July 13, 2004

London Buses messes up a change in ticketing.

Michael Jennings | Buses and Jitneys | Fares and Ticketing

I very seldom pay a cash fare to ride a bus in London. This is true of most regular travellers in London. However it doesn't make the cash fares system unimportant.

I am not a fan of bus travel in general, with one exception, which is that I enjoy sitting in the front seat of the top deck of a double decker bus and watching London go by. For travelling around central London I find this to be more pleasant (although often slower) than catching the tube, which I often find hot, sticky, and claustrophobic. Added to this is the fact that Zone 2-6 travelcards are valid on buses in central London but not on the underground, so if I am willing to get a train to somewhere on the boundary between zones 1 and 2 and then proceed by a mixture of bus and foot, I can save a little money. However, if I have one destination in central London, it is usually cheaper to get a train only ticket to the nearest mainline station.

The combination of these factors means that if I am going into central London to multiple destinations (or somewhere out of the way) I will buy a Travelcard and use this to catch buses once I get in there, but if I am making a quick trip into a single part of the city, I just buy a train ticket and don't do so.

Therefore, the only circumstance in which I am likely to catch a bus and pay a cash fare is when I go into central London, someone rings me on my mobile phone l, I find that I have more business in central London than I thought, and some of the business is a substantial distance from where I am already.

As it happens, this occurred yesterday. I was in Oxford Street, and I discovered that I needed to be in Chelsea later that afternoon. No trouble. I could get the number 19 bus which goes from New Oxford Street, down Tottenham Court Road, Charing Cross Road, Shaftesbury Avenue, Picadilly, Knightsbridge and Sloane Street to the King's Road in Chelsea. Couldn't be easier. I reached into my pocket. I had a few coins, one of which was a pound coin with which to pay the £1.00 fare.

But at this point there is a complication. Since August 23 2003, it has not been possible to simply hop on a bus in central London and pay the fare to the driver. Passengers are now required to have a ticket before they get on the bus. (This policy is mostly due to the fact that bendy buses are too large and have too many doors for the driver to sell tickets to everyone, but there is probably an issue of encouraging us all to buy Oyster Cards as well). If one wants to pay cash, one must buy a ticket from a ticket machine next to the bus stop before boarding the bus. I tried to do this yesterday at a ticket machine in Oxford Street. The machine took my money, but did not acknowledge in any way that it had done so. No ticket.

This was deeply irritating, as I had no more cash. After a little running around I got a £10 note from a cash machine, but as the ticket machines do not take notes, I had to go and buy a can of Coke to get some change. I walked to the next ticket machine in Charing Cross Road. I put another pound coin in the ticket machine there. The result was exactly the same as the first machine. It took my money. No ticket. By this time I was livid, but what could I do? I had to keep trying. I walked to the next ticket machine in Charing Cross Road. A woman was attempting to stick her fingernails into the coin slot, presumably to extract a coin that was stuck there. So no joy with that one either. I walked down Shaftesbury Avenue, and found another ticket machine. This one, finally, worked. I managed to buy a ticket. I got the bus to Chelsea. Total cost to me, £3.00, plus the cost of a Coke that I wouldn't have otherwise bought but which I did enjoy.

This is only the second time I have attempted to catch a bus after buying a ticket from these ticket machines. (As I said, I normally buy a different class of ticket in advance and only pay cash in what are for me unusual circumstances). However, on that previous occasion something similar occurred. The first machine took my money and did not give me a ticket, the second did, and I spent £2.00 on a £1.00 fare.

Now what does this prove? Some would argue that ticket machines are inherently less flexible than conductors, are unable to give proper change, and to cope with unexpected situations. And I will concede that this is partly true. However, it doesn't have to be completely true. The ticket machines that have recently been installed in many tube stations and on some mainline stations in London are terrific. They accept credit cards, they accept notes as well as coins, they give change, and they can issue almost any class of ticket that a customer could possibly want. The ticket machines that are on tram stops in Croydon are not as good as this, but they are easy to use, they are designed so as to not be vulnerable to vandalism, and they sell a good range of different types of ticket. Railway station ticket machines are normally inside buildings that are attended by staff, so it is understandable that machines that are outdoors and not protected by staff cannot be as flexible and must be physically much tougher, but I cannot see any good reason why the bus ticket machines should not be at least as good as the ones provided by Tramlink. And the truth is that they are much, much worse.

The bus ticket machines are prone to break down, are very vulnerable to vandalism, are extremely confusing and non-intuitive to use, they are inflexible as to the denominations of coin they take (they don't take notes) and there are no clear instructions written on the ticket machines explaining how they operate. Having tried to use them for two journeys in total that should have cost £2.00, I have suffered considerable inconvenience and have paid £5.00 in total. (Judging by this post it seems my experience is fairly typical). Catching a bus in central London has been made much, much harder than it needs to be or that it was before.

Now there are two possibilities here. One is that the whole thing is simply a bureaucratic screwup. This is always possible, particularly with public sector organisations and/or monopolies. And truthfully, one should usually not blame anything on a conspiracy that can be blamed on simple incompetence. However, the other possibility is that there is an element of deliberateness in this, particularly given that it seems clear that the congestion charge has been made unduly complicated in order to dissuade people from driving in central London. This is fine, other than that a higher charge would have done equally well at dissuading people from driving in central London without the resulting revenue shortfall, and the fact that people who genuinely need to travel into central London are inconvenienced by the difficulty of paying the charge as well as the expense. (Almost every basic economics textbook at some point gives an argument as to why tarrifs are superior to quotas. The argument here is a virtually identical argument, as is the one I will make for bus fares in a moment).

In terms of bus fares, the similar conspiracy theory would be that in its move to get us to all carry Oyster cards, Transport for London is making it deliberately difficult to pay cash. If so, this is astonishingly foolish. Yes, there is some portion of the travelling population that pays a cash fare every day and it is desirable for these people to instead use some prepay method in order to save time and resources. They might well switch to prepay if you may paying cash harder, but this can equally well be achieve by simply raising cash fares and not raising prepay fares. (Transport for London have indeed done this, and it is perfectly sensible. People are simply being asked to pay for the extra staff time they use up by buying a ticket every day. This is entirely reasonable). However, people who pay cash are also very often people who are departing from their normal routines, just as I was yesterday. Often they are people from out of town. Such people are often in states of more stress than regular travellers, and are less familiar with the workings of that section of the transport system, and have probably just made a decision on the spur of the moment to use it. This is a portion of the travelling population that simply wants to get on a bus and say "I want to go to Chelsea. How much?". This is the segment of the travelling population that a transport operator should go out of its way to make the system easy for, not hard for. (If you charge them more than regular travellers, so be it). And Transport for London has here achieved the precise opposite. Well done to them for that.

And truthfully, only a monopoly (and probably a public sector monopoly) would think to attempt to change the behaviour of its customers by providing them with worse service.

Trackbacks

Oystercards
It's amazing how cheap bus travel in central London has become - for me, at least - and it's mostly thanks to the new Oystercard system. But I'm not sure that my experience is what Transport for London were intending... When I left London a year ...
Shine on July 15, 2004

Comments

I now have an Oyster card even though I live in Manchester, precisely for such occasions... It works out quite well, but is a reasonably silly way to have to go about things.

Posted by john b on July 14, 2004

Actually, this is such a typical experience. I use a bike mostly, but every now and then I catch a bus. When I do, I have found the machines to be absolutely DIRE. The other day, a couple of tourists in front of me, lost their pound in machine. They were annoyed, and so when the bus came they tried to explain to the driver what had happened. The driver said that the machine on the street was nothing to do with him. He was only interested in his machine on the bus. Pay me now, or get off. He was very rude, and doing his best to prove wrong the reputation the British have for being polite.

I think the machines were actually installed in good faith, as a time saving measure, and to encourage people to the idea of Oyster Cards or those 6 packs of single tickets which are only 70p each. I don't think anyone forsaw, how difficult it would be to keep the machines working. However, they do know now, so they should do something about it.

The reality is now as follows -
All the drivers know how bad the machines are, and that they rarely work.

Nearly all the drivers have got tired of arguing with angry people who have been screwed by the machines.

Almost all the drivers will actually take cash now, if you say that the machine wasn't working.
Most people who are in the habit of using cash for the bus on a regular basis, don't even try the machine, they just get on and say the machine was broken, so they don't risk losing a pound.

The people who really get screwed are tourists.

The machines either need improving, or they need to go.

Posted by Paul on July 16, 2004

In Berlin there is a similar problem - but in the subway, not with buses. The machines don't work properly sometimes (well, it gets better - slowly).

But: Each machine has a number (six digits). If you've lost your cash to the machine, you can get it back (by reclamation, quote the machine number).

If none of the machines worked you may get on without a ticket, but you have to know the number of the not working ticket machine if somebody wants to check whether you've got a ticket (hell, my grammar is just wonderful today). Alas, they take your name and address, and if your report of a broken machine is not correct, you'll get a bill (40€).

Posted by Rike on July 17, 2004

Paul: Indeed. After one or two bad experiences those of us that live here learn to either pay on the bus anyway (if they will let us) or to get an Oyster Card. Unnecessarily pissing off tourists in large numbers is indeed the main result, and it is a particularly stupid thing to do.

Posted by Michael Jennings on July 17, 2004

Actually those machines were installed to save time in Central London. In the dirty, faraway suburbs of zone 2 and more, there are no yellow panels indicating that you have to get a ticket before you get on, and no evil machines.
Obviously you don't take the bus often, otherwise it would be clear that making people buy their tickets before they get on means that everyone gets on the bus quicker, without having to wait for some guys getting their change right. Now there is only driver, and no conductor that takes care of payments like on the old routemasters, so those machines were the next logical step: if you don't have a ticket or a travelcard, then you don't force the others to wait for you....

Obviously part of the plan was that the machines would work... they sure screwed that up! But please no silly conspiracies...

Posted by Matthew on July 22, 2004

I agree with Matthew -- as a regular bus rider, the speed with which everyone gets on the bus under the new fare regime is great. The bendy buses are the best -- zoom zoom!

That said, I've had the same trouble as you have had with the machines -- one day I went walking all down Southampton Row and Kingsway, and someone had thoughtfully stuck gum in every one of the ticket machines - I lost a pound in each one. FWIW, I was able to get a complete refund by calling the number on the machines, but what a hassle. But truth be told, I was much madder at the malcontent with gum to spare than I was at London Transport.

Posted by Nick on July 24, 2004

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