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Transport / Mass transit

Does the Bordeaux Tramway have the most pass-agg ticketing system in Europe?

Multiple tram lines, excess of bendy buses, modern cycle hire scheme… Transport in Bordeaux is about what one might expect from an up-and-coming European city of its size.

But Bordeaux’s public transport is anything but typical – and its oddness stems neither from the places it serves, nor the vehicles that take you there, but rather from their presentation. Public transport in Bordeaux is painfully passive aggressive – like if you took “Please mind the gap” and replaced it with “Would you mind causing yourself grievous bodily harm elsewhere?”

Allow me to elaborate. In the UK, it’s au fait for national rail services, especially those running without ticket inspectors on board, to run the following legal message (or a variant thereof) mid journey:

“Please make sure you have a valid ticket for your journey. If you cannot produce a valid ticket when asked, you may be liable to pay a penalty fare.”

Beyond this message, and subtle displays at stations and on trains, UK passengers are not subject to any serious cajoling to convince them to buy a ticket before a ticket inspector manifests themselves out of thin air.

In Bordeaux, the standard is completely different. Sometimes, instead of bothering to show their destination, the fronts of buses will simply read “Validez en montant, merci” – “Validate your ticket when you get on, thank you”. The nature of French word order – which places “merci” at the end instead of at the beginning of the imperative, as would be the case in English – makes it sound far more cajoling, especially if translated “Validate your ticket when you get on, thanks”. The choice to wilfully obscure the bus’s destination for the sake of reminding passengers to bother to pay for their journey speaks volumes about the dynamic going on here.

And we haven’t even got started. Each and every tram station in Bordeaux, along with the larger bus stations, is accompanied by an advertising campaign run by TBM, Bordeaux’s answer to Transport for London. This manifests itself as a series of posters, all with a coercive, passive aggressive tone attached.

One such poster appeals to potential fare dodgers by highlighting just how much the tram network cost the city: each tram was €3m, and the tram network is composed of 100 of them. But that’s not actually that much: some quick maths suggests that London’s new subsurface stock was far, far pricier, at roughly £7.8m per train.

Some posters on display at Palais de Justice. Image: Google.

Additionally, appealing to the citizenry by showing them how much money you’ve thrown at the transport network is hardly a persuasive argument. Before taking into account the coercive nature of this advertisement, it sounds as though Bordeaux is almost bragging about how many euros they burned in the pursuit of some fresh trams (although they are exceptionally fresh, thanks to state of the art air conditioning). Why didn’t the PR department highlight how nice the trams were, instead of appealing to their sheer cost?

Another poster in the same vein depicts people of radically different colours (including red, green and purple people) all paying for their ticket, implying that if all these violently coloured people can buy a ticket, you should too. Other examples include a poster highlighting the cuts to public funding and the resulting greater importance of individual fares; and a juxtaposition of the penalty fare (€122) with the price of one journey (€1.60), demarcated with an angry face and a happy face, respectively.

Finally, each one of these posters is accompanied by a motto: “It’s your choice!”, “Without you, there is no network!” and my personal favourite, “I travel, so I validate”, which sounds a bit like if Descartes decided to become a ticket inspector.

Every traveller makes for a better network.” Image: Claude Lynch.

But does this pass agg approach to enforcement actually work? The short answer is no. The long answer is also no, but some context might help explain a few imperfections.

First and foremost, in Bordeaux, ticket inspectors are so rare that the danger of paying the fine, the only real penalty beyond implied pangs of guilt, is miniscule. If fare evasion is already easy, worthwhile and relatively risk-free, appealing to people’s conscience is unlikely to provoke any serious change in behaviour. And a passenger who thinks they can get away without paying is unlikely to change their mind just because TBM – exactly the people who benefit from having the passengers pay – tells them it’s in passenger’s best interests to do so.

Second, the bus stop at the airport, where TBM would expect to pick up vast numbers of paying customers, is notably free of any pass agg propaganda. The one bus route to the airport then travels through multiple Bordeaux suburbs, meaning it is consistently full – leaving no room for a ticket inspector and even less means to collect a fine.

A map of the Bordeaux tram network. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

Admittedly the aforementioned fine, €122, is far larger than most other European cities, beating out Paris (€30-75), London (£80), and even Berlin (€60), where the fine was specifically raised to avoid cases of fare evasion. Moreover, fare evasion rates in Bordeaux already fall well under not just those in Berlin, but most German cities, where fare evasion is not considered a serious issue. In fact, fare evasion in Bordeaux was already decreasing year on year, without any action being taken. So the city is putting up posters to solve a fare evasion problem it doesn’t even have, and didn’t have before implementation, at a presumably high cost.

So why does Bordeaux feel obliged to combine such high penalties for evasion with such on-the-nose coercion? Perhaps it’s because the tram network is rather new; it opened 15 years ago in 2003 and has been growing ever since, meaning TBM is under higher pressure to recoup costs. This raises the question of whether it may have rolled out this immense parade of passive aggression without first considering how much money it’d save doing it – given the flashy, emoji-laden posters almost certainly carried their own cost.

It might be that problems with fare evasion are simply endemic to latter-day France: police were recently deployed in far greater numbers on the Paris Metro to catch fare dodgers, collecting €12000 on the first day alone.

Perhaps the passive aggressive approach is Bordeaux’s alternative: appealing to the conscience, rather than fear. If Descartes actually were a ticket inspector, he’d probably approve.
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