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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.