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Fare dodgers do a disservice to us all

SHANGHAI Metro operators are beefing up efforts to curb fare evasion.

Commuters frequently spot cheeky fellow passengers slipping under the turnstiles into or out of stations. Such fare dodging is said to cost more than 10 million yuan (US$1.6 million) in lost ticket sales each year. An estimated 20,000 people evade fares everyday, according to Eastday.com, a local news portal.

Fare dodging sometimes is so brazen that perpetrators slip in and out in the full glare of Metro staff nearby, who choose to turn a blind eye rather than intervene and confront them.

It makes me wonder if the vaunted campaign is really serious. The very people who should care don't seem to care much themselves.

Catch me if you can

The daily game of "catch me if you can" on Shanghai's Metro network contrasts sharply with what I saw in Germany.

During my sojourn in Hamburg last year, I commuted to work on the U1 (or the U-Bahn's Line 1, one of the two subway services, the other being S-Bahn).

The U-Bahn has no turnstiles separating the paid area from the public area as we have here in Shanghai.

In other words, you can ride for free.

I must admit the evil thought once slipped into my mind, more as a question of a curious outsider than a real attempt to dodge the fare.

But to my great amazement, such a thought appeared alien to the Germans. Occasional ticket checks may have thwarted fare evasion. And once I had a glimpse into how it worked.

One day, a uniformed U-Bahn worker boarded a U2 train that I was taking, and asked to see every passenger's MonatsKarte, or monthly train pass.

Almost all commuters quietly complied. Only one person, a foreigner, was caught without a ticket and fined 50 euros (US$64.40).

The German state places a great deal of trust on its citizens to pay for public transport, which is very expensive. And since that trust works like some kind of tough love, expecting reciprocity in the form of good behavior, the price for betraying that trust is hefty. In Hamburg, the fine is about 50 euros. Those who leave their MonatsKarte at home can get their money back by showing the valid papers at a given police station.

Cultural factors

But ticket checks are simply too sporadic to be counted on as an adequate deterrent. I believe cultural factors are more at play. And my landlady, Veronika, agree. She said that Germans generally view those who dodge fares as lacking in moral discipline and integrity.

But more importantly, it is the trust in passengers that makes the no-turnstile system work, my landlady said.

Trust works both ways. I've experienced that trust, first and most profoundly in Germany, but also elsewhere in Europe. For instance, in Vienna and Prague, there are also no turnstiles to block non-paying passengers either, only little devices atop metal poles erected at the entrance to the paid area. And they are only for puncturing tickets.

One would be crazy to suggest removing the turnstiles from Shanghai's Metro stations. The consequences are obvious and the operator's finances would suffer enormously, as most would be tempted to ride for free.

The operator has said future fare evaders, if caught, will be fined 11 times the top fare. I doubt the heavier fine will have much effect as enforcement is unbelievably lax.

Another annoying sight in Metro stations here is the security check. Only a few comply while most walk right past without having their bag checked. So far, the checks exist in form, not in content.

The checks are designed to stop people from bringing dangerous items onboard trains. But if conducted on a full scale, they would slow traffic down to an intolerable speed. Enforcement, again, is a crippling problem.

Shanghai's Metro network is arguably one of the best in the world, as I am told time and again by amazed foreign travelers. But more trains and more lines are not what a modern subway network is all about. The Metro operator has some serious work to do, starting with severe crackdowns on fare evasion.


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