Time Magazine International Edition

All the stops


It was March 2020, and he had just left his job as head of the New York City Transit Authority, after Governor Andrew Cuomo moved him off a massive revamp of the ailing subways. Stuck in his English hometown of Plymouth because of pandemic travel restrictions, he sat feeling “frustrated and impotent” as COVID-19 decimated ridership and revenues in public transit in New York and around the world. “Had I known the full horror of what was to emerge,” Byford, 55, says grimly, “I would have put my resignation on hold and stayed to see New York City transit through the crisis.” He even reached out to the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and offered to come back, he says.

But Byford, one of the world’s most respected transport leaders, didn’t have to go back across the pond to find a transit system that needed his help. In June 2020, he took over as commissioner of Transport for London (TfL), the agency responsible for the city’s public transit. On a chilly mid-December afternoon, a 3 p.m. sunset already dulling the blue over the British capital’s skyline, Byford sits straight-backed in a glass-paneled meeting room at TfL’s headquarters and lays out the “sobering” state of the system. TfL’s sprawling network of underground or “tube” trains—the world’s oldest—lost 95% of its passengers in the first lockdown of spring 2020, and buses, boats and overground trains fared little better, hemorrhaging around £80 million ($110 million) a week during the strictest periods of lockdown. As the city lurched in and out of restrictions, tube ridership never climbed above 35% of 2019 levels.

The pandemic has not only caused an immediate fall in ticket revenues for the world’s public transit networks—rail ridership in Barcelona, Moscow, Beijing and New York City at times plummeting 80%—in

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