. The tone, led by the Evening Standard, was negative almost to the point of hysteria. Recent research from Goldsmiths College has revealed the predominance of scare stories throughout the media, including fears of "innocent" drivers being fined, extra passengers bringing public transport to a halt, low-paid workers being unfairly penalised, local businesses being driven out of the capital and gridlock outside the zone.

The car-loving coverage is hardly surprising, as the research also revealed that the majority of reporting on the congestion charge was by motoring correspondents, who interpreted it as an illegitimate attack on the rights of "freeborn Englishmen" to drive their cars wherever they liked, irrespective of the consequences.

In transport, as in other areas of life, the media running is usually made by those with the loudest voices - and they tend not to be commuters. Throughout the whole congestion charging debate, the voices of bus, train and Tube users were rarely heard. Officially they are represented by the London Transport Users Committee, but this organisation's media profile is so low that it doesn't even feature on TfL's website. As far as the congestion charge was concerned, no national or London-wide newspaper or broadcaster published a single comment from the organisation throughout the controversy.

Without a recognisable "authoritative" voice, the opinions of those most affected by the charge, and by transport developments more generally, go unheard, and journalists are able to continue to dwell in their own universe, more or less untroubled by reality.

Ivor Gaber researched media coverage of congestion charging for the Unit for Journalism Research at Goldsmiths College, London, from whom copies of the research report are available. The research was funded by the GLA