Transit gratis?

A week or so ago, Mr. Migurski posted on his del.icio.us a link to this piece arguing, among other things, that urban transit should “tend to the free.” I found myself sort of viscerally disagreeing, and found it hard to pin down just why until I had spent a few days getting around Geneva by bus and tram, under conditions that certainly meet that description.

Here’s my argument: it strikes me that there are really two and only two fully defensible positions on this question, with maybe the ghost of a third struggling to find form between them. Either (a) you regard transit as an absolute social good and opportunity multiplier, and you subsidize its use fully and for all, or (b) you understand it as a material system which sustains real operating costs, and believe that it is only sensible to recover some of that cost from the system’s direct beneficiaries, the riders.

Between the two, you could probably convince me that a museum-style “suggested donation” policy, made explicit, could fulfill a gently Marxian from-each-according-etc. ethic, although it’s probably far less efficient than either of the maximal positions.

But what I dislike is what you have obtaining here. The LIFT organizers were considerate enough to provide all of the invited speakers with open transit passes, at no little expense, and I’ve happilly been hopping on and off various modes of getting around town since a few minutes after I was handed mine. It’s been a real boon – a great way of getting to know Geneva, and a thoughtful organizational touch for which I’ve been not a little grateful.

The only problem is that in all of these uses, I’ve never once been asked to display it. Like many European systems, that’s not how the TPG operates: although the system is not free, and its terms of ridership enunciate the usual penalties should I fail to come up with an appropriate ticket when asked to do so, the likelihood that I will sustain such an imposition is exceedingly low. There are no turnstiles, or ticket-takers, or card readers.

In other words, this system unfairly penalizes everyone who takes its proposition at face value, proportionally rewarding those unwilling to abide by an honor system. (The author of the linked piece asserts that “most people *do* pay,” but I’m sure the percentage who do so varies from place to place.) Maybe it’s my hyperactive sense of justice, but something in me simply rebels at that. It’s a system that literally benefits free riders, and which – it seems to me – subtly undermines any notion of a social contract.

It’s perfectly valid to assert that universally accessible and reliable transit is a profound public good, and that it ought to be free to the rider. (I tend to believe that myself.) But let’s then put aside this half-stepping idea of “tending to the free”: it should clearly and unambiguously announce itself as such, and its costs should be spread among those who derive the primary real benefit from it. It would be reasonable, for example, to assert that as businesses in many urban cores are reliant on the transit system for their labor force and/or customer base, they should shoulder much of the burden of subsidizing it.

But why should the LIFT folks devote some nontrivial percentage of their limited budget to providing this benefit for invitees, when other users of the system incur no such penalty? (A back-of-envelope calculation suggests that their outlay on transit passes for all of the speakers would have easily sufficed to cover one additional speaker’s airfare, at least from a European city.) That just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

It’s entirely possible that I’m making a big fuss over nothing. It wouldn’t be the first time.

But if, like me, you actually enjoy thinking about stuff like this, be assured that you’re not alone. In fact, I met some folks here yesterday who have a project called Toronto Transit Camp, an unconference and “solutions playground” dedicated to just such pursuits. How cool is that? And why is it that New York doesn’t have one?

7 responses to “Transit gratis?”

  1. Joshua Ellis says :

    Did you ever see the great Hungarian recent film KONTROL? It’s about the guys who ride the Budapest subway and — after the doors close and the train is in motion — demand to see the tickets of the passengers. No ticket, you get another sort of ticket — the kind with a fine. They’re sort of halfway between conductors and transit cops.

    I saw this in Germany, and it scared the shit out of me for a second — my German not being sufficient to understand precisely what he was saying, and my general Yankee impression being that when Germans demand to see your papers, it usually ends badly. But then I remembered KONTROL and went for my ticket.
    It was no big deal — I just held up my ticket, the guy nodded, and went along. He got off at the next station. I would guess that Geneva probably has the same thing, and you just didn’t encounter it. (It’s as random as whatever train the guy decides to get on.)

    It’s not a foolproof way of doing things, I agree, and I wonder why they don’t simply have turnstiles. But I also suspect that the difference is somehow culturally ingrained, otherwise you wouldn’t see it so much in so many diffferent European countries.

  2. Andrew says :

    I remember a friend in Berlin had a clever system with some of his friends: a group of about 10 people all agreed they would not buy tickets for Berlin’s public transit system (which also works on the same system you describe: it’s “free” unless you get caught without a ticket, then the penalties are steep.)

    Instead of spending money on tickets, they all contributed to a fund, which any of them could draw from to pay any fine they received. Essentially an insurance scheme for bus fares. I think I remember him saying that between them, they’d get one or two fines per month, and it was much cheaper to pay the “premiums” than to actually buy tickets.

  3. noel hidalgo says :

    i agree. let’s do a transit camp, actually… let’s discuss the future of nyc!

  4. Robin Tell says :

    This touches an ongoing line of questioning for me, something I think runs deep. To put the punch line up front: to what extent is frustrating would-be free riders an affirmative value? To what extent is it worthwhile to nix a system that may be supporting itself reasonably well, just in order to assuage one’s offended sense of fairness, stung by the knowledge that free riders are riding for free somewhere?

    One of my perennial favorite links hit me over the head with just such a point, and several years later I guess I’m still trying to adjust: http://www.amasci.com/amateur/traffic/traffic1.html

    This guy, whose analysis of traffic jams is pretty subtle and compelling, lays the blame for them not at the doorsteps of those damnable self-centered line-cutters who knowingly zip ahead of dozens of other drivers who are dutifully merging for the greater good–but before the righteous good citizens who, damned if they’re going to let the freeloaders profit on their watch, form a bumper-to-bumper phalanx against their re-entry. A bumper-to-bumper traffic compression that precisely does not flow smoothly in aggregate.

    And oh, how many times have I played that role… I still have to grit my teeth not to, ages after being convinced this guy is right. I hate to let the callow opportunist score his petty advantage, hate to let the wilful abdication of goodwill go rewarded. But it does ring true for me that the gandhian shrug probably does more here to serve the system as a whole.

    I think the situation here is analagous. I saw the same sort of arrangement at work in the admirable transit system of Vancouver, and some research done later supported the scuttlebutt on the SkyTrain itself: the system supports itself reasonably well (as they go–of course no transit system is self-sufficient). And after all, doesn’t it stand to reason that a system where one is nominally required to pay will be paid much more often than one that is explicitly free? Even if it is plain and well-known that cheating is easy… I don’t know the figures, but what if most people pay? Even if 60% pay, actually even if 40% pay, does this not generate more revenue than if none do?

    I know the emotional rebellion against this notion. I know from my own heart the anger against the freeloader, the sense of injustice in the abstract. But increasingly I believe that to indulge that anger is bootless, and often counterproductive. It is, at the end of the day, nothing more than an emotional indulgence. And yet I suspect that our rage at the vaguely imagined free rider is the real, visceral force behind radical free-market/libertarian economic dogma, for more of its adherents than is any considered vision of what kind of world will result from the policies they promote. Reagan’s largely imaginary “welfare queen” hit a huge nerve in the population, it still gets bandied about today, and this indignation you’re feeling is that same nerve. It’s the same reaction in the heart of every Republican who rails against any given tax as a penalty laid on him arbitrarily; the “penalty,” like your honest-payor penalty on the Geneva system, is only meaningfully a penalty when compared to some imagined party who is *not* paying it. Taken in isolation, it’s still a perfectly reasonable proposition–payment for goods received. How much difference does it make to my price that some people game the system, when no amount of rider payment would support the system without governmental subsidy in any event?

    I take this stand kind of provisionally, as my own mind isn’t really so fully settled, but for the sake of argument: to hell with an efficient system. Give me a messy system with good coverage. By all means let’s catch the free riders when we can, but we need to sleep easy knowing we’ll never catch them all, even with the most unyielding turnstiles. They don’t deserve to become our top priority, over and above optimizing service in general.

  5. nicolas says :

    Adam, we actually did not use any budget on this.
    The transit pass is free for EVERY tourist in Geneva ;)

  6. speedbird says :

    So I just noticed, on reading the back of it for the first time when removing it from my wallet.

    A, that’s incredibly cool. B, it does rather let the wind out of my whole argument here, which I’d already concluded was untenably weak in any event (largely for reasons close to what Robin lays out above).

    I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of Emily Littella, huh?

    P.S. grubbykid has a much better-developed line of argument here.

  7. nicolas says :

    hehe I did not want to dismiss your argument… because this might hold true in certain circonstances (other conferences?)

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