A woman sits on a park bench, fraternising with a man with a one day travelcard for a head.
'Get to Know the Off-Peak Travelcard' runs the headline. It's a faintly sinister advert for an altogether brilliant idea. In 1984, London launched the one day travelcard — an initiative championed by then Greater London Council leader Ken Livingstone, in the days before he started manhandling tube doors with his foot.
The day travelcard became a major hit — a golden (or in this case, orange) ticket for daytrippers. With this piece of paper, visitors had near-unlimited access to London via its befuddling spaghetti of transport routes — no fumbling for cash to buy extra tickets, no worrying about being fined for boarding a bus you hadn't paid to get on. Adverts, smothered in 1980s cheese encouraged Starlight Express-loving youngsters to glide into town, for 'little more than a cheap day return'. This wasn't just a ticket, it was a sales pitch for visiting the capital.
In a digital-forward 2023, the travelcard remains an uncomplicated piece of paper that you can slide into a barrier, or flash at a bus driver, and know you'll be OK. Trams and the Elizabeth line are included these days — and, priced £15.20 and covering zones 1-6, it's also very reasonable. But now the one day travelcard faces the wastepaper basket of doom, with TfL announcing a public consultation on scrapping it outright.
"It would put me off visiting"
When everything from banknotes to paper theatre tickets are being screwed up and hurled out the window, perhaps the demise of the day travelcard might seem inevitable. In fact it was doing very nicely until recently; 2018 saw its highest ever sales — 27 million. The trouble came with the pandemic, which inevitably saw a plunge in visitor numbers. The day travelcard hasn't recovered. Last financial year, only 15 million were sold.
Many Londoners now use contactless to get around — and post-pandemic those figures rose even higher, from 400,000 contactless journeys a day being made using a mobile phone or smart watch, to 485,000. But, could ditching the one day travelcard ultimately put non-Londoners off coming in? Deciding that rather than go see that new exhibition at the Science Museum, they might go to the Kent coast instead. According to many of our readers, yes.
"These have been so useful for us out-of-towners adding them onto our return rail tickets and not having to figure out how to buy tube or bus tickets once we're in London, bearing in mind that onward travel is mostly a necessity from National Rail termini," says Geoff Nash. "I live outside London, it would put me off visiting," says Emma Emmerton. "People will not want to pay twice for the tube and their train. Just having one card is a million times easier," says Robbie Morrison.
That's not all; at a time when Mayor of London Sadiq Khan — who oversees TfL in his role as Mayor of London — is pushing hard against the use of cars in the city, could the move be folly? "It'll make more people drive into London if anything..." suggests Londonist reader Tom Berry.
South London blog Inside Croydon also thinks scrapping the travelcard could backfire, citing a "lead to added costs, more complexity and even conflict between staff and the public." Khan, says the blog, has fallen into a 'Tory trap'. It's worth pointing out that Khan and TfL are having their arm twisted. They say: "As required by conditions of the government's funding settlements, we are considering proposals to generate additional income. One of these proposals is withdrawal from elements of the Travelcard Agreement, such as TfL's acceptance of day travelcards..." If doing away with it is the wrong thing, maybe fingers should be pointing to Westminster rather than City Hall.
Misplaced in 2023?
But is it time to move on anyway? There was a brouhaha when London transport went cashless in 2014, but that feels like a distant memory now. And, as other Londonist readers point out, isn't the day travelcard misplaced in the London of 2023? "What's the point... these days?" questions Adam Seymour-Davies, "If you 'pay as you go' it caps at travelcard rates, doesn't it?" Tracy French adds "I can’t see what the problem is to be honest. You'll get a day return to one of the main overground stations, then tap and go with your debit card. You have been able to do this for years. The tap and go has a price cap so often it can work out very good value."
It's true that travelling through zones 1-6 on a contactless or Oyster card is capped at £14.90 per day for an adult — 30p less than a day travelcard. Anybody with a debit or Oyster card will be able to continue their onward journey into London using that. Also, TfL reckons it'll make an extra £40m of additional revenue each year by performing the switch — surely worth it for everyone?
But there will be complications along the way: things like overseas tourists being charged fees to use their debit cards, and kids who don't have debit cards. "One of the reasons to retain the one day travelcard is for people who are in situations where they don't have an Oyster (or free travel concession) and contactless card because they got lost or stolen and had to wait for a new one to turn up in the post," says @CLondoner92.
Whatever happens, we wonder how many people who bought their first travelcard 40 years ago would believe that the future was invisible tickets bought with invisible money.