Sunday, 5 January 2014

Profit or people: what is public transport for?

Public Transport-wise, I am fortunate to live in london as there is so much choice. I am even more fortunate that I don't have to use it too much because I can ride my bike for many of my journeys (despite it being the cycling hell-hole that is outer-london!)

OK, that is a strange statement. It is great that there is so much public transport choice to get around, but it is expensive. I am glad I don't have to pay for the annual multi-thousand pound ticket to stand on a train every day like so many people have to.

Sheep and llamas grazing peacefully in front of Canary Wharf.
Not doctored, this is Mudchute Farm!
Small example. I took Ranty Junior and Ranty Mini for a day out this week as there was a brief lull in the rain and we needed some fresh air. They love travelling on trains and so we got ourselves to Stratford and then onto the DLR down to Royal Victoria. We had a return trip on the Dangleway (as tourists rather than commuters!) and then on to Crossharbour for a visit to Mudchute Farm (one of London's little gems). We went back on the DLR and picked up the Overground from Shadwell making our way to Camden for a late lunch (Mexican as it happens!).

The fares were as follows;

Adult off-peak Travelcard - £8.90
Child off-peak Travelcard - £3.40 (we needed two!)

Airline adult (with Travelcard discount) - £6.40
Airline child (with Travelcard discount) - £3.20 (again, we needed two).

This gave a grand total of £15.70 on Travelcards and £12.80 on the cable car - getting on for 30 quid for travel, without stopping for lunch! That is half a tank of petrol or about 180 miles of driving by way of a comparison.

A massive white elephant for public transport, but great as a piece
of civil engineering - I bring you The Dangleway
Fine, the cable car was a treat and for a tourist attraction it is a bit of fun. It is a great bit of civil engineering, but it is laughable as a piece of public transport on the cost of the fare alone, not to mention how little used it is for regular commuting. It should have been a bridge which would have not been affected by the wind and could be open 24-7; the cable car closes at night, but at least it takes bikes!

The Travelcard has been around for as long as I can remember and it gets you on mainline trains (within Zones 1 - 6), the Underground, the Overground, the DLR, London Buses and Tramlink (which I have yet to try) and so for a city the size of London, the off-peak fare is good value, although at peak times it pretty much doubles, not to mention the peak fares for those coming in from outside of the Capital to work.

Bike hire docking station, East Ferry Road,
Isle of Dogs
We also have the London Cycle Hire scheme which now covers a huge part of the central area of London. The scheme has access charges, plus time charges for over 30 minutes of use.

Again, not something I have used as it hasn't made its way to outer London (and I doubt it will) and if coming into central London, I will either be coming by train or cycle in (for a leisure/ train run).

All of these transport modes are classed as "public" transport, which essentially means you just turn up and use it for a charge. Taxis (Black Cabs) are also kind of public transport as you flag one down as and when you use it, but they are priced out of use by most people in my view.

So what else do we have. Well, that would be the car, walking and cycling. In terms of access to infrastructure, walking is free (well, you need shoes I suppose), apart from cycle hire, you will need a bike to cycle and for driving, there is the cost of getting/ hiring a car and all of the running costs. This is the interesting thing. The infrastructure for "public" transport to run on has essentially been paid for from the public purse (forget about sponsorship, there is no such thing as a free lunch) but users pay to access.

Compare this with driving, walking and cycling, these modes are essentially "private" or "personal" transport, but you can access the infrastructure for free. This does seem a bit perverse to me and I wonder if rather than say, the government trying to reduce the public subsidy of running rail services, this "public" transport should be made cheaper to that it can be accessible to more people financially as moving lots of people around a city is surely what transport should be for?

The inevitable conclusion of this rambling is to get round to ideas such as the Foster + Partners' regurgitation of the SkyCycle proposal for elevated cycleways above railways. I think it is pie in the sky, but I won't be rude about it. The thing that has got my brain working is that it would end up being another piece of so-called "public" transport in that users will be charged for access. I can imagine it now, tap in and out with Oyster; sponsorship even. Forget the technicalities, the planning issues, this could be a money spinner.

Or we could have charges for "private" cycling such as a London-wide cycling charging zone where users have to display a number plate. How about for pedestrians; we could have a two-tier system for pedestrian crossings. The basic service would be as now, but with a longer wait for a green man. For those who could afford it, they can put their 50p in the slot and the light would change for them straight away. Of course, attendants would be required to make sure the poor scum are held back for the cheapskate phase!

OK, I am getting silly. On our trip this week, we were in areas very well served by public transport and yet there was still a lot of traffic. Crossing the road by Camden Lock Market was horrible and a driver jumped the red light of the pelican crossing near Crossharbour DLR. 

I am not an economist or a transport planner, but in my opinion, if London is to deal with the transport problems it faces, then in my view, it lies with cheaper and denser public transport and more priority for walking and cycling to help with local and shorter journeys. We also need to get away from giving any oxygen to projects such as the cable car and SkyCycle as they take effort and indeed resources away from what we really should be doing.


  1. Travelling on public transport in London with kids is fun! Trying to work out the best fare isn't…

    One day, all zones Travelcard (no railcard)
    Adult £8.90, Child £3.40
    Total £15.70

    But if you're travelling on trains together regularly it's worth getting a Friends and Family Railcard. The fares then are:
    Adult £5.90, Child £2
    Total £9.90

    Or you can get Oyster cards for children. There are different versions for different ages, but the best bit is that there's a daily cap of £1.50 for younger ones. So for all zones travel you'd pay:
    Adult £8.50, Child £1.50
    Total £11.50

    And you can use the Oyster cards on the cable car and get the same discounted rates.

  2. Of course the massive issue regarding driving is that so many of the costs are external ones. Even taking VED and paltry charges for on-street parking into account, drivers are nowhere near even realising the extent of the harm and damage they do, let alone having to compensate anyone for it. In fact, such is the sense of entitlement from "road tax" that speed cameras are vociferously opposed, petrol tax increases scrapped again and again, and so on.

    Even this article - - which makes some good points, doesn't consider the indirect harm done by motor transport in that it stops people from choosing healthier more sustainable transport choices; eg the lack of sustainable safety which mean my daughter's friends' parents always drive to school because other modes feel too dangerous.

    1. Interesting - "all you can eat driving".

      Look, I have a car and it is a very useful tool indeed. It sits around most of the time gathering rust, but if I want to take the tribe to see a relative a long way away, it is there. For such journeys it is cheaper and quicker then the train.

      My car is great for picking up stuff for DIY projects, very useful for work to get to some locations and so on. In short convenience.

      But, the flip side is sitting in and causing congestion, pollution, safety, health etc.

      We are addicted to our cars for all sorts of reasons and frankly encouragement hasn't worked and people still seem happy (or resigned) to pay the current costs of motoring - how much a proper cost would look is another point of course.

      I think we need to invest in reworking local streets to prioritise walking and cycling because unless the alternative is there, people feel unsafe and you can never convince people otherwise.

      We have one of the lowest crime rate wards fairly near to where I live, but crime is a high local priority. Same with fear of traffic if you ask me!