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.


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.