A photo of Amsterdam's Central Station
Buy the ticket, take the ride: Electronic gates in Amsterdam's Central Station limit access to the main concourse to ticket buyers. Yves Herman/Reuters

Dutch rail and bus systems in the Netherlands are experimenting with novel ways to turn transit freeloading ticket-dodgers into paying customers.

How can a public transit system avoid the hassle of dealing with fare evasion? So far, no universal solution has been provided for the issue of ticket dodgers—beyond, perhaps, abolishing fares entirely. Worldwide, transit agencies deploy a wide variety of ticketing enforcement mechanisms, from turnstiles to fare inspectors; each has their own unique vulnerabilities that enterprising scofflaws can exploit.

Over the past year, however, the Dutch have introduced some innovative new weapons to this age-old struggle. The Netherlands’ national rail carrier Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) has succeeded in reducing fare dodging and accompanying violence through a new approach: not by increasing inspections or ticket enforcement, but by simply barring any access at all to many stations for anyone without a ticket.

Meanwhile, the Dutch city of Almere is going in another direction entirely. It wants to convert fare dodgers into legitimate paying riders, by making them buy tickets instead of paying a conventional fine. The two schemes may sound rather different, but they both in fact hinge on a central understanding: that public transit’s attitude to fare dodging should be less about preventing loss of revenue and more about avoiding ugly and potentially violent confrontations with people who are, after all, clearly interested in consuming your mobility service.

This is probably the right focus. In general, fare dodging is infuriating for both transit authorities and the majority of riders who do pay for their tickets, but is not necessarily a huge drain on Northern Europe’s public transit systems. In Berlin, a city whose public transit uses an honesty system (backed up with unannounced in-vehicle inspections) and fairly low fines for fare dodging, it’s estimated that 3 to 5 percent of journeys aren’t paid for. That’s not a budget-breaking amount when you factor in the savings from not having to install and maintain ticket barriers.

London, by contrast, has a closed subway system with ubiquitous barriers and high fines for being caught without a ticket. Unambiguous figures are impossible to come by (there’s no telling exactly how many people rode without a ticket and were undetected) but a survey from a decade ago suggested a similar rate of fare evasion in the U.K. capital as Berlin, with 6 percent of riders admitting having dodged a fare. Given that London’s elevated enforcement system doesn’t seem to have necessarily resulted in lower degrees of fare evasion, it might seem wiser to focus on the side effects of fare evasion—such as violence against staff—than the evasion itself.

Dutch Railways has been attempting to do this by more rigidly controlling access to its stations. Pay a visit to Amsterdam’s Central Station, one of the 76 major stations (through which 90 percent of the country’s rail passengers pass through annually) that were overhauled at the end of 2017, and you will find yourself confronted with electronic ticket gates. These are far enough inside the building to allow access to ticket booths and machines, but they prevent ticket-free access to most of the concourse. There is, however, a way to enter without paying. If you touch in with a local transit card, then touch out at the same station within the hour, your transit card is not charged, making it possible to visit a store or see someone off on a train cost-free.

The ploy is simple enough, but the effects have been dramatic. In the past year, the number of violent incidents on the Dutch rail network has fallen by 27 percent. It also seems to have reduced the number of evaders using the system. There has been a 34 percent drop in charges of fare evasion from 2015 to 2018, although that figure also includes two years before the barriers’ introduction. Putting in barriers hasn’t halted all attempts at fare evasion or clashes with railway staff, but at least these are more likely to happen in stations themselves, where managing them is easier and less disruptive than on a train in motion.

There’s still an uneasy side effect to the move: People without the means to buy a ticket are excluded from stations, which in many European cities are the largest, warmest roofed public spaces on offer. In Europe, as in the U.S., police and security staff have been harrying the homeless from station buildings for decades; the new station gates may make these facilities yet more unwelcoming as places to shelter, and further drive the international move towards the quasi-privatisation of what were previously relied upon as public spaces.

Another Dutch transit authority is going in an altogether different direction. The city of Almere—a 200,000-resident town near Amsterdam built on land reclaimed in the mid-1970s—is not trying to keep fare dodgers away from its bus system. It’s actively trying to make sure they come back.

Transit company Keolis is doing this by dispensing with straightforward fines for fare evasion altogether. It’s not that Almere is making its public transport free—users are still expected to pay. Pending approval from the city’s council, however, anyone caught riding without a ticket will soon no longer be given the previously mandatory €50 fine. They’ll be required to buy a “penalty package” costing €35. This package contains (along with information on how to buy a ticket) a card loaded with ten more rides.

This is still a penalty of sorts (a standard 10-trip card normally costs €12.50) but it also sends an important message: Offenders are still wanted on the system, provided they pay. This is also just a one-off reprieve. Anyone who has been required to buy a €35 penalty package in the past that is caught on the bus without a ticket will thereafter have to pay the previously standard €50 fine. Creating a more positive intermediate step before this penalty is pragmatic. In a low-income city with higher-than-average numbers of fare evaders, it makes sense to try to convert fare evaders into ticket buyers.

Scratch the surface, and Almere’s policy’s intentions are similar to those that spurred the Netherlands’ national railways to install barriers: a desire to de-escalate potential tension and make the public transit system more peaceful for all users. That’s an approach well worth considering: Successfully detecting an offense is helpful, but it’s even better to create a situation in which that offense is altogether less likely to occur.

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