Sadiq Khan's promise to freeze London's fares will be the mayoral election's “first broken promise”

Sadiq Khan MP at a hustings last July. Image: Carl Court/Getty.

If there's one thing guaranteed to make London’s commuters froth from the mouth, it's news of an impending fare rise. The city’s annual fare announcement is met with gnashing of teeth and the ritual calculation of how much more that monthly travelcard will cost. “Why do they have to keep rising?” people wail.

And so, some politicians have been promising to freeze or even cut fares in their attempt to win the race to be mayor next year. Sadiq Khan, Labour's candidate, is pledging to freeze fares for the entire four years of his first term.

But here's the problem: anyone promising they won't raise fares without acknowledging an effect on services is either financially illiterate or being economical with the truth. It's a transparent attempt to grab votes. It’ll probably also be the election's first broken promise, with the get-out clause of “oops, we didn't realise how bad the previous administration had let things get” rearing its head come May 2016.

Crunching the numbers

So how much do fare rises actually bring in? For 2016, it's expected to be £43m after an increase of 1%; in 2015 it was expected to be £98m after a rise of 2.5%  (that’s because RPI, a measure of inflation, was higher last year).

These figures aren't one-offs; the money that fare rises bring in accumulates each year. Let's assume inflation stays low for the next few years, sticking with the £43m figure for simplicity, and see how that stacks up.

Here’s how much Sadiq Kahn’s fare freezing plan would cost Transport for London (TfL):

  • Year one loss: £43m
  • Year two loss: £43m  + £43m = £86m
  • Year three loss: £43m + £86m = £129m
  • Year four loss: £43m + £129m = £172m

Inflation, of course, doesn't stand still; costs increase and staff want pay rises, all while fare revenue is, in real terms, falling.

And it gets worse. The real killer is that the government has been cutting TfL's operating grant. from over £3bn in 2009 to £659m for this financial year. And by 2020, if the word coming from the Department for Transport is to be believed, there will be no general subsidy at all (expect to hear more at the autumn statement).


These days the operating grant is about 12 per cent of TfL's total income – it's done a good job of absorbing the cuts – but to shut off a major source of revenues in such an environment seems pretty foolish.

Labour isn't being drawn on how exactly it would freeze fares. Khan's campaign says it would be funded by “efficiency savings within TfL”. But TfL has already closed ticket offices and shed 750 staff in the latest round of an efficiency drive that's been attempting to find £5bn in savings since 2009. You can’t keep making efficiency savings forever.

Labour also points to over 400 TfL staff being paid over £100k a year. What they don't say is what they would do with those 400 staff. Make them all take a 5 per cent pay cut? That'd save about £2m. Sack some of them? There are probably a few lawyers who are surplus to requirements, and we could spend all day arguing whether someone whose job involves “minimis[ing] the group's tax liabilities” has any place in a public sector organisation.

But the top engineers and heads of each transport mode? Probably underpaid, frankly. And I expect TfL will hire more expensive commercial experts to maximise other revenue streams once government funding dries up, so this argument isn't going anywhere.

The bottom line

Money isn't magic. If fares are frozen – and a mayor could freeze, or cut them, if the political will was strong enough – the cash has to come from somewhere.

This is usually the point where someone mentions TfL's reserves, which is what a large part of the 2012 mayoral election revolved around. Labour said the reserves could be used to reduce fares; TfL said it was all earmarked for future upgrades and new infrastructure.

TfL's budgets are notoriously impenetrable but the general consensus these days is that yes, the reserves are needed elsewhere. There isn't a pot of leprechaun gold that can give everyone £5 a month off their travelcard. Sorry.

So if a mayor did freeze fares, something else would have to give. Either upgrade works would be postponed or cancelled, or new projects might not happen, or staff and/or services could be cut (cue strikes). Then again, maybe the public spaces around transport infrastructure could become more commercialised – or we could even end up paying more in council tax.

Londoners aren't stupid. Give them the options, and if they still decide they want cheaper travel at least they'll know the consequences.

Rachel Holdsworth is a senior editor at Londonist. She tweets as @rmholdsworth.

 
 
 
 

What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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