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.

 
 
 
 

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”.