On New Year's Eve, I breezed through open ticket barriers to get on the Tube with my friends, thanks to TfL's policy of providing free travel to everyone for the night. We laughed then about how liberating it was; but the fact is that the cost of travel in the city is crippling for many Londoners, and it won't be going away any time soon. In fact, the new fares for 2016 show an increase of 1% on average in journey prices - one that sounds small, but adds up in the context of daily commutes to school and work. The worst part is that fare rises in the past few years have often been above the rate of inflation.
It's old news that London has the most expensive public transport system in the world, which is ludicrous considering the standard of TfL's service in comparison to other global cities. With a bit of quick addition, I estimated the yearly total for someone commuting from Zone 4 to Zone 1, working a 48-week year, to be £1,872. And that's just the commute - never mind if, god forbid, you were to want to go out somewhere other than work. An annual travelcard for the same commute provides a slightly more bank-balance-friendly option, coming in at £1,844; but there's no getting around the fact that in a city where the proportion of people in the poorest tenth is the highest in the UK, our public transport is decidedly not accessible to the whole public.
Specifically, the question I've been asking more and more in the past few months is this - why are young people paying so much? From the age of 11 children in London have to pay to take the Tube, but at the other end of scale, everyone over 60 gets completely free travel on TfL services (despite the state pension age generally being well above this). This results in an absurd situation where a teenager with - at best - a part-time retail job could be paying more for public transport than a lawyer, surgeon, or banker over the age of 60.
Even if we were to disregard going out, there are so many young people who have no option but to take the Tube to get to school or college. And really, why should public transport become a question of necessity? The service is supposed to be there to facilitate travel within the city, but TfL is currently doing the bare minimum to support London's young people. Personally, I am lucky enough to come from a background where I don't have to worry that I won't be able to afford the Tube, but even I find myself wondering if there's a way for me to get where I want to go by bus, regardless of whether it requires 2 or 3 changes. Many of my friends are either forced into going on long, roundabout bus routes or not being able to go out at all because of exorbitant Tube fares.
I am certainly not against free travel for those over 60 per se - I just find it highly unfair that people who can still work, some of whom will be at the very highest salary levels, are able to have this benefit when teenagers and graduates at the bottom of the wage ladder have to pay such high prices.
Those who live in the capital are being pushed further and further into the suburbs by foreign property investment in the city, meaning that the average journey for a Londoner is likely to cover at least 3 zones. Yet when Tube fares, for example, can currently cap at up to £14 a day on 11-15 and 16+ Oyster cards, the cost of travelling becomes almost prohibitive. Fares for young people are ridiculously out of touch with the realities of our incomes.
So what can be done about TfL's young people problem? Ideally, public transport prices that were truly fair to all travellers would be decided by some form of means-tested progressive system, but amidst huge cuts to the TfL budget, reform on such a scale doesn't realistically seem feasible. However, further allowances could certainly be made for London's young population: the most frequently used services - especially the Tube network - need to be subsidised more than they currently are. The question of funding is always a difficult one, but as Sadiq Khan has proved with his recent pledge to freeze all TfL fares if he is elected as Mayor of London, reducing the cost of travel is possible. He has proposed to fund this freeze by scrapping the 'vanity projects' started by Boris Johnson, such as the Thames cable car. Cutting fares for young people could be funded in the same way; by cutting the amount TfL spends on often unnecessary consultants and agencies; or through increases in road tax and congestion charges, which could also combat London's high air pollution.
These suggestions may seem idealistic, but what is clear is that TfL fares, and especially fares for young people, cannot continue to rise as they are doing currently. As we draw closer to the Mayoral elections, the fact that our transport network is failing us needs to be addressed. Transport for London needs to become just that: a service available for everyone in this city.