TfL are considering going cashless on buses. You may remember they launched a consultation back in August to ask Londoners what they thought of the idea. I mention this because the consultation ends tomorrow. And I think it's a fair bet that, unless the consultation comes out strongly against, TfL will be going cashless on buses some time next year.
I can't remember the last time I used cash on a bus. I've had an Oyster card for ten years now, so I'm perfectly used to flashing my plastic. More importantly, I have an annual travelcard on my Oyster. A travelcard means I can ride any London bus on any route for no additional fare, no matter which zones it passes through, so I never ever need to Pay As You Go on buses. It doesn't matter to me whether TfL goes cashless on buses because I went cashless a decade ago. But I'm not everyone.
Earlier this year my niece and three of her friends came down from Norfolk to London for the weekend. I met them in North Greenwich, after some musical event at the O2, with the intention of heading back to Bow to kip down for the night. It was close to midnight so we caught the bus, a quick and simple journey under the Thames on the 108. Three of us waved our Oyster cards, because we'd come prepared, even those from the farthest parts of East Anglia. But one friend had no card, only a high value note which she waved somewhat ineffectively at the driver. We cobbled together the cash fare between us, and sped on our way shortly afterwards. But if buses had gone cashless, as TfL plan, I'm not sure how we'd have managed. The WH Smith in the bus station was long closed, and they don't do Oyster anyway. There is an Oyster Ticket Stop at a newsagents inside the O2, but I wouldn't have thought of going there, and they were probably closed too. The second nearest Oyster Ticket Shop is a mile away, in the wrong direction, on the Woolwich Road. And the ticket office at North Greenwich station closes before 8pm on a Saturday, so that's a fat lot of good. We couldn't have walked home, because there's a river in the way. We might have got the tube, assuming it was still running, but that would have cost more and taken longer. Or we could have got a taxi, but can you imagine the fare charged to muggins departing the O2 late at night? Cash, it turned out was the ideal solution.
I'm intrigued by the main argument TfL is putting forward in support of going cashless.
First they tell us only 1% of passengers make cash journeys, as if to suggest that making this change won't affect many people. Then they claim that going cashless will lead to faster journey times, except they just said very few journeys involve paying cash, so that's not much of a time benefit for the rest of us. You can't argue it both ways, not and appear credible.
But I take TfL's point that going cashless will save them money. If bus drivers never have to deal with cash then cash never needs to be collected and banked, and those savings will add up. In a time of austerity, every squeezed outlay helps. But is an extra £24m worth the hassle? By my calculations that's roughly enough to buy 60 New Buses for London, enough to convert the whole of route 25. It's less than half of the cost of building the cablecar. And interestingly it's less than half of the amount those 1% of cash passengers are paying annually in fares.
It's also interesting to see who's still paying in cash.
The great majority of cash users have an Oyster card, but it's either empty or elsewhere. And it's not obvious your Oyster card is empty until you try it, at which point in future the driver will chuck you off the bus.
It's not difficult to get an Oyster card, although the £5 deposit puts some people off. Some aren't chuffed that Oyster means TfL can track their progress round London, whereas cash is entirely anonymous. But cash users are paying £1 over the odds compared to Pay As You Go, so you have to wonder why the refuseniks hold out.
This figure seems significant. A very small proportion of all bus journeys in London will be on night buses, but 10% of the cash fares are taken here. It's not usually possible to pop into a local newsagent after midnight to top up your card, and tube stations are shut, so what's a traveller to do? TfL are proposing that skint Oyster users be allowed one free journey (to be paid back later), which is good mitigation, but not alas if it takes more than one bus to get home.
And this figure seems significant too. There aren't many buses that cross the boundary, certainly not many busy ones, and yet 10% of the cash fares are taken here. When Oyster isn't an integral part of your life, of course you're going to want to use cash instead.
TfL are keen to point out that contactless payment cards can now be used to pay on bus services. Apparently 23000 trips per day are made using CPCs, which might sound a lot but is actually a pitiful amount, and less than half of the 1% using cash. Plus we don't all have contactless cards, do we? My bank sent me a bog standard debit card earlier this year, so I won't be CPC-enabled before 2016 at least.
It's clear that London's buses will go cashless one day. The world seems hellbent on moving from cash to plastic, so the change on public transport is inevitable. But I'd argue that 2014 is too early. There are still too many this will inconvenience, even put at risk, because even 1% of a very large population is a lot of people. I think TfL should wait a few years longer, that's my opinion. And if you want to make your cashless opinion heard, be that pro or con, you have one more day to tell the people who matter.