Thursday, June 15, 2017

"Tickets please" followed by a $132 fine

Anyone who ever used transit knows the dreaded high pressure moment when your correct interaction with an unknown vending machine decides whether you will legally board that train supposed to come any second, or whether you wind up with a ticket that isn't right for the destination, the fare zone, your age, or the time of day, or whatever can go wrong when frantically hitting all those choices popping up on the screen of the machine.
RTD Denver has a private operator for the airport line and
a private security detail for fare inspection, gun and all

The conductor/ fare inspector in the Denver airport train wore a gun and uniform when he checked airport passengers for having valid tickets for the new light rail service. The machine had rejected my credit card twice until I had fished out another card. Luckily the train idling at its terminal stop was still there when I finally boarded.

A Baltimore fare inspector once took me personally outside at the destination station to show me how to use the ticket vending machine after I had imagined that just waving my Charm card at the deprature station would do the trick. The light rail trains don't have the card reader buses have. After that transaction I could go my merry way without a fine and I was happy and smarter.

But in Berlin it was a different story. The transit system there is vast, it has four different rail modes alone (U-Bahn, S-Bahn, Regio trains and trams). All work in a unified fare system that reaches deep into the region, which is a good thing. But what looks like simplification carries a price: Ticket purchases are a complicated affair because a ticket could serve so many purposes. The rail stations are packed, the vending machines are few and the pace is fast, the perfect ingredients for a mess-up.
Regional train serving local stations in Berlin

We had purchased the tickets applying skills acquired days before in comparably slower Stuttgart, which, too has a regional fare compact valid for many transit providers. Punching in the name of the destination and choosing reduced over full fare since we are seniors had been part of the Stuttgart routine. The Berlin tickets we got the same way were surprisingly cheap but correctly stated Potsdam as our destination and we were out of time to wonder about the price.

In the train we felt tension markedly rising among the morning peak commuters when after a short while on the train ticket controllers entered the S train strategically from three sides so that none could escape. "Fahrkarten bitte", one after another people produced their tickets and the inspectors nodded until it was our turn. The inspector eyed our tickets, asked "Deutsch oder Englisch?" and then said "Moment" when my wife answered "English". He called his colleague who looked at the two tickets and then concluded "alles falsch" (all wrong), mumbling in German that they were for the wrong zone, were "reduced" although there is no senior discount in Berlin and "reduced" apparently means children. Plus the tickets were not stamped.
Inside a Berlin S-train

By now all eyes were on us, the two elderly fare dodgers from across the pond. I had decided not to let on that I could also speak German, probably a tactical mistake since the inspectors' very limited English equally limited how I could argue my defense. They briefly conferred what to do. The more lenient one deferred to the stricter Prussian one, and then the verdict came: "Increased fare" for fare evasion by not presenting a valid ticket. We could pay $132 on the spot, show ID for proper address and record, or go to the police with them. I opted for the pay-later-option figuring that as Americans we could think it over some more.

The whole thing amounts to a triple embarrassment, given that I am a transit expert which is fluent in German and my wife is a lawyer. But those ticket vending machines used in the stress situation of the 90 remaining seconds before the train one flight up will depart with another person eagerly waiting to use it require at least 5 steps before a ticket is printed. Then even single tickets need to be validated in small machines placed nearly invisibly somewhere on the platform, a. feature we had inadvertently skipped in our excitement to get on the train. And there were no stamping machines on the train as in Stuttgart where multi-ride tickets required stamping for each ride.

Later looking on the Internet what should be done, we see that fare dodging is a popular topic in Berlin and other big German cities with a lot of tourists, for one, because like here, each city has a different system, and then, unlike here, because the fines are so damn high in Germany.
Inside a Berlin articulated bus: electronic displays with
upcoming stops and quiet ride.

At least for occasional transit riders and visitors a system with a pre-loaded fare card that subtracts whatever amount is right for a certain trip would be ideal. Such a system requires action upon boarding and upon exit at the destination and it requires machines that can read electronic chips, just as it is done in the District.

In the effort of luring folks to transit that are not insiders and daily users, transit agencies would do well to lower the threshold of the ticket purchase. Taking the stress off that procedure would go a long way of making transit attractive to everybody. Maybe then even Baltimore Council President Jack Young wouldn't wait 30 years to use a bus.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Tramway in Potsdam near Berlin: Real time arrival signs
are standard
all pictures by author.

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