Over the past few months, the novel Coronavirus has been prowling the streets of London. Being a rather populous city, it makes sense that the cases would rise rapidly, especially due to the late measures. Now that the threat seems to have mostly passed, all the rules and measures implemented a little too late are being relaxed. However, one measure still stands as one of the earliest: social distancing. As our lifeline to safety, it is not being relaxed, but rather continues to be implemented in different ways. Recently, the government have been trying particularly to encourage everyone to continue social distancing. Now, they have gone as far as to make public transport seem unappealing to the ones that arguably use it most- teenagers of London.
To make sure that (despite the slowly relaxing quarantine and social distancing measures) the teens of London refrain from taking public transport more than absolutely necessary, the government has decided to revoke any and all free public transport earlier possessed by the age group. This is mostly because of the conditions of the £1.6 billion bailout deal between the TfL and the government. Before this, each child and teenager aged between 11 and 18 owned an Oyster card that either allowed them to use buses and other forms of public transport free of charge or at a discount, depending on the child’s age. If they were to start paying for what they used to take for granted, it would surely discourage excessive travel via buses. This would help with the containment of the virus due to social distancing, and may help ease the whole country’s way out of quarantine. It may also encourage the children further to instead travel by foot or by bike, which are both eco-friendly methods of travel from one place to another. This would mean that not only would the measure be aiding the country to prevent any more major outbreaks, but it would also help cut carbon emissions, no matter how small.
However, not everyone agrees with the MPs. Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, just so happens to be one of these people. In an open letter to Grant Shapps, who is the transport secretary, Mr Khan details his and the TfL’s views on the conditions of the bailout. He stated that his and the TfL’s beliefs are that 30% of children who currently receive free travel have the right to use it, as they attend to schools at larger distances from their homes. In some cases, having to go by foot to school and back would be out of the question for these children. You see, not only is it about the distance from home to school the child has to travel, though that plays a significant role in the argument. Large distances travelled on foot may also come with danger, especially in unsafe neighbourhoods. Public transport is relatively safe; the presence of other people and the enclosed environment make it so. Yet, outside the doors on the grey, rickety pavement can be a whole other story. Mr Khan also mentioned in the letter that the most disadvantaged would be the residents of London’s poorest boroughs. Quoting Mr Khan’s letter:
“It is abundantly clear that losing free travel would hit the poorest Londoners hardest at a time when finances are stretched more than ever.”
While the TfL has historically paid for the bus fares for all under 18s, with the new conditions, it would become the responsibility of the local authorities. This would not only prove difficult in terms of cost and finances, but it would also be a problem to switch from an already existing system to a completely new one without facing repercussions.
Even if the government decide to go through with the plan, it may not work entirely as intended. With quarantine regulations slowly lessening, children are starting to go to school again. As stated in Sadiq Khan’s open letter to Grant Shapps, 30% of the children require the use of buses, and therefore will probably use them. This would slightly defeat the purpose of the fares, as children will still be using buses to get around and get to school in fairly large amounts, and will likely not social distance (they are children). Furthermore, even if a child does not need to use public transport to get to school, their parents may still pay for the fares, especially if they have a steadier income than some others, or if the child is younger. As of June 1, the main classes allowed back in school are reception, year 1 and 6. These year groups are often seen as younger due to being in primary school. Although reception and year 1 are accompanied by adults to and from school (hence it is safer for them to walk or take the car for instance) some year 6 students make their journeys to and from school alone, rendering it unsafe for them to simply make the journey on foot. Also, some families do not have the alternative option of taking a car. My family is one such example, which is why I often turn to public transport – particularly buses – as my solution. Therefore, the social distancing measure may not work as well as it is meant to, and may not be worth the trouble of switching systems – especially in a pandemic setting.
While making all under 18s pay the fare for public transport may or may not result in greater social distancing, it probably will not be worth the trouble or the safety of children in the most deprived areas of London. Especially at this time, when schools are gradually re-opening to welcome the first few students back, just after the worst of a global pandemic. Tell me truthfully: is it fair, for us, to pay the fare?