Many people who know me know I believe strongly in robust and free public services. It’s one of the least anarchist things about me besides the fact that I appreciate bathing. It also differentiates me from libertarian types whom I have very little in common with anyway.
I judge cities. A lot. And one of my measures for how great a city might be is its public transit. In general, I like cities that have good public transit. By good I mean semi-reliable, affordable, smartly designed, and reasonably convenient. For example, New York, in my opinion, has one of the greatest transit systems I’ve experienced. You can get around relatively quickly with few transfers and popular routes are 24 hours. Contrast this with Chicago where it’s difficult to have more than one destination in a day and my biases begin to take on the shape of reason.
What is interesting to me about transit systems is the fact that some rely on the rider to self-regulate. I would be overestimating officials if I said this were an encouragement to steal. But, I think it presents an opportunity. Transit, like other public services should be mostly funded by those who can afford it. The metro works because, if there is a self-regulated payment system, 80% of people can and will pay and 20% won’t and shouldn’t have to. This is connected to my belief in stealing public transit when possible. It’s how I ended up with an ear infection and a €60 fine in Paris two years ago, but that’s a story for another time.
My point, because I suppose there has to be one, is that public transit systems that depend on self-regulation make for better transit in my opinion. Not coincidentally, I find these systems more common in European cities, wherein you buy your ticket and are expected (or trusted) to put it in the machine on the platform or once you board the vehicle. The only US city that I’ve noticed is similar is San Francisco, where you can board at the back of the bus and maybe or maybe not pay. I’ve also had good experiences with the buses in Washington, DC and Portland, Oregon, with drivers not really caring whether or not I had the fare. On another hand, I almost got kicked off of a bus in Los Angeles — with a suitcase — because I was $1.50 short. I’ll concede that bus drivers’ moods likely have something to do with this, but I think the asshole-bus-driver-to-nice-bus-driver ratio in certain places is a bit higher than in others.
All this to say, the U.S. doesn’t care about people who lack discretionary income and especially not their mobility. There’s little room for testing, bending, or breaking the rules, which, in my opinion, makes for boring cities. Forcing me to absolutely pay before I get on public transit has social consequences not unlike forcing me to board and exit a metro when the unseen operator opens the doors. Give me an “honor” payment system and a manually-operated door handle on the train any day. I would much rather have the option to pay or steal and stumble out of the car while it is in motion and risk my own ankle or life than be obliged to abide by someone else’s risk analysis. Because without spontaneity and occasional unpredictability, how great can a city really be?