Why does every metro system use a different fare structure?

Oh, no: Paris’ RER network. Image: RATP.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are wandering through the old town of Amsterdam. As a tourist, you might not be au fait with the smartcard system there, so you buy a one hour ticket to travel across the city. You check in upon entering your first mode of transport, and then you’re free to mix transport modes as much as you like until your hour is up, when you are obliged to check out.

This is only one fare of many different types that exist in Amsterdam, but it already differs radically from how things work in London. Here, the fare system for buses and trams is entirely separate to the one for the Tube and Overground when it comes to how much you pay. The only similarity is that both London and Amsterdam will ask you to pay extra if you want to use a national rail service.

There’s a reason for this: it lies in the different prices the two cities attach to different destinations or different modes of transport. In Amsterdam, fares align: everything is included in the same fare, and it’s how long you travel for, not exactly where you travel to, that affects the price. Except for journeys to the airport, there is no zonal fare structure like.

In London, though, price differentiation is king. A bus costs less than a tube which costs less if you don’t use Zone 1 but costs an arm and a leg if you commute in from Chesham. But that journey from Chesham won’t cost any more if you travel back out again, to say, Upminster. This is confusing and impenetrable to anyone who isn’t a transport nerd. Why don’t London’s fares align? Why can’t cities agree on how to manage their fares?

In New York, the fare system is extremely simple and clear cut. One journey to anywhere costs exactly the same, no matter how you do it or where you go; but changing to a different mode of transport starts a new journey. This system works for New York because its public transit stays relatively close to the city centre – there’s no equivalent of the Metropolitan Line out to the wilds of Buckinghamshire that needs to be included in the fare structure.

In Paris, they took New York’s system and made it as confusing as London’s version. There’s one universal ticket price, and you can also change within 90 minutes, but only if you’re using similar modes of transport. You can change from Metro to RER, and you can change from a tram to a bus – but crucially, you can’t change from a metro to a bus. And these rules only apply within the subway-dense city of Paris – RER lines beyond Zone 1 can get expensive, fast.


In Tokyo, the authorities take a different tact to mixing modes. You can’t change without incurring a new fare, but each fare is determined on the basis of distance alone. If you travelled 10km by metro and then took the bus one stop, you would – intuitively – expect the bus ticket to be cheaper than the metro. In Tokyo, your intuition would be right. (The same is true of the Amsterdam smart card, but this does not apply to single tickets.)

A moment of reflection might lead you to conclude that all public transport should work this way. After all, it’s how most transport works outside of urban centres: the further you go, the more you pay. That’s why so many people balked at Sian Berry’s suggestion to remove the fare structure entirely when she ran for London mayor.

And yet, London’s current system already leads to instances of total nonsense. You could travel from Chesham to Baker Street or Chesham to Upminster, and even though the latter journey is nearly twice as long, you’d pay the same, because you’ve travelled through just as many zones. If we were in Tokyo, we wouldn’t have this problem; all metro-stops are equal in their eyes.

So why do cities manage their fare structures so differently? Why does London have so many confusing zones, complete with “special fares apply”? Why does Paris place an arbitrary divide between fare systems at its old city boundary? Why doesn’t Tokyo?

The classic retort of “look at a map” pays dividends here. Tell someone that Chesham is a dense urban area and they’ll laugh at you. In Tokyo, meanwhile, urban densities continue a lot further into the suburbs, as any satellite photo will tell you.

If we look to Paris, the logic is the same: a unified fare structure within the urban centre make sense because it is a near-uniform area of high density where trends in travel are consistent. London is one of the greenest capital cities in the world, and part of the reason is that the outer edges of its administrative area are packed with open space and patches of green belt. And yet, metro stations designed for the density of Kilburn continue all the way to Stanmore.

This is just one of a whole series of reasons why it’s so hard to come up with a single fare system appropriate for every city. London’s ongoing advertising campaign for the “Wonderful World of Off-Peak” is testament to a desire to simplify what travellers expect to pay on their journey. Perhaps in a world with a less restricted TfL budget, a reduced commitment to freezing fares, or a more homogenous urban geography, we could hope for a better fare structure. But in the meanwhile, for better or for worse, “special fares apply”.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.