Does the future of travel lie in London’s ticket barriers or Berlin’s passenger trust?

Ticket barriers at London's Cannon Street tube station. Photo: Getty

In Berlin, tourists from London, Paris, Madrid, or even Moscow may be surprised to find that upon leaving Schönefeld Airport, there are no ticket barriers greeting them at the nearby S-Bahn stop. Instead, all passengers are kindly reminded that before boarding their train, they should “validate” their travel with a stamp from one of the nearby machines. Anybody who forgets to do so is met with the less friendly reminder that the penalty fare for such an act is 60 euros. And I should know, because I’ve paid that very price. So why employ such a system?

Although disconcerting at first, relying on ticket validation does make rather a lot of sense. Passengers can purchase as many tickets as they want, whenever they want, and simply stamp one every time they take a ride on the public transport network – be this by bus, tram, U-Bahn or S-Bahn. Day tickets are stamped when travellers take their first journey of the day, and are valid thereafter. This system, with its lack of physical barrier between the passenger and the train, is a vestige of a time before ticket barriers, when inspectors were the only way of ensuring passengers had paid for their travel.

Passengers in Berlin can still be prosecuted for travelling while in the possession of a ticket that they haven’t yet validated, because there’s no way of telling how long they’ve been doing so. Effectively, riding with an invalidated ticket is no different to going completely ticket-less; tickets are only “spent” after being validated, and could otherwise be used over and over again. A system of validation doesn’t necessitate thousands of inspectors, but does require a greater element of trust. In Berlin, even if fare evasion isn’t a problem, it’s always a worry.

Fare dodgers cost Berlin €20 million in 2015 alone, with 18.3 per cent of Berliners “sometimes” riding without a ticket, according to one survey –  although a more reasonable estimate puts the figure at somewhere between three and five per cent. If correct, this would mean the German capital’s rate of fare evasion is on a par with that of the London Underground – surprising, given the British system makes doing so much harder, and threatens to charge up to 16 times as much.

Because, while it’s claimed that physical barriers reduce fare evasion – and as such are being employed by more and more public transport authorities – the jury’s still out on their effectiveness. For starters, if passengers feel as though they’re receiving a good service, they’ll often be more than willing to pay for it – regardless of whether or not they’re forced into doing so. Moreover, removing ticket barriers – which are often predatory, imposing structures – fosters a better relationship between the city and the people, with the opposite being true when security is hardened to keep fare dodgers out.


What’s more, ticketing systems that don’t employ barriers enjoy several distinct benefits, including that it's just all-round easier to design stations without having to think about where to put them. Consider King’s Cross at rush hour; you might not realise it, but there are several different (and potentially time consuming) routes in and out of the station, with the aim of directing passengers in certain routes to prevent dangerous crushes at the gates. In Berlin, this is hardly a worry – you just get off the train and leave the station. The threat of a crush never really comes up, because there’s no comparable choke point.

This relative design simplicity means that stations without ticket barriers are less cluttered, and as such reaching sub-surface lines requires only walking down some stairs to a platform where all the necessary amenities are integrated. This removes the need for a large building at surface level, which can make construction more costly, especially when land costs are at a premium.

It remains that paper ticket validation is less convenient in the long term than the likes of the Oyster Card, but Germany has travelcards too, and they’re easily merged with the validation system. However, the necessity of ticket inspectors still means higher costs are incurred, and their implementation on busy public transport systems can often be cumbersome. For example, in Berlin there’s more room for ticket inspectors in the less busy outer zones – leading to a peculiar form of fare evasion discrimination.

Perhaps then, the best case scenario lies somewhere in the middle, for which we only need look to the humble London bus. In a time before Boris, the driver would have to print a ticket for every rider. When hop-on hop-off Routemasters were reinstated, they added a conductor for fare protection and health and safety. When this proved uneconomical, the hop-on feature was removed – but in its wake all London Buses became ticket-free in 2014, with contact with the driver often reduced to the dulcet tones of the Oyster card reader. All possible barriers between the passenger and the journey were removed, in favour of a single touch.

Of course, that a bus driver in London is able to see the entire vehicle from their seat makes policing passengers much easier. Security on public transport is only being ramped up, but if it means less barriers between paying and getting moving, that’s almost certainly a good thing. For commuters in Tallinn, Estonia, public transport is free of charge – on the condition that their travel card is irrevocably tied to their social security number. If that doesn’t tell us where we’re headed, nothing will: one day, we won’t need barriers or inspectors for our tickets. All we’ll need is ourselves.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.