Mayor seeks reversal of under 18 fares

Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has written to the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, asking him to reconsider the instruction to remove free bus travel from under 18s.  The letter has been made public and is reproduced here.

Dear Grant

I am writing regarding the Government’s requirement in its emergency funding agreement with TfL to suspend free travel for under 18s in London.

As you know, I agree with the objective of reducing the numbers of people using London’s public transport system during this crisis – especially during peak times. I have been very clear that public transport is for essential journeys only and have taken a series of steps to enable social distancing on the network and help stop the spread of the virus. I also agree that we need to reduce the numbers of children using bus services in particular, in order to ensure that London’s precious public transport capacity is available for those who need it most.

However, as my team have made clear through recent discussions, we do not believe that suspending free travel for under 18s in London is the right thing to do. The problems with implementing this proposal have been brought into sharp relief as Transport for London (TfL) has looked in detail at how this change might be operationalised and at the impacts such a change would have. I would urge you now to drop this condition and work with us on other ways of reducing public transport usage by children to fulfil the objectives we both share.

The work TfL has done shows the complexity of the situation we face in trying to make changes to under 18 concessions and the many concerns that would need to be overcome. There is a statutory obligation to provide free travel between home and school where children meet a range of criteria, including in relation to age, distance from school and income. This obligation falls on local authorities rather than TfL, although it is TfL that has historically provided and paid for under 18s concessionary travel.

As well as the bureaucratic and technical complexity involved in removing existing concessions while continuing to meet statutory obligations, it would also create a new cost problem for local authorities if they are expected to fund free travel under new arrangements. We believe that around 30 per cent of children who currently travel to school by bus are eligible statutorily for free travel, which means costs to boroughs would be significant and the effectiveness of introducing bus fares for children as a way of reducing bus usage would be undermined. We of course know that some parents would also choose to pay fares for their children, further undermining the policy objective.

It is abundantly clear that losing free travel would hit the poorest Londoners hardest at a time when finances are stretched more than ever. We know that children and young people in some of the most deprived areas in London are exposed to the highest road danger risk and I am very concerned about the overall equality impact of these proposals. I want to make sure that families who might not have a choice but to use public transport are not further disadvantaged.

I am aware that my Deputy Mayor for Transport is due to meet with your colleagues in the Department for Transport and from Number 10 early next week to discuss the implementation of this condition of the funding agreement. My hope is that this discussion can focus instead on the overriding objective of minimising public transport crowding at peak times and particularly the role that more walking and cycling to school can play in that. TfL stands ready to work with schools, parents and the boroughs to make sure that as many school journeys as possible are walked or cycled. Many schools are also already looking at staggering start times and splitting attendance to limit numbers of pupils in schools, all of which will help relieve the pressure on public transport at rush hour.

I hope you will understand that I am keen to work with you to address public transport challenges during this period but I do feel I need to be honest with you and Londoners about my opposition to the removal of free travel for children and young people.

Given the significant interest in this matter, I am releasing a public copy of this letter.

Yours sincerely,

Sadiq Khan