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.

 
 
 
 

What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.


Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.