London’s Oyster Cards can’t stand all these zones. Let’s just get rid of them

Zoned out. Image: TfL.

I’m walking through a lush river valley, home to cows, sheep, and even baby Shetland ponies. I can see the surprisingly steep banks of the River Chess ahead, formed when the owner of Latimer House chose to enhance the natural beauty of his rear view with an unexpectedly wide lake. This is the Chess Valley, on the borders of Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, and it’s totally perplexing that this 15-mile long stretch of rural land, totally outside anything resembling London, gets a good six stations on the Tube map.

This is the outermost part of the Metropolitan Line. As the first railway to tunnel under London, it gave birth to the Underground, but it never really stopped being a bit like a heavy-rail train – so once it’s in the Home Counties, the line feels a lot less like rapid transit and a lot more like commuter rail. 

The Metropolitan Line bore a child, and that child was Metroland: a hugely ambitious attempt to encourage development beyond London’s outer limits by building new stations and using railway land for speculative housing projects. And it was successful, from Harrow to Moor Park and beyond. But when the Metropolitan was transferred into public hands along with the rest of the modern Underground in 1933, nationalisation brought rationalisation – pulling the purple mess back from the reaches of Buckinghamshire. Or, at least, sort of.

This corner of the Metropolitan is particularly rich with extremities when it comes to fare zones. Moor Park, just over the line in Hertfordshire, is the last stop in Zone 6, with Rickmansworth hitting 7 and the termini of Amersham and Chesham both in Zone 9. That’s nine times the number of zones they have in Stockholm. 

It goes without saying that the zones on the Tube Map are a bit of a disaster in general; an Oyster card is technically programmed for 15, yet everything beyond 9 simply appears as “Special Fares Apply”. Somehow, even within the same zones, prices can differ: a train to Chingford costs more than a train to Harrow and Wealdstone, even though they’re both supposedly part of zone 5 on the Overground. Then there are the bouts of geographical nonsense: Epping is still inexplicably in Zone 6 despite being outside the M25, while Rickmansworth, which lies within it, is in Zone 7.  

TfL’s endless extensions into the provinces are making fares (and season tickets, and pay as you go prices, and the actual functioning of the Oyster Card) more difficult for everyone. And it all started with the Metropolitan Line’s desire to run so far beyond London’s natural limits in search of speculative housing and even more speculative passenger demand. 

This leaves us with two choices. The first choice is to stop pretending that services beyond the Greater London boundary should be TfL’s responsibility. Schemes like the Croxley Rail Link prove that a scheme co-authored by TfL, national government and local councils is doomed to fail. 

Moreover, the kerfuffle over extending the Overground onto routes run by private operators has seen London and the DfT at loggerheads. If TfL only ran services within the Mayor of London’s area of control, it’d make matters of transport planning simpler, and we could easily cut our zones down to 6 – or abolish them completely – and forget Epping, forever. 

Unfortunately, it seems a bit unfair, indeed, retrograde, to reinstate private rail services to stations like Chesham – and it would be almost impossible in Epping, given the smaller gauge on the tracks designed for diddy Central Line carriages. Even though the sorts of people who live in these places are, overwhelmingly, the same middle class commuters who’d be using proper railway commuter services if they lived anywhere else in the belt around the capital, it’s hard to discriminate against them because the Underground happened to be built out to their suburb almost 100 years prior. That brings me to our second choice: an attempt to put price and service unification at the top of TfL’s agenda.

It is increasingly unclear where TfL’s remit really ends, especially because the Elizabeth Line is going to Reading for some reason and the literal county town of Hertfordshire is on the Tube Map now. But so is Epping. So maybe “London” should embrace its geographical eccentricities. 


The first step would create a new “area of interest” for TfL that extends beyond Greater London and towards the natural suburban termini that run out from London. Good examples are Hertford East – where Greater Anglia trains terminate and the Oyster pretends to work – and Welwyn Garden City, at the ends of the line from Moorgate. 

The second step would be getting into the ring with Grant Shapps and pummelling him with policy (I don’t understand lobbying) until the Overground is allowed to run the services to places like Hertford and Gatwick. The end goal would be to make the “Tube and Rail Map” (which has been a complete mess for ages) obsolete, and replace it with two Tube Maps: one, already present inside trains and on paper, for “Central London”, and one for the Greater Transport for London Area (name very much up for discussion). 

Finally, in a Paris-style twist, TfL would radically simplify the fare structure. It would work like this: if the station’s within (or straddling) the Greater London boundary right now, it’s in Zone 1. If it’s outside it, it’s in Zone 2. This might sound unfair – to draw some arbitrary line between spaces and make those who aren’t “proper Londoners” pay. But the way things are, those people actually get into London quicker: it’s often much faster to ride a commuter rail service into King’s Cross from Potter’s Bar (in Hertfordshire) than it is to take the Piccadilly from Cockfosters (just on the other side of the boundary in Enfield). If the home counties folk are consistently getting faster services, those services – the ones that stop on the fringes then stream into the termini – should have a single higher tariff, or go the way of the fast trains to Amersham, and get axed. It was Boris Johnson who cut that service. Now that man (like him or loathe him) is Prime Minister, so it was clearly the right call. 

While it might sound unfair to institute a blanket charge for living outside Greater London, it’s worth remembering that these people are a) overwhelmingly middle class commuters and b) not paying any taxes to the GLA. Have you been to Epping? They don’t need subsidised travel! I bet the buses in Chigwell are shocking

It’s beyond blindingly obvious that the fare structure on the Tube at the minute is confusing, overcomplicated, and a mess of incentives. The solution is a flat fare for the people who live in London, and exceptions for the commuters who wish they did too.

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.