The government’s emergency support of Transport for London services has come with strings attached – notably the introduction of new charges for young people.
This decision will hit London’s poorest families the hardest. If plans to increase fares for young people go ahead, it will be the first time since 2005, when Mayor of London Ken Livingstone introduced free bus and tram travel for children under 16, that children will be charged to travel on all types of public transport (see Figure 1). Besides free bus travel for those who are under 16, young people aged 16 and 17 also benefitted from free travel on buses if they were in full time education, and children under 11 could travel for free on the tube and Overground. These concessions are set to end under the grant package that the government has offered Transport for London (TfL).
2020 bus fares for adults are modelled assuming a 2 per cent increase (1 per cent inflation and 1 per cent surcharge) for children, assuming they are charged half the adult rate.
Until 2005, adult bus fares depended on travel zones and part of London. The value on the figure above is for travel in zones 1 and 2.
The reason for removing these concessions is unclear. Perhaps it is intended to deter young people and families from using public transport, and offer key workers priority. Or perhaps it is a revenue raising strategy. The change has been reported as “temporary” – but without clarifying whether it will be in place for weeks, months or years.
The decision makes some financial sense: ending this concession would eventually bring some revenue to TfL as passengers return. The overall cost of free travel and reduced fare for London’s children was £160 million in 2015/16, which represented 3.5 per cent of TfL’s £4.6 billion annual fare income. This is not a negligible amount for a transport authority experiencing a deep funding crisis, but it does look like pocket money compared to the lost income due to the pandemic – currently running at £600 million a month.
We should be concerned that the decision to end these concessions has been taken so quickly, in the midst of the crisis, without consideration of long-term social or environmental impacts on the city.
Assuming children are charged a reduced bus fare of £0.75 (half the adult fare), the daily bus trip to school will now cost £30 a month per child, while a parent travelling with two children would see their total bus or tube fare double.
We are still waiting for details on exactly how much children will now be charged, but as is always the case with flat fares, those on lower incomes will be the most affected. Recent research by Centre for London found that low income Londoners spend twice as much on transport as a share of their monthly budget than higher earning Londoners. We also know that over one in four London households are in poverty after they have paid their housing costs, and London children are much more likely to live in poverty – 39 per cent of them are poor. It seems harsh that their transport bill should increase during a deep recession.
As a result, access to cultural and sporting activities – such as getting to museums – may become prohibitively expensive. Being able to take up these opportunities is a driver for good outcomes among London’s young population – we should be careful that fares do not become a barrier for them to go out and discover their city.
The decision also seems at odds with environmental goals. Does it make sense to increase the cost of public transport for families, when reducing car use and associated pollution is a key aim of government policy?
While it seemed inevitable that fares would rise after a four year freeze, government and the Mayor must look at the end of free travel through the lens of equity and decarbonisation. They might be able to soften the blow for low-income families, for example by offering more generous travel cards for children who are regular users of public transport, or offer family concessions, so as not to put them off from using public transport in the future.