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.


To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.

Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.