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.

 
 
 
 

Amid housing and climate concerns, Australians find more to love about Tasmania's capital city

A AU$200 million expansion is planned for Hobart's international airport to further connect the city to the world. (Steve Bell/Getty Images)

The city of Hobart, with its population of 250,000 people, sits on the southern coast of Tasmania, Australia’s island state. Compared to the hustle and bustle of Sydney or Melbourne, it’s serene and spacious, with expansive views, striking 19th century architecture, and a world-class food and wine scene. The one-of-a-kind Museum of Old and New Art creates yet another draw for tourists; so does the island’s extraordinary natural beauty.

Over the past decade, Hobart has also become increasingly popular as a permanent destination, too: its population increased by about 10% between 2011 and 2018. 

Formerly Australia’s poorest state, Tasmania has sometimes been the butt of jokes, especially among those who have either never visited, or grown up and left for good. In a recent domestic skirmish, where Queensland was left out of Tasmania’s “travel bubble,” the state’s deputy premier declared: “I don't see any reason why anyone would want to go to Tassie.” 


People outside of Australia may know it only for its unique fauna, including the Tasmanian devil, or via the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, whose Netflix series Nanette touches on the challenges of growing up there. (She describes it as “a little island floating off the arse end of mainland Australia,” known for its potato farming and “frighteningly small gene pool.”)

But, as a place to live, Tasmania has become increasingly attractive to Australians and foreigners alike in a way that might have seemed unlikely even a decade ago. In 2015, the state had its first positive quarter of interstate migration in four years; since then, a steady trickle of migrants have made their way to the Apple Isle, as it’s sometimes known, often citing climate change concerns and lower house prices as reasons for the move. Many, particularly in Hobart, are international students. 

Now, with Covid spikes in Victoria and New South Wales, Tasmania – with the 150 mile Bass Strait as its moat – has seldom seemed more appealing. In the past quarter, Tasmania has become Australia’s best-performing state economy for the first time since 2009, with annual growth of about 5%. It ranked first in the country for relative population growth, relative unemployment, equipment investment and retail trade. More than 13,000 people are now members of a “That’s It, I’m Moving to Tassie” Facebook group, for people "considering or dreaming about making the big move to Tasmania”. A planned AU$200 million expansion to its international airport will further connect Hobart to the world.

Even before the pandemic, many Australians had begun what Lisa Denny, a demographer from the University of Tasmania, describes as a “value reset.” Between the bushfires and other extreme weather events, “the cost of insurance, the risks, the interruptions to life, and the devastation that have been attached to it, people have been seeking out safer, more secure, and less expensive places to live,” she says. “For many people, [the pandemic] will reinforce or bring forward decisions to move or change their lifestyle, or change what work they do and how they work.”

Kailey Milroy and her husband had been weighing up a move to Hobart since 2017. In 2018, while they were still living in Milroy’s hometown of Vancouver, Canada, the couple deputised her husband’s parents to travel from New South Wales and view a house for them. They bought it, sight unseen, and let out. Until June, the couple and their two young children had been living in Newcastle, New South Wales, two hours north of Sydney. But when their tenant in Hobart asked to end her lease early, the family decided to take the plunge and relocate. “We really love it,” Milroy says. “We’ve already met some people and our neighbours have been super welcoming.” 

Under normal circumstances, the family might have waited a few more years to move. But the year’s news cycle – first, the aggressive bushfires; next, the isolation from nearby friends and family during lockdown – created new incentives to move. “It just made us realise, all the things we were worried about, with moving to Hobart, we can manage that,’” she says. “And it was somewhere we really wanted to be, so it felt worthwhile to give it a shot.”

With no new data on new arrivals to Tasmania expected for a matter of months, it’s hard to hypothesise accurately about either current or future migration, says Denny. The pandemic will necessarily curtail overseas migration, possibly for years to come, but it’s not clear what effect it will have on interstate migration, particularly if Australian employers embrace remote work with the same enthusiasm as some of their international neighbours. 

Still, for the last few years, around 14,000 people have arrived in Tasmania each year, roughly evenly split between international and interstate migration; of these, about 11% are aged between 25 and 29. Each year, about 12,000 people have also left, however, for a net gain of about 2,000 residents.

The effect on housing over this time has been noticeable. At about $510,000, the median house price in Hobart is a fraction of the median in Sydney ($975,000) or Melbourne ($775,000), but roughly the same as in Brisbane, Adelaine, or Perth. But prices in Hobart are rising and rapidly. Hobart’s median house price has risen more than 50%, from $347,000, in the past five years. (In Brisbane, by contrast, house prices have barely changed; in Perth, they’ve actually dipped). Despite the pandemic, Hobart housing prices continue to rise, with an increase in cost of about 1% in the last quarter and 11% in the last year, exceeding every other state capital.  

Ingrid Boone bought a property in Hobart earlier this year, arriving from Sydney just three hours before lockdown began. For the next six weeks, she says, she took extended leave from her work as a retail merchandiser and renovated the house and garden. “As I was here, even in lockdown, I just fell in love with my house – with the view, with the climate, with the opportunity to garden.” 

Returning to Sydney was a wrench. “This dark cloud came over me – it was a horrible time mentally.” When a job opened up in Tasmania, she lost no time in accepting it and returning. “The word ‘yes’ just came out of my mouth. I couldn’t get back down here quick enough,” she says. “I’ve just been absolutely in heaven.” Though the distance from her two adult daughters, who both live on the mainland, has been a struggle, she’s blissfully happy in her new home. “Every single day, the beauty of the place, it just takes my breath away,” Boone says. “I’ve fallen in love with Hobart, and have not for one single second regretted it.”

Though migrants to Tasmania often mention the lower cost of land as a particular pull, there are other Australian regions that are comparable in price. The clinching factor often comes down to questions of climate and lifestyle. 

For Mike Olsen, an IT worker originally from Queensland, even the mandatory AU$2,800 ($2,000) quarantine fee – and two weeks in a government-appointed facility – didn’t put him off making the leap. “I've been to Tasmania a number of times, I've always been interested in living here,” he said. “And after the first wave of Covid, I chose to quit my job, spend a little time with family up in Queensland, and then come down here.”  

Though he’s currently waiting out his time in a quarantine hotel, Olsen plans to spend around a month exploring Tasmania, with a view to finding work in IT and a block of land to buy, likely a half-hour outside Hobart. He’d been thinking about the move for a number of years, he said: “Mainly because I love nature, and Tasmania is full of nature – amazing hikes, down here.” Lower land prices, compared to much of the rest of Australia, are another draw. “It’s got a lot of things going for it.”

In the past, a lack of jobs has prevented many would-be migrants from moving to Tasmania before retirement. But more awareness around the potential for remote work could tip the balance in the state’s favor. “It might give people the impetus to be able to choose where they live, but we really don't know until we start seeing the numbers,” Denny says. “It’s going to be very interesting to see play out, but I think Tasmania is well positioned to be attractive for people to live in, in a changing world.”

Natasha Frost is a freelance journalist based in New York City.