So is Labour’s plan to make bus travel free for under 25s any good?

A bus. Image: Getty.

Is Labour’s plan to make bus travel free for under 25s a clever political gambit, which will lock in the youth vote by helping out a group struggling with low wages, insecure work, and soaring living costs? Or is it just the latest sign that Jeremy Corbyn is intent on buying his way to Downing Street, and possibly also a communist? At time of writing, the policy is all of half a day old, and both those takes can already be found roaming the internet in herds.

I’m uncertain whether free bus passes in council areas that take back control of their bus networks will make for good policy: in many ways it looks great, but there are niggling doubts about practicalities. As a piece of politics, though, it looks like a masterstroke. It’s the latest incarnation of a trap the Opposition has set for the government several times now – yet the Tories seem determined to fall for it every single time.

Policy first. Making it cheaper for young people to travel is A Good Thing, which will make it easier for them to stay in education or access jobs. What’s more, buses are by far the best way of moving large numbers of people around most British cities. (London’s comprehensive rail network is, if not quite unique, then certainly very unusual.) In terms of making efficient use of scarce space, and reducing things like traffic and pollution, anything that encourages people out of cars and onto a bus has to be good.

What about the fact the policy will only apply where councils either take over bus networks themselves – or, more likely, plan and franchise them, as Transport for London does in the capital? Well, this strikes me as a good thing too. Deregulation of bus networks has been an utter failure, resulting in high fares and confusing ticketing. Most damagingly of all, it’s undermined the whole idea of local transport in many areas, by allowing private firms to cherry pick the most profitable routes while lumbering councils with expensive but socially necessary ones. After 30 years it’s so clear the policy has been a mess that even the current government has talked about rolling it back. It’s no coincidence that London, where bus travel has boomed, was never forced to deregulate itself.

On the whole, then, I think this is a pretty fine idea. The only bump in the road could be the money. Labour says it’ll cost £1.4bn a year after five years, a figure it claims is based on use of the existing bus passes among the elderly. The Tories, assuming 10 journeys a week for every young person in Britain, put it at £13bn.


It’s tempting to assume the final figure will be somewhere between those two, but in all honesty we don’t know. This policy will change both availability of, and enthusiasm for, bus travel. What that’ll do to the final cost it’s hard to say, but Labour’s guess may well be on the low side.

For that reason, I’m cynical about the party’s claim it can fund this by hypothecating a chunk of road tax – not least because, if fewer kids buy cars, then that must have some impact on how big that pot is. It’s a neat answer to the inevitable questions about how the party plans to fund this, but I’m not entirely convinced the sums will add up.

If it only gets an eight and a half out of 10 as a policy, though, as a piece of politics, it’s worth at least 13. As with tuition fees and rental caps before it, the bus announcement has pushed the Tories into making a bunch of statements suggesting that they don’t care about young people, don’t think they’re worth spending money on, and don’t have the slightest clue about the problems that they face.

Nusrat Ghani, for example, accused the opposition of “bribing young people” (this, unlike bribing old people, is for some reason verboten). She also cited the millennial rail card, as her government’s contribution to getting transport costs down. Given that she’s a transport minister, this statement that shows a frankly incredible level of ignorance about how little use a railcard would be in most cities around the country. 

All that was nothing compared to the tweet from Tory chair James Cleverly – sometimes, bafflingly, tipped as a rising star – who sent a tweet implying the policy was somehow infantilising 24-year-olds. Whether he thinks the government is infantalising old people by, say, handing out winter fuel payments is a matter on which he has yet to comment.

If it’s ever implemented, this will, I think, be a good policy, both for local transport and for young people. But that’s a long way off. In the meantime, the main beneficiaries of the policy will be the Labour party.

Because every time a Tory sneers at the idea we could ease the burden on young people, they are sending a message. “We don’t know how to solve your problems,” it says. “This party isn’t for you.”

This article previously appeared on our parent site, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Copenhagen puts cyclists at the top of the social hierarchy

A cyclist in Copenhagen, obviously. Image: Red Bull/Getty.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is not a nation of cyclists? Why we prefer to sit in traffic as our Dutch and Danish neighbours speed through the city on bikes?

Forget about hills, rain, and urban sprawl: the real reason we aren’t cycling is much closer to home. It is not just lack of infrastructure, or lack of fitness, the reason that 66 per cent of Brits cycle less than once a year, is because of status.

An obsession with social status is hard-wired into our brains. As we have built a society that relies on cars, the bicycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible mode of transport, to a deviant fringe-dwellers choice.

Even though cycling to work has been shown to be one of the most effective things an individual can do to improve health and longevity, researcher David Horton thinks that there are a set of collective anxieties that are stopping us getting in the saddle. These include not just an unwillingness to be made vulnerable, but fear of being thought of as poor.

A quick look over the North Sea shows that there is an alternative. Danish culture has elevated cycling to the point of reverence, and the social status of cyclists has followed. As we have busied ourselves building infrastructure that testifies to the dominance of the car, Denmark has been creating magnificent architectural features, aimed specifically at bike users. The Cycle Snake, or Cykelslangen, literally suspends the cyclist above the city, metaphorically elevating the cyclist and creating a sense of ceremony.

In doing so, they are subtly persuading people of all backgrounds to see past their prejudices or fears and take it up as the clearly better choice. This means there are more women cycling, more older people cycling, and more ethnic minorities cycling. The activity is less dominated by comfortably middle class white males: there are cyclists from every side of the community.  

The Cykelslangen, under construction in 2014. Image: Ursula Bach and Dissing+Weitling architecture.

Despite abstract motivations like getting ripped and conquering global warming, it is only when the bike path becomes the obviously better choice that people will start to cycle. It can take years of traffic jams before people try an alternative, but if you make motorists jealous of cyclists, then the tables can quickly turn.

Another way that Copenhagen has done this is by taking privileges normally afforded only to the motorcar, and given them to the bike. The city has ensured that cycle routes do not include blind corners or dark tunnels, and that they form a complete, coherent network, and a steadily flowing system – one that allows cyclists to maintain a reasonable pace, and minimises the amount of times you have to put your foot down.

The ‘Green Wave’, for example, is a co-ordinated traffic light system on some of the main thoroughfares of the capital that helps minimise the amount of cycle congestion during peak times. It maintains a steady flow of cycle traffic, so that there is no need to stop at any point.


Small measures of prioritisation like this one increase the sense of safety and consideration that cyclists experience, making it natural for the citizens of a city to act in their own self-interest and get on their bike.

As well as redefining the streets around the bicycle, the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog positively fetishises cyclists. The tagline “dress for your destination, not your journey” depicts the social fashion life of the cycle lane as a “never ending flow of happy people heading from A to B”. Its writers are  literally making cycling sexy, dispelling the idea that going anywhere by bike is odd, and helping the world to see that the bicycle is actually the ultimate fashion accessory.

So unlike in London, where cycling is still a predominantly male pursuit, Copenhagen sees a more even split between men and women. Not just because they feel safer on the roads, but because culturally they are comfortable with their appearance as part of a highly visible group.

So while our low level of cycling is partly due to our physical infrastructure, it is also due to our cultural attitudes. The mental roadblocks people have towards cycling can be overcome by infrastructure that is not only safe, but also brings old-fashioned notions of dignity and grace into the daily commute.

Of course, office shower facilities might stop cyclists being ostracised, too.