The Transport for London fare increases announced today, which will come into effect from 1 March, are just the latest manifestation of a supposedly pro-devolution national government’s utter contempt for the devolution arrangements that have served both capital and country well since the start of this century – a contempt motivated by the egotism, the spite and, in recent months, the desperate struggle of Boris Johnson to remain Prime Minster of a country he implausibly proclaims he will “level up”.
The nearly five per cent overall hike in the cost of using London’s public transport, whose virtues and national importance Johnson trumpeted during his eight years at City Hall, is another product of national government exploiting the pandemic to deprive the Mayor and TfL of their control over fare-setting and force its own agenda on London and Londoners.
The hike is a condition of the latest short-term funding support for TfL provided after Covid devastated its finances. That’s why TfL fares are to rise by one per cent more than the retail price index as it stood in June to an overall 4.8 per cent while national rail fares will not. Johnson said himself during a Covid briefing in January that his government’s aim is to force Sadiq Khan – directly elected by more than a million Londoners – to raise fares by more than he wants to.
Covid has handed the Johnson administration the power to do that and it continues to use it ruthlessly. The latest short-term funding allowance is about to expire. While there is political advantage to be had from being seen to push London around, don’t hold your breath for any improvement.
The increase, the largest since Johnson himself bumped up fares by 5.6 per cent from the start of 2012, will add to the struggle of many poorer Londoners to make ends meet as the capital’s already punishing cost of living escalates. There is some mystification, shared by the capital’s official transport watchdog London TravelWatch, about why individual bus fares are to go up by 10 pence – from £1.55 to £1.65, or 6.5 percent – when the bus is used more by less well-off Londoners. This point is already being made by the Mayor’s political opponents.
We might speculate that deterring Tube users, who will in general see smaller increases, too much was seen as potentially too damaging to TfL finances to risk – the Tube makes money, buses don’t. It is certainly the case that higher travel costs put people off and the right balance must be struck the extra revenue secured from higher fares and the potential loss caused by making them too high.
A better outcome for London and the UK as they struggle to emerge from the pandemic would be government-supported cut in fares to encourage greater use, with beneficial outcomes for London’s economy as a whole. In 2014 when he was London Mayor Johnson moved Stratford into a different travel zone in order to make travelling to it cheaper. He argued that this would help that part of east London to capitalise on London’s triumphant Olympic Games and maximise the potential for growth there. If ever London as whole needed a boost from lower public transport fares it is now. Where did that other “Boris” go?
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