London buses won’t take cash. Margaret Thatcher not to blame.

June 26, 2014

The Bank of England’s currency is no good on London buses.

As of July 6, if you want a ride on an iconic red double-decker, you’ll have to load value into a privately managed digital system and swipe it out using your Oyester card.

Cashlessness will push the privatization of public transport to a whole new level. And this time, Margaret Thatcher has nothing to do with it.

In fact, I’ll bet it never occurred to Mrs. Thatcher that privitization could lead to financialization. And private payment infrastructure is nothing if not a tool for financializing operations.

When the consumer is forced to pay for more than just the ride that they need, getting from A to B becomes a relationship that looks a lot more like credit and less like exchange.

The terms of this relationship are pretty good if you’re a business entity like Transport for London. By separating the moment of payment from the moment of service, digital infrastructure makes sure we’re always paying TFL for more than we’re taking. For the TFL, this transforms ticket sales into a manageable stream of revenue, while for the consumer it turns fares into a forced transfer of savings.

The Evening Standard reports that £100m is stuck on unused Oyester cards, which shows just how effectively the system transfers risk onto users.

Users that cannot afford to take on the burden of advanced payment can grab their brolly and walk. The £5 deposit on the plastic chip card acts as a baseline barrier to entry, and you can only become a passenger if you can afford to keep a store of value lock into the card.

Logistical considerations add further to the cost that falls on the consumer. Before traveling on the bus, people who can’t do online banking must take the time and effort to convert cash into digital credit at a corner-store or tube station.

Without cash, inclusion and exclusion from transportation is not just a socio-economic condition. The technical system of payment creates an additional qualification over and above money that determines who can and cannot travel. Let’s call this quality ‘rideworthiness’ – a person’s ability to maintain constant contact within a specific technical system. The Evening Standard projects that as many as 2,000 people could end up stranded every day because that’s how many cards get lost or stolen.

Yup, that’s me out there, standing out in a cold rain, rummaging through my purse. My Oyester card is in the back pocket of the jeans I threw in the laundry this morning before I decided to walk to work.

But maybe I should feel good as I tromp over to Holborn station to put my downpayment on a new Oyester. After all, I’m helping the TFL save an additional £24m each year because they no longer have to count my heavy pound coins. Their gain is my miserable wet walk. This is my share of the public’s burden of reducing TFL’s operating cost.


One Response to “London buses won’t take cash. Margaret Thatcher not to blame.”

  1. Adrian Says:

    Hi Martha

    I completely understand what you mean and your example regarding the rainy experience at Holborn reminds me of something.

    Last Christmas, we popped to London and decided to use a Routemaster on a heritage route. Open to new ideas, I decided to use the credit card contactless payment function for TFL transportation. After being in the Routemaster for a station, staff came to check tickets. Contactless was not working. Cash was not accepted. So I have been kindly asked to leave the bus. In my travel wallet, however, I found an old Oyster and to my surprise, there was enough money on it for the journey. So somehow the money on it plus the deposit was frozen for a long time (what I don’t like) but in the end saved myself from leaving the bus and walk in the rainy afternoon.

    Best regards

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