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”.

 
 
 
 

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