Kai-Isaiah Jamal: The world is your Oyster (card)”

In a personal essay, the poet, writer and activist weighs in on the detrimental effects scrapping free travel can have for under-18 Londoners.

Nostalgia weaves itself into the majority of my work; suppose I have a need to always remember what was before. The infamous year of 2020 with its vicious and importunate present has urged us to think back to simpler times. I cannot help but distract myself from the now with memories of the uncomplicated. When I say that, I am talking of a time of grey school trousers draped over Kickers boots and dummies that hung off chains and sat beneath wide ties. The sparkling shriek of voices as they piled on to the supreme towering red 197 bus with the excited chatter of Bebo productionz and the ping of Bluetooth-sharing – back before all this AirDrop shit.

I turn on my oldest playlist. It sounds like adolescence and naïvety. Sounds like Channel U or Channel AKA depending on how grown you is. Sounds like two beeps or one beep, also depending on how grown you is. Sounds like Croydon before the gentrifiers who brought with them Boxpark’s and Starbucks. Sounds like before the clean-up’ and back when the bus shelter, which is now nowhere to be seen, was still a place of becoming, where one-handed strapped gloves would spud on arrival and depart. The bus shelter where you could buy doughnuts from Just Do It bags, bulging off the backs of young hustlers that always had them mouths that spill over their smile always. The glass haven, always smashed and tagged – symbols of both love and hate for this corner of this city, where the bus shelter stands as a symbol of movement and its importance. Where I once saw Rodney get stamped out by all them St Joseph boys from the window of my mother’s old Ford, simply for walking the wrong way at the wrong time – and definitely in the wrong uniform. The bus shelter where every uniform could stand either gingerly or gnarly next to one another, just another colour that we belong to, just another flag that proves something belongs to us. The bus shelter that is now amiss in our own city was the start of our day, the end and the spontaneous intervals often laced in naughty but love-intended behaviour and cheeky grins.

You see those buses and those green and blue cards for myself like so many others were mostly about something bigger than transport from A to B. They were the first seeds of independence, of growth. You had them in wallets, the only thing that they could be of use for, before you had a coin or a card to fill it. Made you feel all grown and shit, made you feel like you owned something. Made you feel responsible for something other than yourself. The bus morning ride to school, part lesson and part blessing, teaches you way more than a syllabus ever did. Stays with you like chewing gum on the bottom of tables. One day they will be fables, passed down to the generations that are not yet thought out.

It’s not even about getting to school or the moments of priceless education in watching one girl slick another girl’s hair, in a jolty makeshift salon in enough time to get off at school look criss. It is also in all the other moments in which you climb into the speckled-floored, slouched seat haven when your eyelids are heavy and ankles ache from after school park link-ups, white shirts fluttering in the same wind that ushers riddims into the ears of the chosen. The choice to be in this moment, of the unknowing and the carefree, to some extent at least. Or those late ones when your JD string’s cutting into your collar and your shoes wouldn’t fit in your bag but your TNs make you gassed and your walk’s a little taller, so you tie your laces and dash the heavy black school shoes around your neck. It’s also about taking the trip to your nan’s house when your mother is too sick and needs one day at least to just be still. It is still for those moments when you are in need of a quick fix and all you mean is a bus ride back home, or far from it, with some headphones crammed in blocking all the outward world out – for a moment at least.


You know that saying:

The world is your oyster”

Well, they should add card at the end of it. For a young gun, a likkle one, an almost-adult one’s Oyster card truly is what allows you to navigate the world when you grow a little tall and grown for car lifts or cradles. The moment in which you outgrow the need for a palm in yours and begin to take steps for yourself. To take that away is, in fact, to take away a world to so many in need. What we are offering is a void between what is needed and necessary and what is provided. We tell them to mind the gap but have forgotten we are the ones making it wider.

Coming from the heart of the south of London, SE25 plaited into every part of me. I understand what it is to have nothing to take or give and be stuck in a cycle of nothingness. So I too understood that money does not grow on trees and this green plastic was sometimes the closest we’d get to leaves if it did. And if this whole city be Eden and this red bus be something of an apple then I know all those that need to believe in something should always be able to bite. What I am saying is that in taking away these Oyster cards for kids who cannot afford the cost of public transport, who have to take multiple buses or methods of transport to get to school, who rely on them to grab essentials and help fend for those in need at home, we are taking away both their childhood and their baby steps into adulthood. I understand now, at the riper age of 24, that independence and freedom are essential in the presence of growing up. They are fundamentally core in their exploration of your hometown and Zip Oyster cards (for kids aged 11 – 17) give agency to young people maturing. What does it really mean to navigate this world as a young person without travel? What do the consequences look like?

Ultimately, the decision to scrap free travel for under 18s in London next spring is yet another way in which we are failing marginalised and low-income communities, which depend on the rarity of anything free as it helps so many access the world we all deserve to live in. I tell my friends this only further highlights the damage of a Tory government. Those making decisions on the TfL bailout are the same people who have children dropped off by nannies and au pairs in private cars or black cabs. Who have enough spare cash to fund any travel that may cost more than a penny. Those hit hardest by this will be the working class, first or second-generation immigrant class, families with differently-abled children or parents – those who are most in need but are not considered at all.


In the middle of a worldwide crisis and the uncertainty of reopening or shutting of schools, young adults have worked tirelessly, revising for and sitting exams in unfamiliar settings and environments. Instead of applauding the brilliance of their determination and motivation (even after robbing so many GCSE/​A‑Level students of their grades whilst providing them with predicted ones, which in itself was the most classist, racist agenda we have seen in academia, only reversed after an outcry), we are now making it even harder for them to get access to education. Aspiring doctors, writers, teachers and other professionals are having to consider turning down or moving to new colleges or sixth forms in fear their parents/​or themselves won’t be able to financially manage to pay the fare. Even worse, some young people will simply not be able to go to school, or even want to, because, let’s be honest, how can we expect these kids to have faith in their futures when it is in the hands of people and systems who do not care about that very thing?

I saw a post with graphic instruction manual-like drawings aglow on my Insta feed. It was a guide to helping young people who didn’t have the funds to travel. It spoke to our duty as upstanding (to our measure) members of society, elders offering guidance. It referred to banging into the barriers, forcing them to open. It felt very London, the old London that we all love and miss so much. It restored my faith in togetherness and alternative methods of survival – they alone epitomise this city so well.

Another thing 2020 has encouraged us to do is stand up and vocalise our intolerance to injustice, immorality and discrimination. This has seen young people take things into their own hands to shout about their needs. 17-year-old Olivia Faria, a young leader from my hometown of Croydon, created a petition which gathered almost 170,000 signatures to stop the scrapping of free travel for under-18s. Other young people have taken to social media and the streets protesting, hashtagging and sharing #DontZapTheZip. The slogan, heading this campaign, has gathered momentum across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, with hundreds of young Londoners and once-young Londoners sharing their stories and important life-changing memories of Zip cards and travelling.

It is vital that we continue to be persistent and loud regarding our stance against this as a community. We must be vocal about the consequences and ramifications of abolishing free travel for those who rely on it, specifically disadvantaged families. Each week, until we have arrived at a point of justice, you should be asking yourself:

- Have I written to my local MP or the Prime Minister about this issue?

- Have I shared this with my following/​peers/​family and friends and encouraged others to do the same?

- Have I signed petitions, actively actioned change and showed up?

- Lastly, have I listened to those affected? How do I push their voices?

And, if applicable/​feasible:

- Have I donated to charities and organisations that directly support this cause?

I put that Pied Piper instrumental on, the thing that reminds me of a world before Thiago affiliations and grime was played on the mainstream channels. I swing my braids back and forward and hear the plastic bobbles hung from the ends of the plaits glide into one another. I bring the toothbrush to my forehead and slick my hair. Before grabbing my wallet, I remember how much of me is still a child. I am reminded how much of who we are is made up of the contents of where we have been. I remember how much of us will always be that youngster, getting on or off the bus.

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