What would a fairer version of the TfL fare zones look like?

An extract from the current London Tube & Rail Map. Image: TfL.

 Recently, the internet website CityMetric investigated Andrew Adonis’s claim that there was a strong case to move East & West Croydon up a TfL transport zone, from 5 to 4. It concluded that, based on distance from Charing Cross, there wasn’t an overwhelming reason to do so.

But, as noted in the original piece, measurements from Charing Cross might not be the best way to structure London’s transport zones. In fact, look at the map, and it clearly isn’t the measure Transport for London uses. 

Here’s the actual geography of Zones 1-6. For the purposes of this exercise stations straddling two zones are considered to be in the lower, that is, the more central, of the two.

For a start, you can see that the zones are wider than they are long, so stations in the east or west tend to be in more central zones than stations a similar distance away in the north or south. This makes a certain amount of sense given that ‘central London’, as defined by Zone 1, isn’t a circle.

At any rate: the other zones clearly aren’t defined by their distance from Zone 1. Lewisham, which is in Zone 2 and 3, is the furthest Zone 2 station from any zone 1 station – 4.1 miles from the closest, Tower Gateway, as the crow flies. But Clapton station, in Zone 3, is only 2.2 miles from a Zone 1 station (Hoxton). What’s up with that?

More concerning than that is the totally ludicrous situation going on in the north east where Zone 4 appears to be trying to escape by eating its way through Zone 5 and a good chunk of Zone 6. And frankly, given that it’s Fairlop Loop, good luck and good riddance.

Out on the fringes of the network, the furthest Zone 6 station is Knockholt, a massive 14.2 miles away from Zone 1 – but Waltham Cross, only 10 miles outside Zone 1, is relegated to the weird outer zones.

(There is a sort of sensible reason for this one: Knockholt station, despite for arcane reasons being named after a village in Kent 3 miles away, is itself just inside the London border, whereas Waltham Cross is in Hertfordshire.)

So what should a geographically fair zone system look like? 

Let’s assume that:

  1. The current boundaries of Central London/Zone 1 are correct;

  2. The boundaries of the other zones should be formed by drawing a ‘buffer’ around zone 1 the distance of the current furthest station in the zone from its closest zone 1 station;

  3. Again, for stations in multiple zones only the most central has been considered.

Now, these are all potentially dubious assumptions (for a start, if we’re redrawing the zone boundaries there’s some stuff in Kensington & Chelsea that I think has a dubious claim to being ‘central’, when, say, Whitechapel is in Zone 2). But let’s go with them, assume this method of ‘Geographical Fairness’ is a good way to run a transport system, and redraw the map.


I’ve retained the colours of the station dots from the ‘real’ zone map so you can see broadly speaking see how this changes things: only small chunks like the one directly east of the centre roughly match up with the current state of affairs. All the zones have expanded; in some places stations that were in Zone 6 are in now in Zone 4.

If we take a closer look at south London, all three Croydon stations have been bumped up to Zone 4 status, as Lord Adonis believes they should.

Meanwhile, for Lord Elledge, Kingston has jumped two entire zones, joining Croydon in Zone 4 (which now stretches 9.2 miles from the centre of town, thanks to Grange Hill on the accursed Fairlop Loop.)

On the other hand, can we really stomach a London in which Chiswick is in Zone 2?

Here’s the full labelled map if you want to find out in which Zone your favourite station will end up if this new Geographical Distance fairness scheme is implemented due to some kind of error. Right click and open it in a new window to get a good look.


Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.

The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.