In May, Transport for London (TfL) announced that it would be taking measures to recover some of the money it had lost during the pandemic. Since March, the local government body responsible for the capital’s transport network has encouraged Londoners not to use public transport in an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus. As usage of buses, trains and the Underground fell by as much as 95 percent, so too did its revenue.
Seeing this sudden drop in fare income, the government agreed to support TfL financially, negotiating a £1.6 billion bailout deal. As part of the deal, TfL would re-introduce congestion and ultra-low emission zone charges, as well as suspend free travel for over-60s during peak hours. It also agreed to suspend free and subsidised travel for under-18s “as soon as practicable,” in the words of the Department for Transport.
Currently, children up to the age of ten travel for free on all public transport in London, and those aged between 11 and 18 receive free and discounted travel with the “Zip Oyster” card. According to London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has spoken out against the new measures, around 30 percent of school children in the capital are legally entitled to free travel to school.
When 17-year-old Olivia Faria first heard about the plan to end discounted travel for under-18s, she thought that it was a joke. “I was in my room talking to my friend on WhatsApp and she had just mentioned it,” she tells me over the phone. “At first I thought, ‘She's joking. That can't be happening.’ I was really shocked. It still even now hasn't hit me how real this is.”
After hearing the news, Faria, who is studying for her mock A-levels, decided to start a campaign to protect subsidised travel for young Londoners. She quickly put together a petition, which calls on the government to “scrap the removal of free transport for under-18s from the TfL bailout”. It now has more than 150,000 signatures – well above the 100,000 required for the subject to be debated in Parliament. She also published a viral Instagram post with the message: “Don’t zap the Zip!”, shared by figures including VICE host Amelia Dimoldenberg and artist Dua Lipa.
We spoke to the young activist about why she launched the campaign, and what subsidised travel means for low-income teens in London.
VICE: Hi Olivia. Why did you start this campaign?
Olivia Faria: I was really shocked to hear that TFL has felt that they have to get rid of the Zip card and ban under-18s’ free travel. I know that a lot of people will struggle because of this. I knew once I heard about it that I had to make some form of change.
I first checked that there wasn't anything else I could support. There was stuff online explaining it, but there wasn't a lot online to support or donate to people affected by this. I knew the government would only formally recognise petitions that were on their website, so I worked out how to create a petition and the rules.
I then decided to make an infographic on Instagram and wrote in the caption that there would be more facts and links. I thought it would be really good to raise some awareness, and now it's so weird to think that the petition has got over 100,000 signatures. I'm really grateful to see how many people have supported.
What did you think when you saw that the petition was going viral?
I have a list on my phone where I recorded how much it went up by each day. At the start, I was so happy it was even going up by 170 signatures. After the first few days, it blew up and hit my first goal of 10,000 in which the government has to formally say something about it. I was so happy that people were educating themselves, spreading awareness, and reposting it themselves.
I also got support from Amelia [Dimoldenberg] who does Chicken Shop Date. That really helped boost it. She was able to help raise awareness on my account and on her account to bring people to sign the petition and after that, it really boomed.
I was so happy to see that the community was really coming together, and even people who aren't young people or who aren't living in London were able to see how much this means to us.
What is the danger of the government scrapping free travel for under-18s?
Specifically, I know that it will be so expensive for those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. So, if I had to pay £1.50 for a ride (I take a bus and a tram each day), it would be £3 to school each day. That’s £30 each week – it builds up a lot. While that £1.50 on one ride might not seem a lot in a short term, it will definitely build up. Even those who don't have financial problems currently will still be impacted by this.
It will definitely affect me and be hard financially, but I know that there are so many other people who will be far worse up and I wouldn't wish that on them, so I'm really trying to support them and help uplift their voice.
Have you been involved in campaigning before?
I feel currently, after quarantine, a lot of people have been speaking out about issues – especially with the Black Lives Matter movement. It has really pushed a lot of other movements and a lot of other communities speaking out, so I had seen online other petitions for other things. Before quarantine, I've always been an activist. Within school, I run several activism societies – I have one for LGBTQ rights, one for feminism, one for working with Amnesty International. I really see how important these social justice issues are.
I've always seen how important it is to uplift young people's voices. I think there's this stereotype that young people are the future, almost insinuating that they can’t really do anything until they’re adults, but I think young people are very very much “the now” and that being able to use the opportunities we have – like petitions and social media – has really helped.
What are you hoping will happen next?
I am hoping [they will scrap this ban] but I also hope that realistically, as TFL are in debt, they can find other ways. I know that there can be other ways to raise money. Instead of making it completely scrapped, it could be a compromise, like only free travel from 6AM to 6PM when kids are travelling or school times, so those children who need to travel to school won't be affected. We can have a nice compromise.