Here's how electronic ticketing gates perpetuate inequality

Electronic ticketing barriers in Melbourne. Image: Marcus Wong/Wikimedia Commons.

The New South Wales government recently announced its latest attempt to crack-down on fare dodgers on public transport, using the high-tech medium of really, really big gates. The state’s minister for transport and infrastructure, Andrew Constance, announced that “jump-proof” barriers will be installed at all Sydney train stations over the next few years.

For readers unfamiliar with these gates: picture a stereotypical pair of British gnashers, but 10 feet tall. These tombstone-like “paddles” are tall enough to obstruct any amateur pole-vaulters, and grey enough to ensure that your morning commute remains a despair drenched odyssey.

Constance cites a number of European cities as the inspiration behind these gates – and he appears to believe that this will restore some balance to Sydney’s public transport. “Customers who pay their way expect others to do the same,” he said. “This is another way to deter the dodgers who are taking everyone else for a ride.”

The experience of those cities which have adopted electronic gates suggests that the minister is correct to believe that they’ll help to limit fare-dodging. His belief that this will create a fairer system, however, could be slightly misplaced.


When electronic gates were first introduced they were able to accept paper tickets. Since then, though, our robot masters have evolved, and most cities have adopted electronic travel cards as well. The usual model is that the commuter pays a small deposit for the card and then tops it up, either daily, weekly or monthly.

So far, so good. But the last 10-15 years have seen many public transport companies start to require that cards hold at least the amount of money required to undertake the most expensive journey possible. Once again, this is billed as an anti-fare-dodging tactic – but it also means that some forms of public transport, those with a wide or expensive reach, are increasingly off-limits to low-income travellers.

In Amsterdam, individual tram journeys tend to cost around €1.20, making it a relatively inexpensive way to travel. Train journeys, however, require travellers to have €20 on their cards at all times. By insisting that electronic cards carry a minimum pre-paid sum at all times, transport companies are effectively taking out an interest free loan on any unused credit.

Unfortunately many low-income passengers struggle to keep these interest free loans topped up. If an unexpected journey eats into their pre-paid credit, the next €3 journey they take will cost them three or four times that at the ticket barrier. This is a problem that the residents of Sydney are already familiar: the starting top-up amount for their own Opal travel cards is a minimum of A$40 online and A$10 offline.

Constant double-digit payments are rarely a problem for high-earners – but they can have a devastating impact on the budgets of low-income travellers. This can be seen in Brussels, where fare-dodging has been used as a reason to phase out the (cheaper) paper tickets and demand that customers buy electronic cards. These travel cards have been promoted as a way for travellers to save money; often, though, they instead enable transport companies to reach deeper into the pockets of low-income passengers.

If Constance and the New South Wales government wish to ensure that their own electronic system doesn’t unfairly tax low-income travellers, there are a number of things they can do. They can give travellers the option to buy individual tickets on the travel cards, rather than insisting that they cover the most expensive journey available.

They can ensure that ticket machines offer the option of electronic refunds on travel cards, rather than insisting that all money placed on a card effectively belongs to the travel company.

They can require travel companies make it easier for travellers to transfer money between cards.

Or perhaps they can require travel companies actively offer travellers the option of a refund on money that has remained unused on a travel card for more than three months.

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.