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.
The Netherlands recently let train travelers ride free if they carried a book. Here are other strange offers that covered the cost of train or bus tickets.
On the last Sunday of March, it was possible to travel anywhere in the Netherlands by train without even buying a ticket. All you needed, in fact, was a book.
Not just any book, mind you. In keeping with an annual tradition, ticket inspectors on national carrier NS were instructed to give free travel to anyone carrying a copy of the novel Jas van Velofte (“Jacket of Promise”) by author Jan Siebelink. The deal came at the culmination of the country’s book week, an annual national literature festival. During each book week, festival organizers release a free book written especially for the occasion, available in generous but still limited numbers to anyone who buys a book (this year, worth €12.50 or more) or signs up to a library in the preceding weeks. This book then serves as a token for travel anywhere in the country.
It could be argued that there’s something distinctively Dutch about the oddness of this celebration. This is a country, after all, that celebrates its monarch’s birthday by inviting people to sell their second-hand trash tax-free on the doorstep. NS is nonetheless far from the only transit company that has experimented with unorthodox ways of paying your fare. Here are some examples from around the world.
British Millennials clearly recognize a good bargain when they see one. When Britain’s rail companies offered a limited run of 10,000 annual rail cards for £30 last spring—cards that permitted people between the ages of 26 and 30 to travel by train for a third of the usual price—the result was a spurt of mayhem that has been called “a polite version of the Hunger Games.” So keen were people to snap up the cards that the website offering them crashed almost immediately after launch.
Virgin Trains, which runs Britain’s London to Glasgow line, sensed opportunity among the disappointed and offered its own deal for 26-to-30-year-olds. All they needed to get a third off travel during the following week was to arrive at a ticket office bearing that cliché icon of Millennial lifestyle: the avocado. Offering long-distance train travel for a single fruit sounds like a good way to provoke a nationwide avocado drought, but the gimmick is unlikely to be repeated. This January, Britain relaunched its Millennial railcard—this time without a limit on numbers.
Indonesia’s second city, Surabaya, came up with a novel way of clearing its streets of plastic waste last autumn: It has been encouraging passengers to trade in trash for bus tickets. While the idea of offering people an incentive to collect recyclable trash is not unusual, giving people a benefit in terms of travel is—especially as the most striking aspect of the scheme is perhaps that the city is not asking for very much. If you want a bus ticket that’s valid for two hours, Surabaya’s transit authorities are asking you to supply just 10 plastic cups or five bottles.
The scheme seems like a good deal for passengers, but it also runs the risk of creating a major hole in the city’s transit budget if it were fully exploited—Surabaya, after all, disposes of up to 400 tons of plastic waste each day.
In the run-up to Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympics, Moscow’s Vystavochya metro station tried out a novel way of motivating passengers to keep fit: If they performed 30 squats in front of a particular ticket machine, they would be given a single fare ticket for the metro. The machine proved very popular during its brief stay, for obvious reasons. A little light exercise in return for a free ride seems like a good deal—though as CityLab pointed out at the time, it could be said that anyone wheezing heftily and bouncing their behind as they squatted in a busy station was actually paying with another precious commodity: their dignity.
Under normal circumstances, if you demanded that a subway ticket inspector got on their knees to check out your shoes, you’d likely get the police called on you. Not, however, in Berlin over the past year. In January 2018 Berlin’s BVG transit authority launched a limited edition line of sneakers in collaboration with Adidas. The sneakers’ decoration featured a splash of the close-to-iconic psychedelic camouflage print that covers the city’s subway train seats, but that wasn’t the feature that made their $215 cost a bargain. That could be found in the sneakers’ tongues, which were printed with an annual pass for travel across the network.
Still, while $215 for a year’s travel and a pair of shoes is a great bargain, it’s debatable how many were actually used as tokens for travel. The obsession with pristine condition among sneaker collectors means many of the 500 pairs made have probably never left the box.
Last month East Japan Rail Group announced that it was preparing to allow customers to buy tickets in a way not yet permitted by any other railway company: using cryptocurrencies. When those preparations are complete (no date has yet been given) users will be able to upload sums in cryptocurrencies to the group’s Suica smartcard, which functions as a prepaid fare card for journeys across East Japan rail network.
While the plan is an interesting step for Japanese railways, it is arguably a far bigger step for cryptocurrencies—East Japan Rail Group provides transit for 6 billion passengers annually, while the smart card is also valid for purchases in over half a million convenience stores. While the plan currently sounds pretty unorthodox, its adoption by such a large company might suggest that cryptocurrency-funded transit might soon start to feel very normal indeed.