Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Berlin has suffered a surge in scofflaw riders, but super strict enforcement also adds to overhead costs.
Berlin transit bosses must be wincing this week.
According to figures that hit the media on Wednesday, the city’s buses, trams, and subways saw an incredible rise in fare evasion last year. In 2013, Berlin caught 228,727 people riding without a ticket. In 2014, that number shot up to 355,476.
To be fair to the city’s transit authority, it has a pretty cast-iron excuse for the rise: the company looking after inspections in 2013 underperformed drastically, and the city has since installed a far stricter replacement that is simply better at finding offenders. The figures are still a rude awakening, and have provoked some debate as to exactly how the city should enforce ticket-buying.
The problem with fare-dodging in Berlin is that it’s just so easy. Like all German cities, Berlin transit uses an honesty system backed up by inspections, meaning there are no ticket barriers to jump over at station entrances. On the platform itself, there are hardly ever any staff—reasonably so, given that standing ticketless on a station platform is in itself no offense. Ticket machines, meanwhile, print out fares with such excruciating slowness that you sometimes feel as if they’re silently daring you to skip the line and jump on a train.
Certainly, once you’re on board, you’re at risk of surprise inspections: the doors close and suddenly guards appear from nowhere flipping their ID wallets open and checking you’ve paid. Even if you’re caught without a ticket, you still have a (risky) outside chance of running away at the next station before they get your details and hand out a €60 fine—a notice many choose to ignore. It’s only if you get caught three times in a row within two years that you face court action.
Compare this to London, where the deterrence system is far tighter. In the U.K. capital, riding public transit without a ticket can incur a fine of up to £1,000 ($1,494) and a criminal record, which of course requires a court trial. Few cases escalate to this level, but the British media is littered with stories of the terrible fallout and shame that can ensue if you’re caught. The other major deterrent is the ubiquitous ticket barriers (albeit sometimes left open, and low enough to vault over) that make fare evasion more difficult.
But which system is better at reducing the cost of fare evasion? It’s not easy to say.
Berlin may have high levels of evasion—some 3 to 5 percent of all journeys, according to Tagesspiegel—but its honesty system also cuts overhead costs. Without the need for barriers, many Berlin subway stations need only a skeleton staff, and offer tickets either through machines or through kiosks whose costs are covered by selling chocolate and magazines. Inspections cost money, of course, but rotating inspections staff around the system allows them to be spread quite thinly.
Meanwhile London’s TfL doesn’t publish similar figures to Berlin’s, although a 2009 survey found that 6 percent of respondents had evaded a fare in the past five years. Without a record of how often they did so, it’s impossible to gauge how much money is being lost. Estimates released in Berlin last year, however, found a similar level of evasion—6 percent of passengers—suggesting that ticket barriers alone aren’t enough.
And Berlin is cracking down a lot harder. In 2013, only 480 people were prosecuted for fare evasion. In 2014, it was 33,723. This huge rise in prosecutions is nonetheless meeting resistance from the courts and prison systems, which are complaining of being clogged. Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison currently has 68 inmates behind bars for fare evasion, there because they’ve chosen prison over paying the fine. Their expensive incarceration (usually a matter of days, not weeks) shows the difficulty of enforcing fare evasion.
Berlin’s relatively tough line on fare evasion may end up encouraging more people to buy tickets. Its savings to society overall, however, may prove harder to demonstrate.