Thursday, October 08, 2009

An Honest Mistake

A few days ago, I mentioned that my friends and I tooled around Budapest on the bus. What I didn’t mention is that we accidentally didn’t pay for it at first. In fact, we probably could have “forgotten” to pay for the bus in most of Europe this summer. This, I learned, is a continent that relies far too heavily on the integrity and honesty of its citizens. And let’s be honest: I’m a cynical North American who, while honest for the most part, is not above the lure of a free ride.

The public transportation system in Toronto, where I grew up, is known as the TTC. I became a regular passenger on the Red Rocket when I was a short 10-year-old and transferred from my local elementary school to one further away that offered a French Immersion program. The rules were simple: the front and middle doors opened and people flowed out onto the street, then only the front door would remain open so that the shivering masses could pile on, up the three stairs to the bus driver where we would drop our tickets, tokens, or cash into the box, and then move back toward an open space. Those rules were pretty much standard on most of the buses I have traveled on throughout North America.

Europe is a different beast all together. First, both sets of doors open and you can enter from either one. There isn’t anyone watching you drop your money into the box or ensuring that you stamp your ticket on one of the many self check-in machines located throughout the bus. That’s right -- Europe still believes in the honour system.

The first time Sconni Girl, Pequeña, and I rode the bus in Budapest, we did so without stamping our tickets because we sincerely didn’t realize that we were supposed to. We were waiting for someone to come take our tickets or instruct us in local bus etiquette. Of course, by the return trip, we had figured things out and simply enjoyed the inherent danger of getting caught during our “free ride.”

For the record: this system, which we found throughout the continent, was not exploited other than that one time. There were two reasons for this and the biggest is Hubby who is the most honest person I know. (He’s the guy who finds $100 on the street and gives it back to the obviously rich guy who dropped it.) The other reason is that the fine for getting caught is ridiculously high. (Ok, again, that was Hubby’s reason for paying – I was totally willing to take my chances. I am a bad, bad girl.)

While it is vaguely possible that I need to learn to be more honest, it is also true that depending upon the kindness of strangers is a dubious business plan. In an economy where major cities have to close public libraries and reduce public services, closing loopholes like this ought to be an obvious way to guarantee revenues. I can’t be the only person in Budapest to have calculated the cost/benefit analysis of paying a fine versus the number of times riding the bus for free without getting caught. Or am I?

19 comments:

LadyFi said...

Here in Sweden they have cottoned onto the free-loaders and now we have barriers and things to go through.

When I lived in Germany, I remember being surprised by the honour system - a throw-back from East European times when people were too scared not to be honest!

Still, I love the fact that most people do pay!

Jemma Ruby said...

I had a few times in switzerland where I just didnt have the right change and hopped on. I know, that is so bad! But if you do get a fine, you must pay or they will track you down and keep sending you them with interest, they are totally diligent about it. I think the swiss are so anal that scares the locals into compliance because no one wants the authorities breathing down their back! They do have a wonderful train system and it is totally honor but they do also have a lot of controllers roaming through the trains as well.

Bluefish said...

In DK if you don't stamp your ticket you get a fine of 600DKK. No free ride here!

Corinne said...

In Oslo they have campaigns on the public transpo systems against hitching rides. "Don't sneak a ride off someone else" is a rough translation of the posters. They do random ticket-checks, where Ruter personnel climb on the bus/subway/whatever and walk through checking tickets. I think on the tram it's a 750kr fine! Yikes!

Protege said...

You are completely right; one can take many rides for free in public transportation in Europe. But beware of the controllers. In Prague, if you do not have a stamped valid ticket and if you on top of everything are a tourist, they will make you pay astronomical fines. The same happens in Denmark, where I live, except here the tourists and the natives are treated the same.;)

Anonymous said...

There was a free train trip into London (UK) once but maybe that was because the original train had broken down and we had to move. Well, maybe!
merthyrmum

The Grown-Up Child said...

I'm so jealous! I would love to travel in Europe. Hopefully soon. The honor system working like that there is interesting. I'm so sure that it would NOT work here.

Caution Flag said...

There really aren't busses here in my suburbs. If there were, would I pay...every time? Hmmm.

Little P said...

hehehe - I do love that! But, be careful because it's not everywhere! Even within one country - I am fine doing a similar thing in Rome and Florence, but you MUST validate your ticket in Milan I find :) (just keep an eye out for officials in Rome and Florence to stamp before they get you)
In London, you are only on the honor system for tube tickets for the 'extra' costs outside the basic zones; although that isn't the same for all tickets, but its good to know. I never messed with that system though because I was scared of the fine!

Lydia said...

You've lived in Egypt too long. Taking pictures in tombs and riding busses w/o paying. Bad bad girl! ;) I've taken the pictures, but I'd be too afraid of being caught. So I guess the 'fear factor' drives me more than livin' on the edge!

Betty said...

I think it´s great that this system still exists! Even though many will probably take advantage of it (like unknowing people like you), it still shows that they trust you to pay, once you do know. Somehow I don´t think you rode too often without paying....just a hunch.

This Mama Rocks said...

Beautiful photos. We currently are stationed in Europe. Its so fun to travel even though sometimes I miss the states. Such a beautiful place. Just stopping by from SITS to say hello :)

Jennifer said...

I'm like your husband - the idea of getting caught sends pee down my pant leg. Nice visual, huh? So I always pay, or return stuff, I just can't escape it, really. But even if Budapest could make some cash following up in passengers, I suppose most of their citizens would take offense, since it's been like this forever?

Grand Pooba said...

Oh man, the trax here in Utah are on the honor system too. You pay for your ticket at one of the stops from a machine and then hop on. Occasionally police on bikes will show up and ask for everyone's tickets, sucks to be the person who gets fined!

G in Berlin said...

Here in Berlin the controllers sweep through regularly and the fine is quite high. In addition, I think the public transit system is wonderful and very cheap and Berlin has trouble paying its bills: I no more ride black than I evade taxes. By the way, prisons here are overflowing with fare cheaters: it's not a long sentence, but I would think a bit embarrassing. I'm sure you wouldn't do it on purpose.

Melissa B. said...

I've ridden San Francisco's famed cable cars several times w/o paying. I never seem to figure the system out.

Michelle said...

Yeah... but you have to wonder, too, if the culture is to pay and to do it right, is the cost of actually having systems and people there to ensure compliance higher than the increase in fees they'd get? Witness the tollways in IL "temporarily to pay for the road construction" that are now permanenet 30 years later, more expensive, have their own autopass systems, etc. I kinda like this honor system.

NicoleB said...

Strangest experiences while traveling, no ;)

And yes, the fine is def. high and many people still take chances.
Oh well :)

Every system has flaws ;)

Heather said...

I don't know. I have a feeling that most people pay. That don't even think about NOT paying. A huge difference between Europeans and North Americans thinking. In many ways, which I'm sure you know better than I do!