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.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.