Lessons transit authorities shouldn't be learning from TfL

Like "fare hikes are a good thing". 

A Victoria line train. Photo: Wikicommons
A Victoria line train. Photo: Wikicommons

On Monday, the US website CityLab ran an interview with Shashi Verma, director of customer experience at Transport for London, under the headline “5 Lessons US Transit Systems Should Learn from London”. The gist of the piece was that running the transport system like a for-profit private company was the best best thing to happen to Londoners since Boris Bikes or sliced bread, and those in the US should be green with envy.

Tonight at 8pm, London Underground power workers from three different unions are due to stage an eight-day walkout in protest against working conditions and pensions plans. While this doesn’t necessarily contradict everything Verma said, it does at least highlight the downside of a (his words) “relentless push” to increase revenue and lower operating costs.

There are aspects of TfL’s £50m restructuring plan, announced last November, that impress: 24-hour weekend services and the possibility of unmanned trains are the biggies. But Verma’s attempt to portray the closure of ticket offices as a positive, rather than something that’s caused widespread protest from staff and passengers alike, is little more than spin.

What’s even odder is his success in re-framing constant inflation-busting fare rises as A Good Thing. The CityLab piece names “Make fare increases routine” as an apt lesson for US Transit authorities, explaining:

There are loud objections over there just as there are here, but the critical difference is that TfL has set an expectation in the minds of travellers, not to mention politicians, that fares must rise on an annual basis.”

Londoners may be rather less convinced that this is a lesson worth exporting. This graph pits consumer price inflation against the percentage year-on-year rise of the price of a single cash ticket (that is, those not paid for via the Oyster automated ticketing system) within zones 1-4. (We know most commuters don't pay cash fares, but due to the Oyster's short history they're the most easily comparable figures.) 

 

Two big rises – of a pound each, in 2007 and 2011 – account for most of the overall increase. If you stack those percentage rises on top of each other, the concession to a minimal, inflation-level rise for this year doesn’t look so impressive. The CityLab piece applauds London's gradual fare increases, as opposed to US Transit Authorities' tactic of holding off until fares take a big jump, but this graph shows that this isn't always the case. We’ve gone from £3 for a single in zones 1-4 in 2004 to £5.70 in 2014. And, last week, the National Union for Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) claimed that fares will rise another 24 per cent by the end of the decade; that’s over a third faster than the expected rise in earnings.

Don’t get us wrong – some of TfL’s flashy improvements, such as those fancy screens on bus stops or contactless paymens, are great. And it would be handy to get the tube home after a messy night out in Camden.

But the story’s just a little bit more complicated than Shashi Verma would like to make out. Contrary to what he might like American transport bosses to think, Londoners are not exactly delighted with the tube, either. 

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We'll be launching its website soon - in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook.