Tuesday, March 3, 2009

On Public Transportation

I do some of my best thinking while riding the DC subway. There's just something about zipping along underneath the city and all its distractions that entices me to let my mind wander, if only for a few stops. All topics are fair game during these subterranean daydreams, but while taking last night's trip I couldn't help thinking about the metro system itself. More specifically, I realized for the first time that I have never been asked to show proof of purchase while riding DC rail or bus lines. No one has ever asked to see my ticket. This might not seem like a big deal, except that my travels through Europe are a regular treasure trove of encounters with the transport police. Why doesn't the same thing happen here?

There was the time in 2001, when some friends and I decided to take the train from Cannes to Barcelona over Thanksgiving weekend. Once across the border, it was quickly discovered by a less than friendly controller that we didn't have the correct tickets for the train. After what seemed like an eternity of listening to a man yell at me in a language I didn't understand, we decided to make a run for it. When his back was turned and the train had stopped, we bolted...and found the tickets he was asking for in a backpack pocket later that day. A few years later, transit authorities asked to see my tramway pass a couple of times in Bratislava, and I paid a $20 fine in Prague when the patrolmen discovered I didn't have the correct ticket. If you spend any amount of time in Paris, you're bound to have someone ask to see your ticket. The controllers will come into the metro cars, create human barricades in the metro passageways, and board buses in an effort to root out the cheaters. I find French policy of any kind to be incredibly intimidating, so I always had my ticket at the ready. And though I never ran into controls in the London Underground, the system's confounding layout and bizarrely creative station names are enough to keep any traveler on his or her toes.

Maybe public transportation controls only happen where they need to happen. I've never seen turnstile jumpers in DC, but it was an almost daily sight in Paris. That might explain the organized effort to check travelers for tickets. Or maybe the DC system simply doesn' t have the funding to pay transit police. Considering the price hikes and service cuts we've been seeing, I wouldn't be surprised. I just don't understand how, after over two years of total time spent living in Washington and taking public transportation, I could have managed to have my ticket checked a total of zero times when in Europe it was simply business as usual. Why the difference? What am I missing? Then again, seeing as how some of those foreign encounters were less than pleasant, maybe I shouldn't question the tranquility of the DC subway.


Jeff said...

I've been checked for tickets onboard trains for longer range trips in Europe and Japan, but never in the subway systems of London, Madrid or Tokyo. I guess they have more faith in their turnstiles. At least they had pity on me in the UK when I rode a rush hour train from London to Blackpool using an off-peak ticket and didn't charge me the extra £60 or so.

One thing I do like better, though, about New York's subway than DC's is that you can use the same ticket to pay for friends/visitors to get through the turnstiles.

Tanya said...

Jeff, Ah yes, that would be really nice to be able to pay for visitors and friends with your own pass. I tried to do that on a bus here once and the driver had to tell me it wasn't possible. Plus, doesn't NYC have 24 hour service? That would be nice too.