Transport for London's decision to ban cash fares hits the vulnerable hardest

Those most likely to be affected will be the very young, the very poor and the very recently arrived – those, in other words, who are least likely to have alternative options.

I'm not altogether sure that Transport for London (TfL) has entirely thought through its plans to ban cash fares on its 7,500-odd buses. For most of us, most of the time, they’ll be marvellous. Just occasionally, though, it’s going to cause a bloody big headache. This would be bad enough, except that those most likely to be affected will be the very young, the very poor and the very recently arrived – those, in other words, who are least likely to have alternative options.

Once upon a time, pretty much all bus fares were bought on board the vehicle from a cheery sort in a hat. Today, though, except for the bored-looking cost-centres whose job it is to stop you falling out of the back of Boris buses, we don't bother with conductors any more. Most people use Oyster, TfL's automated ticketing system, either to show they've got a Travelcard or to pay as they go. There are other cards you can use to pay for your bus fares, too: bank cards fitted with the newfangled contactless payment systems. Today, TfL reckons, there are around 60,000 cash journeys made each day on its buses. That sounds like a lot, but it's only 1% of the total.

Forcing these stragglers to go cashless would have a number of advantages. It'd speed up boarding times (no more fiddling for small change). It'd cut crime (no point holding up a bus that doesn't carry money). It'd allow "operational flexibility" (no chance of working out what that even means).

It'd save TfL £24 million a year by 2019-20, it reckons, but it'd save passengers money too, because single fares are cheaper on Oyster than by cash. This is a bit of a cheat – TfL, after all, is the one that sets the bloody fares – but nonetheless, as things stand, you're better off paying for your bus through a medium that doesn’t have the Queen’s face on it.

Alongside all these advantages, though, the plan brings with it two obvious problems. One is relatively minor. The other isn’t.

One problem is that going cashless will confuse the hell out of anyone who doesn't live in London. Bus drivers will be lumbered with the unenviable task of explaining to tourists why they're not allowed on a large chunk of London's transport network without a strange lump of blue plastic. It’s a bit like hanging up a big sign reading, "London – open for business as soon as you've filled in the requisite form".

That, though, is the smaller problem. The bigger one concerns those who do use Oyster, but pay for their travel as they go. At some point, they’re going to run out of credit and need to top up, only to find they can't because it's the middle of the night and they're in Barking. TfL claims to have thought of this, and says it's considering letting you make one extra journey after you run out of credit. This is sweet of them, but ignores the fact you might have inadvertently used that journey to get you to Barking in the first place.

At that point, you’re dependent on one last safety net. TfL doesn’t tend to publicise this, but its drivers have discretionary powers to allow vulnerable people to travel for free. Exactly who this covers, though, is not entirely clear. A raucously drunk teenage girl is, by any sensible definition, vulnerable. They’re also exactly the kind of person you probably don’t want on your bus.

The upshot of all somebody, some time, is going to find themselves drunk, in the middle of nowhere, and unexpectedly unable to get home. A TfL spokesman told me this situation was “hypothetical”, which is fair comment, but given that there are 6 million bus journeys made every day in London, it’s nonetheless likely to happen quite a lot. Not all of the people thus affected will be burly men.

For most of us, none of this should be a problem. There are contactless payment cards. There's automatic top-up. Either of these will make it damned near impossible to get into this mess. But what both these solutions have in common is that they require you to have a bank account. Certain groups of people don’t generally have bank accounts. These include children, bankrupts and asylum seekers. These, of course, are exactly the people you want to leave dependent on the good will of a night bus driver.

No final decision has yet been made on this plan – TfL is consulting until 11 October – but it's hard to escape the feeling that this is one of those consultations that's softening us up for the inevitable, rather than genuinely asking what we think. The chair of TfL, after all, is one Boris Johnson, and since he became mayor single bus fares, most likely to be paid by the poor, have shot up by 50%. He’s also made it clear, through his expensive pseudo-Routemasters, that he sees buses less as a means of conveyance than as set decoration for a Richard Curtis movie. Another policy in which TfL privileges its own administrative convenience over the needs of those at the bottom of the pile would be rather in keeping.

A London bus. Image: Getty

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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