Does London's Underground system have a future as a supermarket chain? Transport for London announced last month that in 2015, it will close the ticket offices in London's 240 subway stations, obliging users to rely on machines alone. Setting aside the other implications of this staff and service cut, the move means stations will suddenly have vacant space. The commercial potential of these former ticket offices is huge, and retooling them as shopping spaces might provide a possible commercial template for transit systems across the world.
TFL are clearly thinking big on this. Last week, a spokesman told the Financial Times that London's transit network has the potential to be a massive "supermarket aisle" for time-poor Londoners.
Straight off, there are some limitations, though nothing insurmountable. London ticket offices aren't vast – they vary in size from that of a small studio apartment to a modest corner store – so their future commercial potential isn't endless. Current plans suggest their aisles will be virtual rather than literal.
Both Amazon and food and clothing chain Marks and Spencer’s have been exploring using them as pick-up points for online shopping. And supermarket chain Asda has already announced a pilot for something similar: a plan to use a handful of suburban station car parks in North London as rendezvous points for “click-and-collect” deliveries. Users would make their purchases online then pick them up at their convenience, either from staff at a window, or from electronic lockers for which they have been sent a code via email. It’s easy to see the attraction of this model for retailers, who will get highly visible shop windows for online businesses and simultaneously reduce their delivery costs.
There are logistical hurdles to overcome – no one wants already congested rush hour stations clogged further by lines of people waiting to pick up their pre-bagged dinner. Still, the revenue benefits for TFL are obvious. Currently, the network makes £25 million annually from renting out shop spaces. Many stations have small kiosks, while central stations have other small outlets (such as key cutters and heel bars) and a few stations even open directly into shopping malls. Renting out old ticket offices in prime sites could double this amount, helping TFL towards its goal of being financially self-sustaining by the end of the decade.
Who could possibly fault such a plan? The logic seems seamless: better technology trims unnecessary staff, freeing up space that provides useful commercial services and simultaneously offloads some of the cost burden needed to maintain the system. Along this line, however, there are kinks and problems that should give us pause.
For a start, a machine cannot replace a human. TFL is already getting sketchy about staffing ticket windows and as a result, I've been forced on several occasions to walk to another station when I've found that a malfunctioning machine can't give me what I need. Essentially unstaffed stations are only going to make this sort of situation more common.
Maximizing income and providing a great service may not be not mutually exclusive, but they are not same thing. Transport for London talks of new ways to cut costs while simultaneously raising fares that are already among the world's highest. To give an idea of by how high they are, a monthly pass in Paris (zones 1 and 2) costs around $90, while a Berlin pass covering an area the same size (zones A and B) costs $107. To pay for monthly travel across a comparable area of London (zones 1 to 3, as London’s zones are smaller) you have to pay $226. The reason for this higher level is that London has lower state subsidies, hence the scramble for more income from other sources.
A transit network is not an elective luxury, it's a basic public service without which a city like London cannot function, just like emergency healthcare and a police service. As things stand, London’s high transit prices are already failing much of its population, as the poorest are obliged to give up using the Tube and cross the city via cheaper but much slower buses. Quite aside from the hardship this causes, it’s a sign of a city working at less than efficiency.
Finding ways to further reduce state support for an already expensive network is not necessarily in Londoners' interests. Replacing a ticket office with a shop is essentially part of a battle to strip away state support for basic services and push them into the private sector. There are strong arguments to be made for this move, but let's not pretend it is a simple "common sense" move without either victims or an ideological motor.