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.

 
 
 
 

Here are eight thoughts on TfL’s proposed cuts to London’s bus network

A number 12 bus crosses Westminster Bridge. Image: Getty.

In 2016, the urbanism blog City Observatory had a modest proposal for how American cities could sort out their transport systems: “Londonize”.

Its theory, the name of which referenced another popular urbanism blog, Copenhagenize, was that the key plank of Transport for London’s success was something that even transport nerds did not consider very sexy: its buses.

Though the Tube might get more glamorous press, London’s bus service really is impressively massive: It carries roughly 2.3bn passengers per year—much more than the Tube (1.3bn), close to the New York City subway (2.8bn), and nearly half as much as every bus service in America combined (5.1bn), while serving a population roughly 1/35 as large.

How has TfL done this? By making its bus network high frequency, reliable, relatively easy to understand and comprehensive. We rarely talk about this, because the tube map is far more fun – but the reason it’s so difficult to fall off the transport network in Greater London is because you’re never that far from a bus.

Given all that, we should probably talk about TfL’s plans to rethink – and in most cases, cut – as many as 36 different central London bus services over the next few months.

I’m not going to rehash details of the changes on which TfL is consulting from next month: there are just too many of them, and anyway it’s someone else’s scoop. The story was originally broken by Darryl Chamberlain over on 853 London; there’s also some fascinating analysis on Diamond Geezer’s blog. You should read both of those stories, though preferably not before you’ve finished reading this one.

Before offering my own analysis of the proposed changes, though, I should offer a few examples. More than a dozen routes are facing a trim: the 59 from King’s Cross back to Euston, the 113 from Oxford Circle to Marble Arch, the 171 from Holborn all the way down to Elephant & Castle and so on. A couple – the 10, the 48, the C2, and at most times the special routemaster version of the 15 – are being withdrawn altogether.

On, and one new route is planned – the 311, from Fulham Broadway to Oxford Circus. This will help plug some of the cuts to the 11, 19 and 22.

So, what does all this mean? Some thoughts:

1) This might not quite be as awful as it initially sounds

TfL says that demand for buses has fallen by around 10 per cent in London in recent years. It predicts it’ll fall further when Crossrail opens, as passengers switch to the new line, or to the tube routes relieved by the new line. So: the idea of taking some unwanted capacity out of the system is not, in itself, terrible.

Striping out unnecessary buses should also improve air quality in some of London’s worst pollution hot spots, and improve traffic flow, hopefully speeding up journeys on those buses that remain. 

A map from the presentation in which TfL explained its plans, showing the reduction in bus numbers on key arteries. Hilariously, notes Darryl Chamberlain, “It no longer produces its own maps, so has had to use one prepared by a bus enthusiast”.

The plans might even free up buses and staff to increase frequencies in outer London where demand hasn’t fallen – though these plans won’t be unveiled until next year and, for reasons I’ll come to below, I’ll believe it when we see it.

2) For many bus users, a lot of these changes will pass almost unnoticed

By my count, I use nine of the affected routes with any regularity – but only three of the changes are things that I’m likely to be at all inconvenienced by. Most of the changes either affect a part of the route I don’t take, or one where there are easy, and pain free alternatives.

This is anecdotal, obviously – perhaps I’m just lucky. But my suspicion is that a lot of these changes will go unnoticed by most passengers. It’s only the sheer number of them happening at once that makes this look like a big deal.

3) The Hopper fare makes this easier...

Once upon a time, if you had to switch buses, you had to pay a second fare. This isn’t true of journeys on the tube or railways – and since bus passengers have, on average, less money than tube passengers, it amounted to a pretty unfair tax on poorer Londoners.

But in January, in what is probably his most notable policy achievement of his two years in office so far, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan changed the rules. Now you can take as many buses as you want within an hour, for a single fare: that means you can switch buses without paying a penalty.

That will have made it easier for TfL to cut routes back: replacing a direct bus journey with one that requires a change no longer means imposing a financial penalty on passengers.


4) ...but not that easy

That’s about where the good news stops, though – because there are reasons other than cost why people prefer direct bus routes. Needing to change buses will be difficult for anyone with any form of mobility impairment, for example. Even for those of us lucky enough not to fall into that category, it’ll be annoying: it’s just easier to stay in one seat for 40 minutes than to get turfed off and have to fight for a new one halfway through.

More than that, from the passengers’ point of view, excess capacity feels quite good a lot of the time: it means your bus may well be nice and empty. Reducing the number of buses along those key corridors will also make those that remain more crowded.

5) The motive is almost certainly financial

Another of Sadiq Khan’s big policy promises was to freeze fares. He made this promise at a time when central government is massively reducing the financial support it gives TfL (the work, Chamberlain notes, of Evening Standard editor George Osborne, back when he was chancellor). And the Hopper fare, while a great idea in many ways, means a further reduction in income.

So: TfL is scrambling for cash: this is why I remain cynical about those new outer London bus routes. I would be amazed if money wasn’t a motivation here, not least because...

6) TfL thinks no one will notice

Any attempt to reduce tube frequencies, let alone close a station, would result in uproar. Hashtag campaigners! Angry people pointing at things in local newspapers! Damning reports on the front of the Evening Standard from the bloke who made it happen!

Buses, though? Their routes change, slightly, all the time. And do you really notice whether your local route comes every 10 minutes or every 12? That’s not to mention the fact that bus passengers, as previously noted, tend to be poorer – and so, less vocal – than tube passengers.

So cuts, and the savings they bring, are much easier to sneak through. TfL probably would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling bloggers.

Although...

7) Scrapping the C2 might be a mistake

The C2 runs from Parliament Hill, through Kentish Town and Camden to Oxford Circus. In other words, it links north London, where a lot of journalists live, to the offices of the BBC and Buzzfeed.

As occasional New Statesman writer James Ball notes, this is probably not the easiest route to quietly shelve.

8) None of this is set in stone

The consultation doesn’t even begin until next month and then will run for six weeks – so all these plans may yet be forgotten. We shall see.

Anyway – here’s Darryl Chamberlain’s original scoop, and here’s some detailed analysis on Diamond Geezer. Please support your local bloggers by reading them.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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