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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Oxford BusTravel and Social Dysfunctionality

Sometimes one is just left speechless. 

My daughter starts secondary school later this week. She's been going to a primary about 3 kilometers from where we live and her new school is only slightly further away. Up to now we have been lazy and like  a large proportion of Oxford's middle class parents we've done a school run twice a day since she was in kindergarten. For all sorts of reasons this is a bad idea and should be discouraged, but for us it was the least worst time efficient way of doing things.  I can live with the guilt.  

But now the time has come, we thought, for DD to go to school on the bus either on her own or with other local kids who are heading in the same direction. It's not perfect - the lack of a direct South-North route means either a change in the city centre or a bracing walk for the first part of the journey, but hey  it's good for children to get exercise right?

This should be a breeze I thought. We spend a fair amount of time in London, so we know all about the capital's transport policy for children. Children can get their own Oyster card when they are 11 and with that they travel for free on the buses and trams and for half-price on the tube and overground. It's easy to register for it & the registration system even accepted DD's German passport number. You can top it up for them at lots of convenient places and when the child uses it it takes half the adult fare. What could be simpler? It's also easy for the bus driver to see or rather hear if the card is being abused. It's not unknown for naughty adults to try and get away with using a child card but the clever Oyster people have thought of that. The yellow card reader on the bus beeps in a different way when a child and an adult card are presented to it so the driver can see if someone is trying to pull a fast one.

Now Transport for London treats children (or rather their parents) generously. There can be no argument about that. London government has the sense to see that having a relatively cheap (as these things go) and integrated public transport system is the best way to stop gridlock on the roads and the inhabitants from asphyxiating in a smog of diesel particles. Discouraging the school run by making public transport easy to use and pay for is part of that  very sensible strategy.

Now let's turn to paying for bus travel in Oxford. Unlike in London one option is always available: you can pay in cash. In principle I suppose this is a good thing, but there is a downside where children are concerned.  Money is easy to lose and it is easy to steal. These are relatively minor irritations. A greater irritation is having to have a ready supply of change every morning to dole out.

It's really so much easier to give DD a prepaid card. What could be simpler? When I went by bus to school in Coventry 45 years ago we already had a  primitive prepaid system. You bought a card valid for a certain number of trips (different colours for adults and children) and you stamped them on a machine when you got onto the bus. Many public transport systems in the world seem to get by with that sort of system: compostez votre billet! In Coventry you even got a further reduction for giving them your money up front  -12 trips for the price of 10. Those were the  halcyon days of the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive.

Luckily Oxford also has a prepaid smart card system. It's called The Key and the Oxford Bus company (one of the two major operators in the city - just to  spice things up a bit there are also a few minor operators) has a nice web page aimed at the parents of schoolkids explaining all the great deals you can get. Hell, it's called 'Back to School!' and it says; "Young people are entitled to a number of great discounts when travelling with Oxford Bus Company." Which is true, though these deals are not necessarily  advantageous in the sense of saving you money if all you want to do is travel back and forth to school five days per week.

We looked carefully at the various deals on offer and every single one of them turned out to be more expensive than paying cash for a half-price return ticket on a day by day basis if you only want to use it 5 days per week (ie the length of the normal school week). Bizarrely this was even true if you just bought 12 trips, which turned out to be more expensive by 10 pence than paying for 6 returns with cash. That's pretty crap I thought, but we were prepared to bite the bullet for the sake of the convenience and the ability to top up the card online.

OK so after doing our research the next thing was to get a Key card for DD. I noticed that if you register for it online it's free, but if you actually go to the Travel Shop in Gloucester Green it costs you £5.  Why should I pay £5 to be served by an actual person? So I began the process of registering online. All went well until I pressed the register button. The system detected that though I had given my daughter's details I had used my own email address and that address was linked to my own Key card. Apparently you can't have multiple cards linked to the same account (an advantage of London's Oyster system is that it recognizes that adults pay for children's travel and it allows you to link parents' and children's' cards together). Oh I thought, your  company does not need my 11 year old daughter's email address: it really doesn't. I'm the responsible adult, if you want to communicate with her, you can talk to me. So off I went to buy a card from an actual person & pay £5 for the privilege.

So here is what happened. I want to stress that the person I talked to was perfectly pleasant and did their best to be helpful. It was obvious that - as far as children's fares are concerned - they were  obviously aware that they are being tasked by the management with selling a lemon. I would like to think that they were a little embarrassed.  Undoubtedly they were scrupulously honest.

The conversation went like this:

ME: Hi, I want to buy a Key card for my daughter to use to go to school.

ASSISTANT: [Slight look of incredulity] Normally we require some form of identification for a child card...

ME: What form of identification does an 11 year old normally have?

ASSISTANT: I'll let you off this time...

ME: But what form of identification is normally required?

ASSISTANT: And when they use it [I assume we are now talking about the Key card] they  should have a copy of their passport photo page on their smart phone to prove their age.

ME: But she's only 11! [Thinking  is it now normal for all 11 year old children to take a smart phone to school? What will the average Oxford bus driver make of a photo of her German passport? What do children who don't have a passport do?]

ASSISTANT: [Long explanation about the amount of wicked fraud that goes on]

ME: But can't the driver tell when someone is too old to be using a child's card? [thinking about the clever Oyster beeping]

ASSISTANT:  [Further explanation that the card might get stolen and fraudulently used by someone else and so forth].

ME: OK. [Thinking: well we are getting somewhere at least he is giving me a break and not requiring I produce the ID here. Now is not the time to point out that the whole point of the Key card is that it can be cancelled immediately if it is stolen & there is an incentive to report a card stolen because you can transfer the balance to a new card].

ASSISTANT: What kind of card did you have in mind?

ME: [Luckily I've done my homework] Just a Cityzone card with 12 prepaid trips. None of them save me any money...

ASSISTANT: Well you have the convenience...and which route?

ME: Just the number X from the city centre.

ASSISTANT: Oh, only half of the number Xs are operated by the Oxford Bus Company, the rest are operated by Stagecoach so if she wants to get on any X  the Cityzone won't work because it isn't valid on Stagecoach.

ME:  I see.  [Beginning to lose the will to live and anticipating where this is going]

ASSISTANT: To be totally honest you would be better off giving her the cash.

ME. Thanks for your help.

So Oxford Bus Company. Your advertising says:

Back to School! Young people are entitled to a number of great discounts when travelling with Oxford Bus Company.

That IMHO is  bullshit.


Anonymous said...

It must be estranging when a sociologist wake up and see how society works around him...

Colin said...

Not really.