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.

 
 
 
 

Sadiq Khan and Grant Shapps clash over free bus travel for under 18s

A London bus at Victoria station. Image: Getty.

The latest front in the row between Transport for London (TfL) and national government over how to fund the capital’s transport system: free bus travel for the under 18s.

Two weeks ago, you’ll recall, TfL came perilously close to running out of money and was forced to ask for a bail out. The government agreed, but offered less money, and with more strings attached, than the agency wanted. At present, there are a range of fare discounts – some up to 100% – available to children depending on their age and which service they’re using, provided they have the right Oyster card. One of the government’s strings, the mayor’s office says, was to end all free TfL travel for the under 18s, Oyster or no Oyster.

The Department for Transport’s line on all this is that this is about maximising capacity. Many working-age people need to use buses to get to their jobs: they’re more likely to be able to do that, while also social distancing, if those buses aren’t already full of teenagers riding for free. (DfT cited the same motivation for banning the use of the Freedom Pass, which provides free travel for the retired, at peak times.)

But in an open letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, wrote that TfL believed that 30% of children who currently received free travel had a statutory entitlement to it, because they attend schools more than a certain distance from their homes. If TfL doesn’t fund this travel, London’s boroughs must, which apart from loading costs onto local government means replacing an administrative system that already exists with one that doesn’t. 

Some Labour staffers also smell Tory ideological objections to free things for young people at work. To quote Khan’s letter:

“It is abundantly clear that losing free travel would hit the poorest Londoners hardest at a time when finances are stretched more than ever... I want to make sure that families who might not have a choice but to use public transport are not further disadvantaged.”

London’s deputy mayor for transport, Heidi Alexander, is set to meet government officials next week to discuss all this. In the mean time, you can read Khan’s letter here.

UPDATE: The original version of this piece noted that the full agreement between the mayor and DfT remained mysteriously unpublished. Shortly after this story went live, the agreement appeared. Here it is.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.