Friday, October 08, 2010

Broken honor

Like in most European cities, the buses and trams in Grenoble work on the honor system. You don’t need to pay when you get on. You have a card or a ticket that you validate. To keep people honest, there are spot checks. If you don’t have a valid ticket, you get in trouble and have to pay a fine. The idea is to save time, increase ease of use, and decrease the number of transactions at each stop.

Which sounds really good. And, for someone like me who can afford to buy a pass and doesn’t want to get into any hassles, it works.

What I don’t understand is the enforcement end. It is done by people called “controllers,” who circulate on the transit system.

On his recent visit, Bart asked me how often I have had my ticket checked. Well, I take the bus at least 4 times a day and have been here 30 some odd days. I’ve seen controllers board my car 3 times and had my ticket checked a total of once. One out of at least 120. I have no idea how much the fine is, but if it was about 50 euros, then it would be a toss up whether it is worth it to ride legally. (I also have other reasons to ride legally, but that’s not true for everyone.)

Ideally, to keep the honor system working, you need swift, enforceable consequences that everyone agrees upon. I’m not sure how that would work, but from what I’ve seen, it would take a big culture change for that to be the norm. I don’t understand what is going on at all, but I can tell it is not good. The enforcement end here looks broken, and it is causing unnecessary tension.

What I see is teams of controllers boarding buses/trams in groups: a pair through each door. But there are not enough of them to completely cover all the doors so it would be easy, if you didn’t have a valid ticket, to just get off and wait maybe 3 minutes for the next bus/tram.

The agents do not look happy. They look mean and annoyed, chest puffed out, defensive smile. They are waiting/asking to be challenged. The car takes on a palpable coolness, people close down, eyes lower.

Every time I’ve seen them board, they have quickly found someone without a valid ticket. A discussion with this person ensues. This person begins to sweat. I have never seen any exchange of money or identification. I have just seen long, heated, tense discussions, and so has everyone else in the car (with most of the other people in the car actually able to understand the discussion). After this lengthy discussion, either the passenger or the controllers get(s) off.

There is just waaaaay too much negotiation going on, no matter what it is about.

This puts everyone in an awkward position. The controllers spend their days in annoying discussions and the tariff dodgers spend their days thinking if they can just keep up a good enough argument for long enough they can get where they are going or just catch the next bus.

This makes it like a game.

The system is ripe for all sorts of corruption. If you need to pay the fine on the spot, does that mean the controllers are walking around with wads of cash? What if you don’t have the cash? And if they are walking around with tons of cash what is keeping them from taking a cut? If you need to pay later, then you need to identify yourself. What keeps you from giving a false name or saying you don’t have ID?

As a foreigner, I could just pretend (or not!) I don’t understand. What would happen if I didn’t understand that he wanted ID? That I didn’t understand how to validate my ticket? That I didn’t understand the fine? Etc. etc. They might just let me off, too much hassle.

Perhaps they are telling people this is a warning, but if they are caught again… This might theoretically work since Grenoble is not such a big town. I’m sure everyone knows the controllers and the controllers know most of the frequent transit riders. (Even I am now recognizing people whom I see over and over again.) If you were out and about all day looking for trouble makers, you’d probably get to know that segment of the population pretty fast.

But the negotiation is bad. It shows everyone riding that they too can negotiate. It opens the door for prejudice and stereotyping in a big way. It enables the agents to pick on different people. It allows their emotions in the door. From what I’ve seen, if you are black, don’t expect any leniency. Even if everyone were treated equally, it would still enable people to see the patterns they expect to see.

It’s not unlike people who give out parking tickets. Universally disliked, but accepted none the less. Now imagine if every parking ticket involved a face to face confrontation? Not the happiest job to begin with, add constant negative interactions, and you’d cultivate mean people. Hate would inevitably grow.

The personal confrontation part is really bad. It encourages the controllers to be bullies. It becomes part of a cat and mouse contagion. What kind of person would want to be a controller? At a party when someone asks you what you do, who would want to say, “I’m one of those obnoxious intimidating people who checks your ticket”? Well, only obnoxious, insecure bullies would want to do that! And then, for the dodgers, it becomes a source of pride, a source of stories of bravado and stealth. They feed off each other. Broken system.

And I don’t know how to fix it. But just as I was thinking all this (had my pass actually checked for the first time on Tuesday), Greg comes home to say that once again, the trams are not running. This time, due to an “incident” that had caused “perturbations.”

So I google “incident, tram, Grenoble” and find that the night before, in the early hours of October 7th, a team of controllers had been assaulted by a gang of youths in the area of town where there were riots last July. (Kadin and I had actually been on that same tram during the day that day. It’s one of the most well travelled areas.) Six of the officers were treated for minor injuries and 2 people were arrested.

The next day, the tram drivers exercised their right of “retrait” (withdrawal, one of the numerous French worker’s rights) and stayed home for the day. Perhaps they feared for their safety, perhaps they wanted to show solidarity with the controllers? Not clear to me. But once again, transportation was disrupted.

It’s a powder keg. Stay tuned.


George Swain said...

Wow, what a great analysis. Sounds rife for trouble as you suggest. I was amazed by the similar systems in Paris and Munich this summer. I actually never saw the controllers in all of the rides we made (some with the correct tickets and some without). I guess I was counting on the foreign ignorance defense a few times there. I was amazed by my friends' explanation of how enforcement went, though, especially in Germany. Apparently there was a 60 euro fine for not having a proper ticket in the Munich underground. Fines were never paid in person. Tickets were issued. Payments never made on site. Everyone complied. It may be a German thing, but it struck me as just another example of that country's efficiency and the national habit of playing by the rules. Maybe I am naive and that's not how it works at all or maybe it works that way in bourgeois Munich but not in other parts of the country. Good luck navigating the system.

jeninco said...

Yeah, George, I wonder how well it really works. Here it seems to be fanning the flames of racial/class tension. For some groups (disadvantaged youth) it almost seems like a point of pride to NOT have a ticket. But I bet you are right, there is some sort of system with lesser fines if you fess up and pay right away and higher fines if you don't cooperate. That would make sense. But it needs to be more consistently enforced. Here it seems out of control (chaos!). For all the discussion I hear of worker's rights (another strike coming next Tues), I have heard none about civil rights or discrimination. All this hoity toity intellectual french political discussion about "rights" yet still nothing about the burka. And the few comments I read online about the "incident" were highly polarized and almost all sided with the controllers (not that internet comments aren't usually polarized...). I don't think there is any exposure to diversity or difference in the schools either. It's all about conformity. If what I sense is true, animosity is building and it's a disaster waiting to happen...

aimee said...

What George saw in Munich is true throughout Germany. Even if they only fine you 2 Euros you still pay later. The reason the system works is that in Germany the government KNOWS WHERE YOU LIVE. Every time you move you have to register. So you can't not play by the rules!

Anonymous said...

I was remembering being in Amsterdam 25 years ago and how everyone seemed to say to us with very serious intent that we shouldn't ride without a ticket, that the enforcers were harsh and everywhere...THere was clearly a shared culture (in guidebooks, hotels, public, etc) about the enforcement of the tram rides...Meanwhile, back in happy old Sacramento, B's mentor who is here for 6 months from Boston, is mystified by the honor system on the light rail here. Why would anyone pay? he asks...No enforcers to speak of so far...Kate