Phone-based tickets make buses more efficient – but will the poorest passengers lose out?

mTickets in action. Image: First Group.

This article was amended 1655hrs on Friday, to reflect comments from First Bus, noting that it also accepted smart cards. 

For a short time last year, my job required me to commute on Bristol’s buses. As a result, every Monday involved searching through my wallet, my handbag and around the house, trying to gather enough change to pay for a return fare without incurring the wrath of the driver. The result: many cups of coffee purchased in order to break a tenner.

Then our local bus company introduced mTickets: tickets you can buy and hold on your mobile phone. No longer did I have to reach under the sofa to find that final pound coin, or start the day feeling wired from an extra espresso. I could buy a bus ticket using my Smartphone.

mTickets are becoming more and more popular across the UK’s bus network. First Bus, the company that runs the majority of Bristol’s buses, claims the move to mobile tickets will improve punctuality and cut journey times. As mentioned, they reduce the stress of trying to find the right bus fare in your purse or pockets.

I spoke to the company spokesperson responsible for First Bus in the South West. He told me that on one popular Bristol route, “33 per cent of the time a bus spends standing is waiting for at the stop for people to buy tickets. Using mTickets rather than cash make boarding times 400 per cent faster.”

Switching to mTickets, First Bus argues, “means we can save people in Bristol 32,000 hours a year. A more punctual bus service encourage people to use public transport, and reducing the time buses spend waiting with the engine on can have a positive impact on the environment.”

But there’s a problem: mTickets are incentivised via price. The launch in Bristol last year coincided with a 30p price rise in single cash fares – a rise you could avoid most easily if you bought your ticket using your mobile phone. (The lower fares are also still available on smart cards, which can be topped up in shops).

Considering bus fares in England have increased by 66 per cent in the last 12 years, offering people a cheaper way to buy tickets seems like a win (though the First spokesperson says they’ve been kept down in Bristol). However, incentivising mTickets risks making it more expensive for the poorer and more vulnerable people in society. 

Let’s look at the numbers. People on low incomes are more likely to use buses than the rest of the population. According to government statistics, 67 per cent of stages on local buses are made by people who earn £25,000 or less. This suggests that buses are providing a significant service to people on lower incomes.  

Secondly, those on lower incomes are less likely to have the Smartphone technology needed to purchase mTickets. The government’s report on digital exclusion stated that 37 per cent of those who are digitally excluded are social housing tenants, and 17 per cent of the digitally excluded earn less than £20,000 a year.

Similarly, Ofcom’s recent report on Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes found those in the lowest socio-economic bracket are between 10-15 per cent less likely to own a Smartphone than those in AB-C2 brackets (although the majority of people across all socio-economic backgrounds do now own a Smartphone). This means there’s correlation between the people most likely to use bus services and those least likely to have a Smartphone.


I put the point of social inclusion to First Bus, who cited the Ofcom data on Smartphone usage. “We looked into the cost of ownership of a Smartphone and found there are no statistics that demonstrate switching to mTickets would shut out significant sections of society,” First Bus told me. It also provided examples of various low cost phone contract prices.

This is reassuring. However, tiering ticket prices so people without Smartphones have to pay more risks contributing to the “poverty premium”.

This “premium” is the many ways in which being poor is day-to-day made more expensive. From metered gas and electricity leading to higher bills, to groceries being more expensive in local shops, it’s estimated that the poorest in society pay 10 per cent more for basic good and services. Tiered ticketing where it’s cheaper to travel if you can afford the technology risks entrenching that.

For First Bus, mTickets are a way to encourage more bus users. “Most of the complaints we get are around punctuality,” their spokesperson tells me. “If we reduce the time buses are waiting, we can improve punctuality and encourage bus use – something which benefits everyone.”

With congestion and air pollution causing more and more problems in cities, getting more people on the buses is a worthy goal. Moreover, it’s encouraging that the company is looking at inclusion and ways to open access to those most excluded in society. The fact that First Bus works with agencies including City of Sanctuary, St Mungos, SARSAS and Syrian Refugee Resettlement so they can provide bus tickets to their clients/service users demonstrates some level of commitment to social responsibility in this area.

But it can’t be ignored that tiering ticket prices risks ending up with some people losing out – and those most likely to lose out are the poorest in our communities. Closing the price disparity between mTickets and cash tickets would succeed in encouraging more people to get on the bus, without leaving some of the more vulnerable in society behind.

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

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As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

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In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.