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”.


Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.

At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.