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Why Berlin's public transport payment system might just be more modern than London's

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Why Berlin's public transport payment system might just be more modern than London's
Gregor Fischer/ DPA
15:21 CEST+02:00
With its lack of barriers, gates and security personnel, Berlin's public transport system might look like an invitation for Schwarzfahren. But the city's trust-based ticketing system may actually be the way of the future.

For new visitors to the German capital - or indeed any German city - the first interactions with the public transport infrastructure can be surprising. Unlike most other major cities in the world, there are no barricades or gates through which passengers must shuffle while scanning their cards, tickets or tokens. 

Berlin's public transport network runs largely on a ‘trust-based system', where passengers are encouraged to buy tickets on the platform but face no physical barriers. Fare evading is enforced by teams of roving ticket checkers who operate on random or not so random routes, handing out on-the-spot fines to miscreants.

New evidence suggests that not only is this system more efficient, less costly and safer, but that the system does not actually lead to fare evasion as logic would otherwise suggest. 

Recent studies from Norway and San Francisco have indicated that the removal of barriers does not actually lead to an increase in fare evasion. 

Transport authorities in Oslo began removing barriers for train, tram and bus passengers around a decade ago. The result has been an increase in efficiency, punctuality and customer satisfaction - all while the level of fare evasion has remained steady. 

There are some notable differences however between Oslo and Berlin, with the primary one being the ‘tap and go' contactless cards employed in the Norwegian capital. But paper tickets aside, the systems - with their focus on being able to board fast and not wait in queues behind turnstiles - are largely the same.

Authorities in San Francisco, who removed barriers in the 1990s, saw a decrease in fare evasion. They have also pointed out that a barrier-free system is safer, primarily as there is less of a chance of bottlenecks during peak times.

Then there are the aesthetic concerns. These are of course far more difficult to measure, but few train stations look better with a wall of gates than without. 

The impact on fare evasion is also notable, primarily as preventing fare evasion is the primary reason for the gates in the first place. 

Fare evasion is by no means a Berlin-only phenomenon in Germany's trust-based system. As The Local reported in June 2018, while over 18 per cent of Berliners admit to fair dodging ‘from time to time', the numbers are also high in Leipzig (13 per cent), Dortmund (12 per cent) and Cologne (14 per cent). Fare evasion is also not limited to Germany's poorer, student cities, with Schwarzfahren rife in Frankfurt (14 per cent), Hamburg (11 per cent) and in Stuttgart (18 per cent). 

The Tagesspiegel estimates that the numbers are in fact much lower, with a study finding that fare evaders made up roughly 3-5 per cent of total rides, perhaps a better metric than the above which relied on respondents self-reporting whether they had “sometimes” evaded fares. 

Studies have shown that fare evasion in London - where the contactless Oyster Card was introduced more than ten years ago - sits at roughly six per cent. That's one percentile higher than the Tagesspiegel estimate, despite London's use of barriers and turnstiles.  

Aside from the infrastructure costs associated with implementing gates and barriers at all stations, there is the cost of upgrading the underlying technology. New York recently announced plans to implement an Oyster Card-style system within the next decade, which is set to cost the city an estimated $419 million (€360 million), plus the annual charges for repairing and upgrades. 

Evidence from San Francisco suggests that fare evasion has more to do with convenience than a desire to avoid paying for transport, with fare evasion going down once the city implemented a straightforward and clear ticketing system which did not rely on physical barriers. 

Then there's the psychology of fare evasion, which has seen movements start up in Paris and Stockholm to ‘stick it to the authorities' by not paying fares.

A 2015 study in Melbourne sought to gain an insight into the psychology of fare evasion, suggesting that only a tiny percentage of fare evaders are genuine scofflaws - and that no amount of gates or barriers are likely to deter them. 

Of the total annual cost of lost ticket revenue in the city - $AU80 million (€50 million) - 70 per cent was from a group of frequent fare evaders, who amounted to only two per cent of total travellers. The other examples were accidental or incidental fare evasion, such as those who had bought the wrong ticket or who had accidentally travelled into a different zone - all of which could decrease through using more convenient and less imposing measures. 

Once the true scale of the fare evasion became clear - that very few individuals were responsible for the majority of it - it allowed authorities to target policies at these miscreants in a cost-effective fashion rather than in a broad way which punishes the entire passenger cohort.

This led to what has been called a “customer-focused approach” where money is spent on improving services and making it easier for passengers to pay for and use public transport, rather than using up resources punishing those who aren't likely to buy a ticket anyway.

Even though estimates suggest that Berlin loses around €20 million per year thanks to fare evaders - still less than Melbourne (€50m), Paris (€90m) and London (€80m) - there are other costs to be considered. 

The Tagespiegel reported in 2015 that up to a third of the prisoners in Plötzensee Prison at that time were there because of fare evasion. 

This comes surely at a significant cost to the state - much higher than the €7 it'll set you back to buy a daily ticket. 

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