London Transport Fare Rises

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 5 October 2005

Yesterday marked one of my annual blog rituals, when the Evening Standard spins the announcement of fare rises on London's transport system into a story of economic doom'n'gloom that even the pessimistic Daily Express would be envious of.

(I'd apologise for repeating myself, but due to the great currybetdotnet server disaster of 2005 none of the earlier posts are currently online.)

Today the Standard screamed:

KEN'S HUGE FARE RISE

Usually the trick on these occasions is to use the percentage figure to amplify the size of the rise. Thus when bus fares went up from 70p to 80p the headlines trumpet something like "14% Fare Increase - Four Times Rate of Inflation" without pointing out that 72.75p isn't the most suitable pricing point for a fare on a busy urban transport system.

This year the tactic has been to emphasise the "huge" rise in cash fares, whilst playing down the fact that central London tube fares will be going down for Oyster card users, or that free bus transport is being extended to under-18s in full-time education, or that the peak hour fares window on buses is being reduced by half hour. Still, in fairness, I guess "Moderate Fare Rise" on the billboards doesn't sell extra copies of the paper at the station.

I wrote the above before I got round the reading the Standard's editorial, which happily for me says:

bus fares paid in cash will rise yet again above the cost of inflation - by 25 per cent

The editorial goes on to say:

This amounts to a tax on those who, by choice or necessity, pay cash on public transport. The drastic increase will hit those who can least afford it.

One of the things I like about Oyster card is that contrary to what the Standard implies, it has transformed paying for your journey to work into a progressive tax. It used to be that you could only get the best value fares if you could stump up the money in one go for an entire annual travelcard. To an extent this is still true - paying for an annual card costs about six weeks less than paying for 12 monthly travelcards, or the equivalent of paying for 40 weekly travelcards to obtain 52 weeks travel. However, with Oyster card pre-pay capping, anybody who can put the minimum charge on a pre-pay Oyster card can get the best available fare. It also works for people with unpredictable work patterns - I used to sometimes get stung by buying a monthly travelcard, and then finding that the way my shifts worked out over the course of the month meant that I would have been better off paying return fares each day.

The Standard does raise the concern that due to the increased cash fares:

there are fears that shops and restaurants will be hit because the massive increase in cash fares will put off visitors to central London.

I think there is a case here for education and marketing from an agency like Visit London - and possibly even developing an international mail order per-pay scheme so that tourists can pay for their London travel up front and get a discount. When my in-laws visited last month we simply bought them two pre-pay cards, topped them up with £20, and then they never had to worry about a cash fare or buying a ticket throughout their visit.

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