Please, Transport for London, Don't Ditch Cash

By Chris Mills on at

Transport for London, Lord of London's creaking public transport network, has launched a 'consultation' on completely ditching real-cash payments on buses. Well, here's some feedback: that's an utterly terrible idea.

Transport for London (TfL) puts up a pretty convincing argument: since introducing contactless payment to buses, less than 1 per cent of transactions involve handling actual money. Moreover, TfL reckons that taking cash payments costs them £24 mil per year, which fair enough, isn't exactly chump change.

At this point, you're probably wondering why the hell a tech blogger who spends half his life mocking tech-illiterate people is fighting for a technology that was invented a couple thousand years ago, and last really "disrupted" (as Silicon Valley might say) when we were fighting Napoleon.

The reason is simple: Transport for London is a government body, providing a public service. Buses are the only means of transport for millions of people, and if just one per cent of those people are cut off for petty economic reasons, TfL will completely cease to be acting in the public's best interest.

Cash isn't for every-day convenience. It isn't even for the tourists (I agree that it wouldn't kill the tourists to get an Oyster card, but with the £5 deposit required -- even if it's refundable -- that's just another layer of stress for our muchly-needed tourist footprint). No, it's for the drunk people on their way back home, the kids going to school, or simply the commuters who've forgotten their Oyster card.

Without trying to be sensationalist, it's not exactly hard to find reports where people have been assaulted, mugged and raped after being turned away from buses, normally for being a couple of pence short. Without being able to accept cash, TfL would undoubtedly be forcing vulnerable (and, let's face it, incredibly drunk) people to stagger home alone. Being mugged really isn't pleasant, and if TfL thinks that 24 million is really worth it, then I think they need to seriously re-evaluate who they're trying to serve.

There are other cases where people wouldn't be able to pay, as well. Children under 18 in London get free bus travel, which thousands use to get to school. But the photocards that enable free travel take months to obtain, and kids don't tend to have contactless payment cards as backup. If a child loses their Oyster card at school, they'll be totally screwed trying to get home. Not ideal.


The Economics

Here's another thing that bugs me: TfL saying that cash is too expensive to maintain. Cash bus fares are almost double the Oyster equivalent: £2.40 for a single journey, versus £1.35 for Oyster. Given that 1 per cent of journeys are paid for in cash, and there's six million journeys per day in London, that means that TfL makes about £63,000 per day from cash payments, or about £23,000,000 per year from taking cash payments. That balances out the £24 million cost quite nicely, no?

All that said, taking cash payments does slow the whole system down: whereas a line of people paying with Oyster is a smooth and slick operation, that one guy hunting for coppers can add a full minute onto the bus journey, and for that reason alone, maybe it's worth jacking up the cash fares a little bit more, to encourage people to stay surgically attached to their Oyster.

But removing cash altogether? No. Cash is inefficient, and costly -- frankly a nuisance. But it's a necessary last resort, a failsafe for the millions of people who depend entirely on London's fleet of big red cars to get around. TfL, like the NHS or Royal Mail (for now!) is a public service; and just like the NHS has to treat the sickest patients, or Royal Mail has to deliver to the arse-end of the Hebrides, Transport for London should have to keep letting the drunken tech bloggers with their mound of coppers do air-karaoke all the way home.

Image Credit: Coppers from Shutterstock