TfL says London’s roads are being subsidised by public transport users. Is it true?

Traffic in London in 2005. Image: Getty.

Are public transport users subsidising London’s roads?

The idea sounds faintly ridiculous, because it goes against all received wisdom. Everyone knows that it’s public transport that gets all the subsidies, right? Poor old drivers are taxed through the nose. Right? Right?

Nonetheless: “passengers subsidise motorists” is now the official line over at Transport for London (TfL). From its latest business plan:

From next year we have to, for the first time, address the critical issues of London’s road network, including congestion, road danger, maintenance and air quality, without any Government operating grant. Furthermore, from 2021, the £500m raised every year from Londoners paying Vehicle Excise Duty will be collected by central Government and only invested in roads outside the Capital.

This means the net operating costs of London’s roads, currently almost £200m each year, and the cost of renewing these roads, between £100m to £150m each year, are effectively being cross subsidised from fare-paying public transport users.

The next paragraph gets a bit “go ahead punk, make my day”. Emphasis mine:

This is neither sustainable nor equitable. As a result, in the short to medium term we will have to significantly reduce our programme of proactive capital renewals on the road network, although we will ensure safety of the network is maintained

There’s a certain amount to unpick here. It’s true that TfL has historically had a grant from central government: that comes from the Department of Transport, and is paid via the Greater London Authority.

And, yes, that grant is indeed tapering off. That’s been happening since April 2013, and will conclude in 2019-20, making 2021 the first year that TfL will operate without a penny of cash from central government. TfL’s responsibilities, what’s more, do include a certain amount of maintenance of London’s road network, and the budget puts their cost at £350m per year.

Since the tax road users pay – Vehicle Excise Duty – is going to central government, and by 2021, central government won’t be giving TfL a penny – and since it’s true that TfL does get most of its money from public transport fares – then, yes, TfL is maintaining London’s roads using cash provided by public transport users rather than drivers.

But there are three things which slightly complicate this argument. One is that TfL isn’t the only body investing in London’s roads: the boroughs and Highways England are also involved. So central government money may still arrive by other means.

Another is that fares aren’t the only source of revenue for TfL. Okay, they’re a big one (see below). But as TfL itself admits, that central government grant has been replaced by Business Rates – a form of property taxes – retained by the GLA. “Businesses subsidising London’s road” doesn’t make for quite as sexy a headline.

TfL’s sources of income, as shown in its 2017-18 budget.

Another complicating factor is that Vehicle Excise Duty is, despite what shouty drivers like to yell at cyclists, not actually a road tax. The money was briefly hypothecated for road maintenance – in the 1920s and 30s. Since 1937, though, it’s just been a form of general taxation: maintenance is also funded from income tax, VAT, and so on.

And so, it’s a bit silly to argue that the money London’s drivers pay to maintain London’s roads is not going to London’s roads because they don’t really pay to maintain London’s roads, and that’s been true for 80 years.

But all this feels like nit-picking. It is true that TfL gets a lot of money from public transport users, and remarkably little – central London congestion charge aside – from drivers. That, given that cars cause pollution and congestion while trains, trams and bikes don’t, feels like the wrong way round.


And, for what it’s worth, the claim that public transport users are subsidising roads is one I first heard from a TfL staffer a couple of weeks back. Even if TfL doesn’t believe it’s true, it’s clearly decided to convince us that it’s true.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.   

 
 
 
 

Transport for London’s fare zones secretly go up to 15

Some of these stations are in zones 10 to 12. Ooooh. Image: TfL.

The British capital, as every true-blooded Londoner knows, is divided into six concentric zones, from zone 1 in the centre to zone 6 in the green belt-hugging outer suburbs.

These are officially fare zones, which Transport for London (TfL) uses to determine the cost of your tube or rail journey. Unofficially, though, they’ve sort of become more than that, and like postcodes double as a sort of status symbol, a marker of how London-y a district actually is.

If you’re the sort of Londoner who’s also interested in transport nerdery, or who has spent any time studying the tube map, you’ll probably know that there are three more zones on the fringes of the capital. These, numbered 7 to 9, are used to set and collect fares at non-London stations where the Oyster card still works. But they differ from the first six, in that they aren’t concentric rings, but random patches, reflecting not distance from London but pre-existing and faintly arbitrary fares. Thus it is that at some points (on the Overground to Cheshunt, say) trains leaving zone 6 will visit zone 7. But at others they jump to 8 (on the train to Dartford) or 9 (on TfL rail to Brentwood), or skip them altogether.

Anyway: it turns out that, although they’re keeping it fairly quiet, the zones don’t stop at 9 either. They go all the way up to 15.

So I learned this week from the hero who runs the South East Rail Group Twitter feed, when they (well, let’s be honest: he) tweeted me this:

The choice of numbers is quite odd in its way. Purfleet, a small Thames-side village in Essex, is not only barely a mile from the London border, it’s actually inside the M25. Yet it’s all the way out in the notional zone 10. What gives?

TfL’s Ticketing + Revenue Update is a surprisingly jazzy internal newsletter about, well, you can probably guess. The September/October 2018 edition, published on WhatDoTheyKnow.com following a freedom of information request, contains a helpful explanation of what’s going on. The expansion of the Oyster card system

“has seen [Pay As You Go fare] acceptance extended to Grays, Hertford East, Shenfield, Dartford and Swanley. These expansions have been identified by additional zones mainly for PAYG caping and charging purposes.

“Although these additional zones appear on our staff PAYG map, they are no generally advertised to customers, as there is the risk of potentially confusing users or leading them to think that these ones function in exactly the same way as Zones 1-6.”


Fair enough: maps should make life less, not more, confusing, so labelling Shenfield et al. as “special fares apply” rather than zone whatever makes some sense. But why don’t these outer zone fares work the same way as the proper London ones?

“One of the reasons that the fare structure becomes much more complicated when you travel to stations beyond the Zone 6 boundary is that the various Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are responsible for setting the fares to and from their stations outside London. This means that they do not have to follow the standard TfL zonal fares and can mean that stations that are notionally indicated as being in the same fare zone for capping purposes may actually have very different charges for journeys to/from London."

In other words, these fares have been designed to fit in with pre-existing TOC charges. Greater Anglia would get a bit miffed if TfL unilaterally decided that Shenfield was zone 8, thus costing the TOC a whole pile of revenue. So it gets a higher, largely notional fare zone to reflect fares. It’s a mess. No wonder TfL doesn't tell us about them.

These “ghost zones”, as the South East Rail Group terms them, will actually be extending yet further. Zone 15 is reserved for some of the western-most Elizabeth line stations out to Reading, when that finally joins the system. Although whether the residents of zone 12 will one day follow in the venerable London tradition of looking down on the residents of zones 13-15 remains to be seen.

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