Joshua Brown-Smith thought the news was a hoax at first. It was mid-May, and the 14 year-old had just finished meeting with a community member in his capacity as chair of Young Advisors to Lewisham Council. Worriedly, they’d told Josh about their fears surrounding the newly-announced Transport for London bailout; nestled amongst the government’s conditions in return for the injection of cash was apparently the demand that free travel for under 18s be suspended. Josh didn’t believe them.
“I never thought the government could never do such… things to our young people,” he says, slowly.
The implications of the policy were immediate. On a personal level, removing free travel would result in a choice of either going to school or not being able to eat. Covid-19 had already hit his single-parent family hard financially; Josh knew that if free travel was taken away, both his goals for the future and his social life would be irrevocably changed. His options as a young person – an issue Conservatives have been desperate to assure voters they are across – would be severely curtailed.
“I won’t be able to go to school,” he says. “I won’t be able to socialise with my friends or volunteer in my local community. Believe it or not, we all want to go back to school in September. But some of us will have to go hungry. Instead of money going on our lunch card to buy food, it will have to go on our bus pass to get to school.”
Logging onto Twitter he discovered the rumours were true. Weeks earlier, London mayor Sadiq Khan had announced TfL was out of cash and begged the Conservative government for assistance. Finally, it acquiesced – but at a cost.
TfL’s funding structure had been on borrowed time since 2013, when previous London mayor Boris Johnson had agreed to phase out the £591m Government Operating Grant which had previously helped subsidise the day to day running of the network, instead relying more heavily on fares. The UK capital is now the only European city that doesn’t receive direct government funding to support its public transport system.
When Covid-19 hit, usage of TfL dropped by 95 per cent. Given that 47 per cent of the network’s income had come from passenger fares in 2019, this was a devastating blow. Without any supplementary government grants to fall back on and reserve cash exhausted, the choice was to get bailed out or cut services. Mayor Khan plumped for the former; but it allowed the Conservative government essentially carte blanche to wage war on what they saw as far too generous concessions to passengers.
Handing Khan £1.6bn on May 14 to prevent a shutdown of public transport services in the capital, transport secretary Grant Shapps attached seven stringent conditions. These included increases to the congestion charge and extension of the hours it applies, temporary suspension of the Freedom Pass for disabled and older people during peak travel hours, and a permanent hike of TfL’s fares by one per cent above inflation from 2021.
Tacked on at the very last minute (London’s deputy mayor for transport was only informed of the addition on the day the deal was agreed) was perhaps the most contentious demand, even in such a competitive field: the ‘temporary’ scrapping of free and discounted travel for under 18s in the city.
Perhaps by targeting groups with less overt political power, like the disabled, the elderly and the young, Shapps had hoped the new terms would be implemented with little to no real pushback. But he hadn’t banked on a generation of plugged-in young Londoners, with endless time on their hands thanks to lockdown, and the ability to spread information at lightning speed. And the removal of the beloved Zip Card, which offers free travel on all buses and trams and discounted travel on tube and rail services, was a threat they weren’t about to just accept.
From his bedroom that first evening, despite his state of shock, Josh began to act. First, he created a Change.org petition, racking up thousands of signatures (at the time of writing it’s about to crack 200,000). But aware that petitions on Change hold no power to actually influence government debates, over the next few days Josh began utilising the Lewisham Council network around him for advice and support on the campaign. Quickly he managed to get traction in media; outlets from the New Shopper to the BBC have now covered the call for the government to reverse the free travel cut.
Free travel for children on London's public transport is being suspended. But 14-year-old Josh is campaigning for the decision to be reversed. 🚌 pic.twitter.com/LHGYglKXbx
— BBC London (@BBCLondonNews) July 6, 2020
Alliances with the likes of campaign groups Child Poverty Action Group, London TravelWatch and Safer London have also pushed the issue higher up the agenda, which has coalesced around the hashtags ‘#DontZapTheZip’ and ‘#TransportForYouth’.
Slowly but surely, it’s making traction; on July 8 there was an adjournment debate in the House of Commons on the issue. A week later, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, Jim McMahon and Lib-Dem London mayoral candidate Siobhan Benita, both called for a U-turn on the policy from Grant Shapps after a report highlighted its potential negative impact on low-income households, personal safety and a general loss of opportunities for teenagers in the capital.
Yet while adults are supporting the campaign, it’s young people at the vanguard; teen activists like Hasan Patel upload holiday pictures to Instagram which urge people to ‘swipe for more’, only to reveal a tile containing information about the change while others share tweets detailing just how much of a lifeline their Zip cards are.
“This is the campaign of the youth 2020,” Josh says. “The government has underestimated young people”.
Josh is not the lone politically active teen taking on the government’s new measures, of course. Around 30 London-based members of the UK Youth Parliament have joined forces to challenge the decision. An apolitical body, MYPs – who are elected like their adult counterparts – are using their knowledge of parliamentary processes and campaigning to push for a reversal of the decision. It is their distance from party politics, they say, that allows them to clearly see the removal of free travel for what it is: a bad idea.
“Being apolitical means we’re not confined by party lines,” says 16-year-old Raphael Leon, the YP representative for the City of London.
“We can just say, ‘The government is doing something we don’t like, we’re going to make them aware of the impact the decision will have on young people’”.
It’s an impact Raphael has keenly calculated. Over the phone, he says he’s “done the maths” for the financial burden ditching the Zip would place on families.
“[For me to go to school] it’s currently 85p a journey, which is £1.70 a day,” he explains. “There’s a 190 school days in a year; that’s £323 a year to travel to school.”
And without the Zip card?
“It would cost me £2.90 per journey,” Raphael calculates. “That’s £5.80 per day. It comes out as £1,102 per year, which is £779 more a year.”
Raphael also notes he lives in Zone 2; for a friend travelling daily from Zone 6 would see his yearly fares for getting to school alone rocket to nearly £2000, an astronomical sum, especially for families who are already only just scraping by.
Disproportionately, removing free travel will impact non-white families. Over half of low-income households in London are from ethnic minority backgrounds and they’re more likely to use public transport. A TfL study also found 69 per cent of people whose household income was lower than £20,000 are specifically more likely to use the bus.
With the change statistically more likely to hit Black and Asian children, it rather undermines recent government promises to tackle racial inequality at its root, given the same body is simultaneously cutting off access to education, employment and cultural opportunities for young people of colour by curtailing the ability to travel freely.
Whatsmore, local authorities stand to bear the brunt of the policy; around 30 per cent of children in London are legally entitled to subsidised travel and the money must come from somewhere. Already stretched local councils, shattered by the financial impact of Covid-19, will soon be having to make heartbreaking further cuts elsewhere in boroughs to come up with the extra cash which is estimated to amount to £16m.
— Aliyyah Gbadamosi (@mynameisaliyyah) July 5, 2020
The Youth Parliament quickly started lobbying adult MPs; it was their work, combined with Josh’s, that resulted in Labour MP Ruth Cadbury securing the July adjournment debate to raise the matter in the House of Commons. The government didn’t budge, however, with transport undersecretary Rachel Maclean reading rotely from a document and refusing to take questions. Grant Shapps made no appearance. Now teen campaigners are looking to turn up the public pressure, with the example of Boris Johnson’s screeching U-turn over free school meal vouchers fresh in their heads.
Some have already felt the sting of disappointment at the initial response from politicians. Tapiwa Cronin represents Hackney in the Youth Parliament; she says that resistance from City Hall quickly gave the young campaigners a baptism of fire regarding bureaucratic inaction.
“There was a lot of resistance initially from City Hall,” says the 17-year-old. “We felt hopeless; politicians didn’t recognise the fact that we are elected and represent young people.
“So now we’re moving away from letter-writing and targeting specific government officials because we’re realising politicians don’t recognise our official titles sometimes”.
The voices of the youth are often “tokenized” says Tapiwa, and used for photo opportunities to prove politicians are engaging with young people.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to go beyond that,” she observes. “But we have to go beyond that. It’s been a point of realisation for us, even within these organisations that we work in. We need to do more to ensure our voices have impact, so that’s why we’re launching campaign stuff on social media.
In lieu of support in those circles, Youth Parliament members are getting teaching staff involved.
“I got in touch with headteachers,” says Kainaat Siddiqi, member of YP for Hounslow, who was also responsible for engaging with Ruth Cadbury, her MP.
“In Hounslow, the headteachers are a very tight-knit group and supportive,” Kainaat says, adding that their influence in the community is weighty– and also vital for getting information out, an obstacle that came up quickly.
“The big problem I picked up on was that most young people don’t know about this,” she says. “The lack of information being given to young people, those primarily affected, is shocking”.
So what next? Keeping up momentum via a concerted push from the young people organising the movement to get the word out to their peers and adults in authority positions. Publicity is key and political shaming works (Marcus Rashford’s recent efforts have taught that lesson).
“Post on social media using the hashtags, sign the petitions, tell your friends, tell your family,” says Josh. “Making your parents aware that on September 5, they will have to be paying more money, that’s so important.
“Write to your MP, especially if you live in a Conservative borough, get your parents to write to your MP. Demand a U-turn on this inhumane decision. Share your story about how you feel about this.
“And if you are facing financial strain because of this, do not suffer in silence – get in touch with your local authority. Because the government has said if we don’t go back to school in September, they will start fining us. But we have no travel.
“Free travel has been there before I was born,” he finishes. “You can’t just take something away from young people like this with no warning. It is wrong. It is petty party politics. They’re using the community to undermine another political party. We need this decision U-turned. Now.”
Follow Moya Lothian-Mclean on Twitter.