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.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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