Does the Bordeaux Tramway have the most pass-agg ticketing system in Europe?

A Citadis 402 of Line B on Pont de Pierre. Image: Peter Gugerell/Wikimedia Commons.

Multiple tram lines, excess of bendy buses, modern cycle hire scheme… Transport in Bordeaux is about what one might expect from an up-and-coming European city of its size.

But Bordeaux’s public transport is anything but typical – and its oddness stems neither from the places it serves, nor the vehicles that take you there, but rather from their presentation. Public transport in Bordeaux is painfully passive aggressive – like if you took “Please mind the gap” and replaced it with “Would you mind causing yourself grievous bodily harm elsewhere?”

Allow me to elaborate. In the UK, it’s au fait for national rail services, especially those running without ticket inspectors on board, to run the following legal message (or a variant thereof) mid journey:

“Please make sure you have a valid ticket for your journey. If you cannot produce a valid ticket when asked, you may be liable to pay a penalty fare.”

Beyond this message, and subtle displays at stations and on trains, UK passengers are not subject to any serious cajoling to convince them to buy a ticket before a ticket inspector manifests themselves out of thin air.

In Bordeaux, the standard is completely different. Sometimes, instead of bothering to show their destination, the fronts of buses will simply read “Validez en montant, merci” – “Validate your ticket when you get on, thank you”. The nature of French word order – which places “merci” at the end instead of at the beginning of the imperative, as would be the case in English – makes it sound far more cajoling, especially if translated “Validate your ticket when you get on, thanks”. The choice to wilfully obscure the bus’s destination for the sake of reminding passengers to bother to pay for their journey speaks volumes about the dynamic going on here.

And we haven’t even got started. Each and every tram station in Bordeaux, along with the larger bus stations, is accompanied by an advertising campaign run by TBM, Bordeaux’s answer to Transport for London. This manifests itself as a series of posters, all with a coercive, passive aggressive tone attached.

One such poster appeals to potential fare dodgers by highlighting just how much the tram network cost the city: each tram was €3m, and the tram network is composed of 100 of them. But that’s not actually that much: some quick maths suggests that London’s new subsurface stock was far, far pricier, at roughly £7.8m per train.

Some posters on display at Palais de Justice. Image: Google.

Additionally, appealing to the citizenry by showing them how much money you’ve thrown at the transport network is hardly a persuasive argument. Before taking into account the coercive nature of this advertisement, it sounds as though Bordeaux is almost bragging about how many euros they burned in the pursuit of some fresh trams (although they are exceptionally fresh, thanks to state of the art air conditioning). Why didn’t the PR department highlight how nice the trams were, instead of appealing to their sheer cost?

Another poster in the same vein depicts people of radically different colours (including red, green and purple people) all paying for their ticket, implying that if all these violently coloured people can buy a ticket, you should too. Other examples include a poster highlighting the cuts to public funding and the resulting greater importance of individual fares; and a juxtaposition of the penalty fare (€122) with the price of one journey (€1.60), demarcated with an angry face and a happy face, respectively.

Finally, each one of these posters is accompanied by a motto: “It’s your choice!”, “Without you, there is no network!” and my personal favourite, “I travel, so I validate”, which sounds a bit like if Descartes decided to become a ticket inspector.

Every traveller makes for a better network.” Image: Claude Lynch.

But does this pass agg approach to enforcement actually work? The short answer is no. The long answer is also no, but some context might help explain a few imperfections.

First and foremost, in Bordeaux, ticket inspectors are so rare that the danger of paying the fine, the only real penalty beyond implied pangs of guilt, is miniscule. If fare evasion is already easy, worthwhile and relatively risk-free, appealing to people's conscience is unlikely to provoke any serious change in behaviour. And a passenger who thinks they can get away without paying is unlikely to change their mind just because TBM – exactly the people who benefit from having the passengers pay – tells them it’s in passenger’s best interests to do so.

Second, the bus stop at the airport, where TBM would expect to pick up vast numbers of paying customers, is notably free of any pass agg propaganda. The one bus route to the airport then travels through multiple Bordeaux suburbs, meaning it is consistently full – leaving no room for a ticket inspector and even less means to collect a fine.

A map of the Bordeaux tram network. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

Admittedly the aforementioned fine, €122, is far larger than most other European cities, beating out Paris (€30-75), London (£80), and even Berlin (€60), where the fine was specifically raised to avoid cases of fare evasion. Moreover, fare evasion rates in Bordeaux already fall well under not just those in Berlin, but most German cities, where fare evasion is not considered a serious issue. In fact, fare evasion in Bordeaux was already decreasing year on year, without any action being taken. So the city is putting up posters to solve a fare evasion problem it doesn’t even have, and didn’t have before implementation, at a presumably high cost.

So why does Bordeaux feel obliged to combine such high penalties for evasion with such on-the-nose coercion? Perhaps it's because the tram network is rather new; it opened 15 years ago in 2003 and has been growing ever since, meaning TBM is under higher pressure to recoup costs. This raises the question of whether it may have rolled out this immense parade of passive aggression without first considering how much money it’d save doing it – given the flashy, emoji-laden posters almost certainly carried their own cost.

It might be that problems with fare evasion are simply endemic to latter-day France: police were recently deployed in far greater numbers on the Paris Metro to catch fare dodgers, collecting €12000 on the first day alone.

Perhaps the passive aggressive approach is Bordeaux’s alternative: appealing to the conscience, rather than fear. If Descartes actually were a ticket inspector, he’d probably approve.


A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.

Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.