Flat fares on the Underground: The “most revolutionary idea for London’s fares since the introduction of the travelcard in 1983,” and an idea whose time has come, according to Green Party City Hall contender Sian Berry.
A flat rate has operated on the buses since 2004, but the current six zone system for the Tube hasn’t changed since the early 1990s, and it’s increasingly unfair, Berry told On London. “A lot of people don’t earn enough to live in the centre, and when they move out, they are hit with a double penalty, travelling longer and paying more,” she said.
The figures are stark. A weekly travelcard for Zone 6 to Central London will you set you back £3,114 a year, compared to £1,702 coming in from Zone 2. Affordability is the “Achilles heel” of the capital’s transport system, Centre for London said in 2019, “reducing affordable access to employment, education and healthcare.”
Berry first proposed the flat fare plan in her 2016 mayoral pitch, and says it’s even more important today as the capital faces a “car-led recovery”. She believes it would encourage a switch to public transport, relieving congestion and cutting pollution – all in line with government policies.
But with Transport for London currently dependent on fares for over 70 per cent of its revenue, is this the time to reduce it? “In fact it’s not as expensive as you might think,” says Berry.
The plan would be phased in, starting by merging zones 5 and 6 and 3 and 4 to create a four-zone system, bringing down the most expensive fares, and continuing in stages to get to a single flat fare zone by 2030.
Phase 1, according to Berry’s modelling for her 2016 manifesto, using TfL data, would cost the equivalent of 2.5 per cent of annual fare income on the expectation that ridership would increase, or 3.5 per cent with no extra passengers. By this calculation, revenues would drop by some six per cent in all over the full period.
Modelling the outcomes was easier back in 2016, Berry admits, with more stable assumptions about traffic growth, ridership numbers and inflation. “But the goal is people knowing that public transport is going to continue to offer better value and get cheaper, giving them the confidence to sell their car, or drive less for different journeys,” she says.
Former senior TfL figures are divided: “I can’t see it happening,” one told On London, but another said it could be implemented “tomorrow”, albeit at a cost.
One potential stumbling block would be the need to renegotiate TfL’s agreements about sharing revenue from travelcards with the train operating companies. “It’s not nothing, but it’s doable,” says Berry. “There will need to be a new settlement with the train operators anyway, in the new world.”
And the plan isn’t a standalone “silver bullet”, she says. It’s part of a wider manifesto package including road user charges, which would go towards making up fare revenue shortfalls as well as shifting trips onto public transport. “Almost all of TfL’s revenue comes from bus and Tube fares, and almost none from people driving,” says Berry. “The balance needs adjusting.”
Perhaps most importantly, as TfL faces a continuing stand-off with Whitehall, it’s a plan that Berry says would put London back on the front foot. “This would be something radical and positive, a recovery plan, linked to fair road charging, that would make revenues more stable for the future. The time is right for this policy. People are starting to want it.”
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