TfL has a tool that lets you map travel times to anywhere in London, and it is brilliant

This one shows travel times to Soho. Image: TfL/WebCAT/Google Maps.

“We use WebCAT to provide information on London's transport system to the professional planning community,” explains a rather unpromising page on Transport for London's website. “This connectivity assessment toolkit allows planners to measure public transport access levels (PTAL) and to produce travel time reports.”

I mean, no, that's not exactly doing it for us either, to be honest. You know the voice Steve Coogan uses in The Day Today, when he's a swimming pool supervisor? (“In 1975, no one died. In 1976, no one died...”) That's the voice we're imagining that last sentence in. Try reading it again, but this time, imagine him saying it. In that voice. All nasal and stuff. See?

Anyway. The reason we mention all this is that checking PTAL values and creating time travel maps is just about the most fun thing we’ve seen in weeks.

Let's start by translating this blurb into English. WebCAT stands for “web-based connectivity assement toolkit”. It allows planners to look at maps of particular locations anywhere in London, and see how well connected they are to public transport – something that’s vital, if you're planning new homes or offices.

To do that, it uses two related measures. One is the Public Transport Access Level, or PTAL. That ranks locations on a nine-point scale based on how well connected they are. The best connected places, where you have a choice of high frequency train services and buses, are rated 6b; the worst, where you really might as well walk, are zero. (There are nine points on the scale because values 1 and 6 are both split into two.)

The result of this ranking is this brilliant map:

On the TfL site, you can zoom right into that, and check the transport accessibility of an area as small as 100m square.


That, though, is a fairly blunt instrument. Central Croydon gets a high ranking because it has lots of trains and buses. But it's clearly a bit much to say it's “more convenient” than, say, the Bermondsey riverside, which has a much lower ranking, but from which many people would be able to walk to work.

In other words, PTAL shows where there are good transport links, but it doesn’t show where there are links to.

So, WebCAT also provides another tool: travel time mapping, which does exactly what it says on the tin. It can show you travel times from any point in London as they were in 2011; or you can look into the future, to see how they'll have changed by 2021 or 2031. You can also throw other variables into the mix: time of day, for example, or using step-free modes of transport only.

Using these maps (isochrone maps, to give them the technical name), you can instantly see that CityMetric Towers in London's fashionable Farringdon is – we don’t like to brag – pretty well connected. This map shows average travel times to and from the office in the afternoon rush hour:

Here's travel times from Canary Wharf in the morning rush hour. Unsurprisingly, it's quite well connected to the eastern suburbs, but a pain in the backside to get to or from the west:

That'll change a bit thanks to Crossrail and other initiatives, though. Here's the same map, for 2031. See how the yellow has spread:

Since the Guardian's Alex Hern was nice enough to point us towards this thing, here's a map showing how long it’ll take him to get from his office to everywhere else in London these days:

Our happy hour with WebCAT has taught us one lesson above all others: whatever you do, don't live in the Bromley village of Downe.

All in all, this is really, really cool. Go play.

 
 
 
 

Transport for London’s fare zones secretly go up to 15

Some of these stations are in zones 10 to 12. Ooooh. Image: TfL.

The British capital, as every true-blooded Londoner knows, is divided into six concentric zones, from zone 1 in the centre to zone 6 in the green belt-hugging outer suburbs.

These are officially fare zones, which Transport for London (TfL) uses to determine the cost of your tube or rail journey. Unofficially, though, they’ve sort of become more than that, and like postcodes double as a sort of status symbol, a marker of how London-y a district actually is.

If you’re the sort of Londoner who’s also interested in transport nerdery, or who has spent any time studying the tube map, you’ll probably know that there are three more zones on the fringes of the capital. These, numbered 7 to 9, are used to set and collect fares at non-London stations where the Oyster card still works. But they differ from the first six, in that they aren’t concentric rings, but random patches, reflecting not distance from London but pre-existing and faintly arbitrary fares. Thus it is that at some points (on the Overground to Cheshunt, say) trains leaving zone 6 will visit zone 7. But at others they jump to 8 (on the train to Dartford) or 9 (on TfL rail to Brentwood), or skip them altogether.

Anyway: it turns out that, although they’re keeping it fairly quiet, the zones don’t stop at 9 either. They go all the way up to 15.

So I learned this week from the hero who runs the South East Rail Group Twitter feed, when they (well, let’s be honest: he) tweeted me this:

The choice of numbers is quite odd in its way. Purfleet, a small Thames-side village in Essex, is not only barely a mile from the London border, it’s actually inside the M25. Yet it’s all the way out in the notional zone 10. What gives?

TfL’s Ticketing + Revenue Update is a surprisingly jazzy internal newsletter about, well, you can probably guess. The September/October 2018 edition, published on WhatDoTheyKnow.com following a freedom of information request, contains a helpful explanation of what’s going on. The expansion of the Oyster card system

“has seen [Pay As You Go fare] acceptance extended to Grays, Hertford East, Shenfield, Dartford and Swanley. These expansions have been identified by additional zones mainly for PAYG caping and charging purposes.

“Although these additional zones appear on our staff PAYG map, they are no generally advertised to customers, as there is the risk of potentially confusing users or leading them to think that these ones function in exactly the same way as Zones 1-6.”


Fair enough: maps should make life less, not more, confusing, so labelling Shenfield et al. as “special fares apply” rather than zone whatever makes some sense. But why don’t these outer zone fares work the same way as the proper London ones?

“One of the reasons that the fare structure becomes much more complicated when you travel to stations beyond the Zone 6 boundary is that the various Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are responsible for setting the fares to and from their stations outside London. This means that they do not have to follow the standard TfL zonal fares and can mean that stations that are notionally indicated as being in the same fare zone for capping purposes may actually have very different charges for journeys to/from London."

In other words, these fares have been designed to fit in with pre-existing TOC charges. Greater Anglia would get a bit miffed if TfL unilaterally decided that Shenfield was zone 8, thus costing the TOC a whole pile of revenue. So it gets a higher, largely notional fare zone to reflect fares. It’s a mess. No wonder TfL doesn't tell us about them.

These “ghost zones”, as the South East Rail Group terms them, will actually be extending yet further. Zone 15 is reserved for some of the western-most Elizabeth line stations out to Reading, when that finally joins the system. Although whether the residents of zone 12 will one day follow in the venerable London tradition of looking down on the residents of zones 13-15 remains to be seen.

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