Cut to free kids travel delayed until next year

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Free bus travel for London children will not be cut until next spring, the head of Transport for London (TfL) has revealed.

The zip card scheme was due to be suspended after the October half term, but network boss Andy Byford said it will be pushed back to 2021.

The Government ordered Sadiq Khan to cut under 18s free travel during the coronavirus pandemic to help social distancing – making it a condition of the £1.6 billion TfL bailout in May.

But the Mayor refused to back the policy, claiming it was forced on him late in negotiations – and campaigners warned it would hit poorer families already struggling during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Mr Byford told the London Assembly it “cannot now be done” in time for the half term break.

Cutting free kids’ travel is “still the Government’s desire” and “remains on the table,” he said – but the TfL boss believes it is no longer necessary.

Bus tap ins with zip cards – the free travel pass children use – are down 30% on last year, the Assembly’s budget scrutiny committee heard.

And TfL believes removing free travel would cut demand from children by only 6% at most.

Overall, bus use is around 60% of pre-pandemic levels, with Tube use still just a third.

“It’s always a challenge in September because you get a sudden rush of school kids coming in but we have taken steps to provide special school buses,” Mr Byford said.

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“If ultimately the goal [of cutting free travel] was providing extra capacity then I think that what we’ve already done has been spectacularly successful.”

But London’s Deputy Mayor for Transport, Heidi Alexander, said ministers have “never been clear” about the reasons for scrapping under 18 bus passes.

“I think we need to get to a point where there’s a bit of honesty […] about why they really want this to happen,” she said.

“If the Government are really intent on pursuing this I think not becomes clear that this is more about equalising concessionary fares across the country and raising revenue.”

Alice Woudhuysen, London campaign manager for Child Poverty Action Group, welcomed the delay but said she is still “very concerned”.

The charity has been working with young Londoners to lobby against the planned suspension, and Ms Woudhuysen said the delay showed their efforts “have not gone unnoticed”.

It is not yet clear when in the new year the cut will come into force – and Ms Woudhuysen said families could be hit with an extra cost at a difficult time.

“The fact that the suspension is now coming after Christmas is really unfortunate,” she told the Local Democracy Service.

“It’s likely to be really bleak this year: families are struggling already and Christmas is an additional expense.

“Having to pay for transport after that in one of the coldest and most depressing months of the year will be hard.”

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