Is Sadiq Khan’s hopper fare encouraging Londoners onto the buses?

Some London buses, in London. Image: Getty.

London’s buses form the backbone of the capital’s public transport system. Its 10,000 buses operating nearly 700 routes serve many areas that are not reached by London’s tube and rail, and provide an essential service to many Londoners, especially those on lower incomes who are more likely to use them.

But despite this, the number of people choosing to travel by bus has been falling since 2014, and it is predicted to fall by a further 2.3 per cent per year from 2016-17. Vehicle congestion – on the rise in the capital – is often cited as a major contributing factor, as it means buses have become a less reliable, slower option for commenters.

With ballooning bike numbers, many areas have seen cyclists and buses come into direct conflict, slowing them down further. Private Hire Vehicles emerging as competitors on some routes (especially off-peak), have also contributed to the drop. With fewer passengers choosing to travel by bus, tube ridership and London's suburban rail network are increasing overcrowded.

Reversing the downward trend in bus ridership would ease pressure across London’s transport network. The current mayor has introduced a number of changes to the bus network, made all the more pressing given Transport for London’s declining revenues and rising operating costs, with the view of turning around its fortunes.

One of the first measures introduced was the Hopper fare, which gives passengers the right to a second free bus journey within an hour of their previous one. Its popularity has meant an improved Hopper, allowing unlimited journeys within the hour, will launch in 2018. The mayor has also taken steps to renew bus prioritisation measures, improve information and customer service, and reviewed traffic signals to improve bus journey speeds and reliability.


Are these measures starting to have an effect? Recent TfL journey data suggests at least a slowing down of the decline in use. While four-week periods during 2016 saw year-on-year declines of up to 23 per cent, since May this year, the available data (to 16 September) shows three out of five periods saw year-on-year growth, something not seen since late 2014.

Whether this is just a blip in the longer term trend downwards, or a ‘bottoming out’ is hard to tell – future passenger number releases will start to build up a fuller picture.

On a positive note meanwhile, GLA analysis suggests 100m Hopper fares were used within the first year of operation, although this is small drop in the ocean (compared to over 2.2bn bus journeys in total over the same period), and the net addition of journeys is likely to be lower than this. Other measures – having only been announced earlier this year – are likely to take longer to result in significant changes.

There is certainly more the mayor can do. His draft Transport Strategy contains ambitious targets for reducing private car use, which will be particularly tricky in outer London, and buses will surely play a role in this. The introduction of demand-responsive hybrid bus-taxi services, as suggested in Centre for London’s Street Smarts report on the future of surface transport in London, could be a way to improve the network. Similar in nature to CityMapper’s recently launched ‘Black Bus’ route, these would be smaller than traditional buses, and operate routes where travel demand is high and possibly infrequent, but supply is lacking.

In Central London, more bus prioritisation measures such as developing bus rapid transit corridors would help bypass issues of congestion, although managing the conflicting demands for limited road space is a tricky balancing act.

The game is a long and complex one for London’s buses, and a definitive judgement on the effectiveness of the policies already introduced must wait, but even more can be done to ensure they continue to serve the city and Londoners’ mobility needs.

Tom Colthorpe is a researcher at Centre for London.

Bus journeys are one of a number of indicators analysed in ‘The London Intelligence’, the Centre’s quarterly report which analyses London’s performance across a range of sectors and issues. The Centre’s ‘Street Smarts’ report was launched in October.

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Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.


He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”