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Trains of Two Cities

Posted by Dave Bull at 12:21 PM, September 4, 1996

Here's a little tale of two cities, or at least, of the trains of two cities. May I play a little game, and call these places 'A' and 'B' for a moment?

In City 'A', the trains and buses run quite efficiently, the vehicles are clean and generally on time, and the system is well organized, although very crowded during rush hours. But there have been many problems recently with passengers avoiding payment of the proper fares. In fact, cheating is rampant. Every few months, stories appear in the newspaper describing the latest fare scam, and how the transit authorities have moved to counter it. Students, salaried workers, many segments of society play the 'game' of trying to cheat the system. Passengers are even sometimes seen jumping over the entrance barriers, in order to enter without paying.

In City 'B' also, the system is very efficient. Routes are well thought out, vehicles are new and clean, and the trains and buses are well integrated. In this city though, jumping over barriers is not a problem - there are none. To board a train, one simply walks into the station, takes the escalator up to the platforms, and steps into the first train that comes. Arriving at the destination station, the procedure is reversed - off the train, down the stairs, and out onto the street. There are no turnstiles, no gates, no ticket collectors. It's not that the system is free, as tickets are required to ride the vehicles, and vending machines for these are found near the entrances to all stations. But the designers of the system obviously feel that their populace can be trusted enough to do away with checking everybody to see that they have paid the fare. It is an 'honour' system.

So just where are these two cities? If I were to tell you that they are (in no particular order) Vancouver and Tokyo, would you be able to match the two of them with the descriptions above? I suppose that those of you with no personal experience of either of these two cities will perhaps identify Tokyo as the 'honest' city, and Vancouver, with its rather more individualistic population, as the place with the cheating problem, but residents of the two cities know better. It is the other way around, and it is the Tokyo riders who play the fare 'games' so avidly. A recent story in one of my Tokyo newspapers quoted officials of the railway companies to the effect that lost revenue from the cheating was estimated to be on the order of many billions of yen per year.

What are the motivations behind these patterns of behaviour, which contradict our common images of Japanese people as being extremely law-abiding, and Westerners as being more 'free-wheeling'? It seems to me that there are a few causes for the Tokyo cheating - the first and strongest of which is the extremely high cost of transportation in this city. Ticket prices are high, and taking the trains day after day can run up very large monthly bills. The incentive to cheat 'a little' is always there. The fierce complexity of the system also encourages this in a way. With so many routes, so many fare schemes, and so many different ways to calculate the routing of a journey, attempts to 'shave' travel costs by artful application of the rules is a completely legitimate procedure. But the line between justifiable manipulation of the rules and outright theft is perhaps sometimes unclear ... Another important factor is one common in societies all over the world - the system is so large and faceless, that it is easy to feel as though nobody is being 'hurt' by cheating. People who would never think of stealing a piece of merchandise will cheat the train system without a second thought. It just doesn't seem like 'stealing'.

How about those Vancouverites then - do all those people thronging the stations each rush hour really have a ticket nestled in their pocket? Well, although I suppose that most of them do, I am sure that there are some who don't. I don't believe that Japanese and Canadians are really that different, and that when faced with similar environments, they probably behave in similar ways. The motivation for cheating in the Vancouver system is much less; the fares are cheaper, and the system is on such a smaller scale, that it hardly seems worthwhile to cheat it. Then too, it isn't completely an honour system, as there are random spot checks made occasionally to see if everybody is carrying a ticket, with fines being levied on those found to be cheating. Perhaps in reality there is just as much cheating going on in Vancouver as in Tokyo, but the transit company has decided that the cost of enforcement, with ticket barriers and checkers, would be greater than the amount being lost to dishonesty.

But for Sadako and I, buying tickets and then wandering around the station looking in vain for the entrance barriers, it certainly was a pleasant feeling to realize that we were 'on our honour' to use the system properly. It's too bad that most of our friends back in 'honest' Tokyo wouldn't believe us if we told them about it ...

(September 1996)


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