Comment: Has public transport become unaffordable?

Richard Hebditch on the howls of anguish from transport users.
Richard Hebditch on the howls of anguish from transport users.

By Richard Hebditch

People in London are struggling with day-to-day costs and one of the highest of those costs is transport. Boris Johnson got behind a 25p an hour rise in the living wage for the capital on November 7th. That makes the living wage more than £2 per hour higher than the national minimum wage.

The mayor was clear about why the move was necessary. “The living wage ensures that hard-working people who contribute to London's success can enjoy a decent standard of living."

Although the capital has a public transport network the extent of which leaves much of the country green with envy, getting around London is an expensive business. A monthly Travelcard for just Zone 1 is currently £112. Despite Boris's much-reported commitment at the mayoral election to "bear down on transport costs", from January, fares will go up by an average of 4.2%. – one per cent above the rate of inflation.


Many of those grateful for an increase in the living wage will be handing the money straight back every time they travel to work. Those not lucky enough to have employers who recognise the living wage will find themselves out of pocket.

The mayor can make a case that this is not all his doing. First, national rail fares rises now tend to dictate what the London fares rises will be. Second, London’s public transport network needs investment and this has to be paid for.

Transport for London has listed projects which the additional £134 million that the fares rise will bring in will go towards. This will include the completion of the London Overground rail network, 600 new buses, increasing the capital’s fleet of hybrid buses to 400, extending the Oyster card to parts of Essex and Hertfordshire, and construction of a new ‘cycle superhighway’ from Victoria to Lewisham.

It is also worth remembering that the hike could have been higher – the mayor got an extra £96m from the Treasury to avoid increasing by two per cent above inflation, as originally planned.

Furthermore, disadvantaged groups have to a degree been protected. Travel for young, old and those with disabilities remains free. Fares are also rising less for bus journeys than for the tube – providing an overall benefit to lower income groups, who are more likely to use the bus services.

The mayor’s decision to raise fares by 4.2% is also wreathed in political expediency. It is no accident that, come January, rail users across the country will also experience a fares hike of 4.2%. But this apparent equality hides deep differences.

New analysis from the Passenger Transport Executive Group shows that spending on transport in London will rise to £644 per head in January. This figure is distorted by the need to transport millions of commuters, but it still compares starkly with a fall to under £200 per head spent in the west Midlands region.

There is welcome investment going into transport in London and into the national rail network, but the relentless rise in fares risks many people no longer being able to afford to use the network.

The danger is that the public will no longer support the necessary investment if they don’t see themselves benefiting from it. Until the government and the London mayor tackle rising fares, there will continue to be annual howls of anguish from transport users who see their transport costs taking an ever bigger slice of their income.

Richard Hebditch is the campaigns director of Campaign for Better Transport. He focuses on local transport and promoting links with parliamentarians and political parties. He can be contacted via richard.hebditch@bettertransport.org.uk.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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