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A passport to London: keep the zip for U18s

big ben structure near white concrete structure

A passport can be summarised in two ways: an official document that allows a person to travel or anything that ensures admission. These are characteristics which make a zip card so valuable to millions of young people in London.

The pass is an indiscriminate way of ensuring all young people have the chance to explore one of the most expensive cities in the world. The first London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, introduced the scheme in 2005 and since has spent 15 unchallenged years giving under 18s free or subsided travel to explore the culturally rich city on their doorstep.

Then a pandemic happened, and now the scheme is under threat as part of the strict £1.6bn bailout conditions imposed by the government. Logically, it makes sense; there was a 90% drop in passenger numbers due to lockdown, then TFL went broke, and then the government responded with solutions to ‘protect public health’ and rectify TFL’s balance sheets.

However, forgive me for meeting this particular solution with scepticism. The government has made abysmal decisions recently, whether it be: its choice of algorithm which led to the 40% downgrade of predicted A level grades or plans to end the scheme allowing free school meals to the poorest families – both plans now abandoned due to excessive pressure. As a whole, this indicates either a complete apathy or an unjustifiable ignorance towards the working class who would have been hit the hardest by these policies. Whichever it is, both are unacceptable and give rise to a serious reconsideration of the indefinite suspension of the zip card.

Britain has now entered into a technical recession and poverty rates tend to increase during times of economic hardship.  The zip card alleviates a financial pressure on families as to how their child navigates around the City and is meaningful to U18s.  

What is in a zip card?

‘Independence’ and ‘freedom’ are recurring adjectives used to describe the liberties conferred by the photocard.  An Independence to: not rely on your parent(s) to pick you up all the time, to see your friends with ease, to use problem-solving skills in figuring out the at-first-glance complicated tube map. A freedom to: freely roam any of the 32 boroughs in London, to visit a museum on the weekend or to be immersed in the vibrant markets of Camden or Brick lane.

The card gives a young person flexibility as to the mode of transport they take when it rains – which is most of the time in England. Educationally, kids are not constrained by their geographical location when deciding schools. 93% of London college students travelled up to 6 miles (in a straight line) in 2019-20 to access colleges, with often complex routes to take advantage of college specialisms and reputations. A removal of the zip card limits these significant decisions.

On a practical note, the zip card provides safety. A student told London TravelWatch that ‘free transport is a protection against knife crime or being mugged’. London knife crime is at a record high and this is a genuine concern for young people growing up in the Capital – is it really justifiable to remove their safety net?

The effects of zapping the zip

There has been suggestions that local councils should foot the bill to administer zip cards to U18s who meet certain criteria. Placing the financial and administrative burden of assessing eligibility, and so forth, on already resource-constrained councils has already been deemed as ‘impossible’ before the start of the new term.

The universality of the zip card ensures every child has a guaranteed lift to school. By only allowing a proportion of students to have a zip card creates a divide between young people and could cause tension in schools. Why should access to the Capital depend on financial position? This should be a right retained for all.

The Child Poverty Action Group has raised concerns that the suspension of free travel will affect disadvantaged students the most. Currently 37% of the 2 million under-18s are living in poverty. Children from ethnic minority backgrounds, single parent families and young carers will be adversely affected by this policy by adding pressure to already tightening household finances.

It should be here to stay

Let’s be frank here, TFL’s poor finances can be considerably attributed to the £700 million a year cut George Osborne made whilst he was the Chancellor, which is only now taking full effect.  One could even go as far as perceiving the condition as a tactic to vilify present London Mayor Sadiq Khan in hope of influencing the next mayoral election, but that just sounds like a conspiracy…

Nevertheless, a card as valuable as the zip should not be used as political tool, thus stifling a whole generation’s mobility.  Maybe if companies like Uber paid their tax bill, the money could go towards TFL as suggested by Elliot Nielson.

Responses to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic need to be met with equitable solutions with particular consideration of vulnerable groups, as they are the ones who suffer the most.  In the words of a young Londoner: “[the zip card] meant everything. Meant I could travel around this beautiful city, afford to go to college all week, meet new people, save money, get a wider taste for life than the confines of my area. Travel in London is expensive and when you come from poverty, every penny saved is a penny well valued.”

There has been an astonishing number of U-turns undertaken by the Conservative government, I’m sure there’s space for one more (or a few).

Support the Don’t Zap the Zip campaign by signing up to the petition below:

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