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Transport / Mass transit

Does the future of travel lie in London’s ticket barriers or Berlin’s passenger trust?

In Berlin, tourists from London, Paris, Madrid, or even Moscow may be surprised to find that upon leaving Schönefeld Airport, there are no ticket barriers greeting them at the nearby S-Bahn stop. Instead, all passengers are kindly reminded that before boarding their train, they should “validate” their travel with a stamp from one of the nearby machines. Anybody who forgets to do so is met with the less friendly reminder that the penalty fare for such an act is 60 euros. And I should know, because I’ve paid that very price. So why employ such a system?

Although disconcerting at first, relying on ticket validation does make rather a lot of sense. Passengers can purchase as many tickets as they want, whenever they want, and simply stamp one every time they take a ride on the public transport network – be this by bus, tram, U-Bahn or S-Bahn. Day tickets are stamped when travellers take their first journey of the day, and are valid thereafter. This system, with its lack of physical barrier between the passenger and the train, is a vestige of a time before ticket barriers, when inspectors were the only way of ensuring passengers had paid for their travel.

Passengers in Berlin can still be prosecuted for travelling while in the possession of a ticket that they haven’t yet validated, because there’s no way of telling how long they’ve been doing so. Effectively, riding with an invalidated ticket is no different to going completely ticket-less; tickets are only “spent” after being validated, and could otherwise be used over and over again. A system of validation doesn’t necessitate thousands of inspectors, but does require a greater element of trust. In Berlin, even if fare evasion isn’t a problem, it’s always a worry.

Fare dodgers cost Berlin €20 million in 2015 alone, with 18.3 per cent of Berliners “sometimes” riding without a ticket, according to one survey –  although a more reasonable estimate puts the figure at somewhere between three and five per cent. If correct, this would mean the German capital’s rate of fare evasion is on a par with that of the London Underground – surprising, given the British system makes doing so much harder, and threatens to charge up to 16 times as much.

Because, while it’s claimed that physical barriers reduce fare evasion – and as such are being employed by more and more public transport authorities – the jury’s still out on their effectiveness. For starters, if passengers feel as though they’re receiving a good service, they’ll often be more than willing to pay for it – regardless of whether or not they’re forced into doing so. Moreover, removing ticket barriers – which are often predatory, imposing structures – fosters a better relationship between the city and the people, with the opposite being true when security is hardened to keep fare dodgers out.


What’s more, ticketing systems that don’t employ barriers enjoy several distinct benefits, including that it’s just all-round easier to design stations without having to think about where to put them. Consider King’s Cross at rush hour; you might not realise it, but there are several different (and potentially time consuming) routes in and out of the station, with the aim of directing passengers in certain routes to prevent dangerous crushes at the gates. In Berlin, this is hardly a worry – you just get off the train and leave the station. The threat of a crush never really comes up, because there’s no comparable choke point.

This relative design simplicity means that stations without ticket barriers are less cluttered, and as such reaching sub-surface lines requires only walking down some stairs to a platform where all the necessary amenities are integrated. This removes the need for a large building at surface level, which can make construction more costly, especially when land costs are at a premium.

It remains that paper ticket validation is less convenient in the long term than the likes of the Oyster Card, but Germany has travelcards too, and they’re easily merged with the validation system. However, the necessity of ticket inspectors still means higher costs are incurred, and their implementation on busy public transport systems can often be cumbersome. For example, in Berlin there’s more room for ticket inspectors in the less busy outer zones – leading to a peculiar form of fare evasion discrimination.

Perhaps then, the best case scenario lies somewhere in the middle, for which we only need look to the humble London bus. In a time before Boris, the driver would have to print a ticket for every rider. When hop-on hop-off Routemasters were reinstated, they added a conductor for fare protection and health and safety. When this proved uneconomical, the hop-on feature was removed – but in its wake all London Buses became ticket-free in 2014, with contact with the driver often reduced to the dulcet tones of the Oyster card reader. All possible barriers between the passenger and the journey were removed, in favour of a single touch.

Of course, that a bus driver in London is able to see the entire vehicle from their seat makes policing passengers much easier. Security on public transport is only being ramped up, but if it means less barriers between paying and getting moving, that’s almost certainly a good thing. For commuters in Tallinn, Estonia, public transport is free of charge – on the condition that their travel card is irrevocably tied to their social security number. If that doesn’t tell us where we’re headed, nothing will: one day, we won’t need barriers or inspectors for our tickets. All we’ll need is ourselves.
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