From March, every bus or train journey within Zone 1 will go up 10p, after Sadiq Khan announced yesterday that Transport for London fares would rise by almost 5 per cent.
For Londoners, this means the average 3-day-a-week commute will go up by £30 a year, on top of rising food and energy prices. It will hit lower-paid Londoners, who are least likely to be working from home, even harder and will cost them as much as £50 extra a year.
It also goes deeper than this. The capital’s economy, despite the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions, is still struggling to address long-term questions about how and where we spend our time and money. Weekday worker footfall in central London was still less than half of pre-pandemic levels last month, and weekend footfall was just three quarters of what it was, according to data by Centre for Cities. These are the lowest footfall figures of any UK city.
Making it more expensive to travel into Zone 1 will only encourage people to spend more time at home; another blow to the shops, bars and restaurants in Central London. But the truth is TfL has been left with few alternatives in the short term. The pandemic has opened up a huge chasm in its finances and it needs to balance the books somehow.
Public transport in the UK is unusual in that, in normal times, it receives less public subsidy than in many other European countries. It is mostly privately-operated and funded directly through fares. While some have suggested easing the pressure on travellers by funding public transport through taxation, in reality this is a political non-starter: expecting people in Northern England to subsidise London’s transport system – particularly when their public transport systems are so poor in comparison – is not a vote winner, especially as both parties try and keep so-called Red Wall voters on side.
Alternatively, TfL could cover some of the costs by further expanding the Congestion Charge and ULEZ, or introducing a comprehensive road pricing system. This would raise some money and may encourage some drivers out of their cars but, again, introducing any of these is politically difficult – particularly in outer London boroughs where the political battlegrounds are being drawn ahead of May’s council elections.
As they try to find a solution, the Mayor of London and the government will need to be creative in trying to secure London’s transport system for the long-term. It may be that the solution won’t be found in tracks and trains, but instead in the hectares and hectares of land that TfL owns.
By developing the TfL land around its tube, rail and tram stops, the transport system could bolster its long-term income stream through ground rents and service charges. TfL is already a significant landlord in the capital and all of its assets should be used to try and ensure there is a stronger backbone behind a transport system which fuels such a significant part of the nation’s economy. To do so will also require flexibility from Westminster, to ensure TfL has control over those funds and it can be put back into the transport routes.
If a plan was developed to prioritise development around London’s commuter stations, it could raise £80bn and deliver a million new homes. If a fraction of this money was made available to TfL it would ease its reliance on fare revenues and government bail-outs. But it will require real political leadership.