Is honesty the best policy?

Tram in Prague

As we missed yet another u-bahn train laboriously putting €2.80 in a ticket machine yesterday for the boys’ train tickets, I pondered the various approaches taken to honesty by all the public transport systems we have tried.

Singapore, China, Israel, and the Netherlands share a common characteristic. It is nigh on impossible to get on a train without a valid ticket (just like most of Sydney’s public transport system). While most of the continental European trains so far in our trip(Germany, Austria, Poland and the Czech Republic) rely on honesty, plus monitoring – you can get on and off a train however you please, but there are big signs everywhere warning that if you are caught without a ticket, the ticket price will be expensive (and then there will also be the hassle factor of potential criminal proceedings…).

For the record, in our month or so so far in public transport systems relying on honesty, we’ve had our tickets checked once.

When I was a backpacker, there was a thriving gossip network comparing notes on how likely you were to be caught on the various public transport systems. German trains, in particular, were seen as a soft touch. I’m sure the same discussions take place in youth hostels around the world today.

For the slightly less impecunious traveller, the decision to take your chances also depends on the hassle of buying a ticket. Probably not coincidentally, all of the honesty countries have various travel passes (starting at a day and moving up to a week or so) which are very good deals compared with single tickets if you’re doing much more than two trips in a day. So if you have any chance of buying a ticket, you are pretty likely to have one when checked.

I’d love to know how the authorities make the decision to go for an honesty based system. Is it a reflection on the society generally, that most people are pretty honest, so the occasional threat of a ticket inspector is enough to keep them in line? Or is it that they see public transport as a public good anyway, so the revenue raised is not the most important aspect? What is the probability that they target in deciding how many ticket inspectors to employ? And do they know how much leakage they have in their total ticket take? How much do you save when you don’t have to bother with ticket gates and all the associated paraphernalia (particularly if you have a complex ticketing system – don’t get me started on Sydney’s fare structure)?

In Berlin, at least, they targeted us right. Our week long ticket cost as much as 10 single tickets, so was clearly a sensible purchase (for the adults, at least). And so we would have felt smugly virtuous if we met a ticket inspector.

I’m inclined to think that the Germans have got it right – take the hassle out of ticket buying, and everyone will have one. While there is bound to be leakage, the utility for all the virtuous ticket buyers is quite substantial. And ticket inspectors can target the times and lines that are most likely to have free riders.