Cheating the Subway

DESCRIPTIONPhoto: akiwitz

A few years ago, I hurried to catch a Berlin subway and forgot to buy the $2.10 ticket. Usually nobody checks tickets, although every once in awhile checkers pass through the subway-which they did on that trip! I paid an instant cash fine of $40 and was completely embarrassed and chagrined. My friends tell me now that not buying a ticket is a smart move-the probability of being checked is below .05. And my small sample of subway-riding this trip suggests that statistic is true.

So a risk-return comparison argues that I should never buy a ticket. But I always do. The reasons are simple: risk aversion-I don’t like to worry about the potential for being caught out; and a desire to conform to the social norm of buying a ticket-I don’t like being embarrassed. I believe this behavior is typical, but I wonder how long adherence to this norm will prevail.

Mike B

Just consider the fine to be the ticket like a waiter delivering the bill. After you pay the fine enough times you will simply lose all shame about it.


Portland's MAX system faces a similar problem, low rates of fare-checking, but with the wrinkle that fees escalate rapidly after the first offense. However, they have a second problem in that it's easy to get off a train if you see inspectors waiting.

Also, they have a third problem in that they have way more inspectors in the... less posh parts of town (the yellow line N of Rose Garden) - and then use the higher amount of fare evasions caught there to continue the disparity.

The sad thing is, they're probably technically correct to do so.

Myron Joseph

Risk aversion is not an accurate analysis of the situation. The tickets are purchased because the probablity (low) of being caught without one times the negative value (high) of being embarassed and fined is much higher than the cost of the tickets.

Imad Qureshi

I noticed the same thing in Zurich. But if you see the price of annual or monthly tickets and then compare with the chances of getting caught, then its probably worth buying the ticket. Fine is 80 Frank for the first time which isn't that big but for me, cost of embarrassment is too high so I'd rather buy a ticket.


I had a conversation with someone from Germany about the train tickets. They felt morally justified in not buying tickets because they are residents who pay into the local tax system, and the taxes subsidize the train. They felt I had to pay, though, since I'm not a local taxpayer.


It is basically the same thing to pay the fine or pay the ticket...


That must be a tricky art to figure out the right number of fare inspectors. At some point, if the enforcement is heavy enough, it's just as wasteful to pay a team of fare inspectors as it is to never check a single ticket and rely on nothing but the honor system.


Take the risk if you live there, sure. But for tourists it can get worse, my fiance and I were caught last year but only had cash between us for one fine. The officials said the Authority would bill us for the other 40 euro. When I got back to America I had a bill for 80 euro. The difficulties of translating the money transfer documents via Google took me 3 attempts & 8 months. Compared to 120 euro I will ALWAYS buy tickets when I travel.


In Germany, as long as kids are thought that they should obey all rules at all times. There was a store in Switzerland that had a sign at the door that, instead of prosecuted, shoplifters' mug shots would be posted on front page of local papers. No material shoplifting reported... Intangibles beat cash, Herr Doctor.


"I believe this behavior is typical, but I wonder how long adherence to this norm will prevail."

You mean, how long will simple morality persist? I don't think you can model this case as simply adhering to a norm. The concept that, in a given circumstance, there is a good course of action (and conversely a bad one) is a universal human concept, not specific to a society.

For some people, it *does not matter* who else is buying tickets or not - that is, for some, it is not a question of what the social norm is. It is a different question entirely - a moral question. And I wouldn't bet against morality sticking around for as long as people do.

Not buying a ticket might be a financially profitable move (for you), but it's not necessarily a smart move.


The subway in Vienna, Austria is like this too. I spent 3 weeks there 6 years ago. One day, after already riding it once that day,I realized that my ticket expired the previous day, so I hurriedly bought a ticket before getting back on. About an hour later, I got off my stop and was checked for a ticket. Since I also had a bag of weed in my pocket, I think its a good thing I bought that ticket.

Scott Freeman

Where I live (a particular part of England) the larger train stations have ticket barriers that mean you need to swipe your ticket to enter or leave the platform area. However the small local stations, one of which is my local one, do not.

Also, the large station ticket barriers are only manned up until about 8pm, at which point the barriers are all opened for the night and the staff go home.

This means that if I'm going to a small station I need not buy a ticket, since the chance of inspection is so low (additionally, they can levy a ?20 fine but you can claim to have no cash and give them a fake name and address so that you never have to pay). It also means that if I'm going for a night out in town (where there are ticket barriers) we don't need to buy tickets because we know the barriers will be open and unmanned.

They also have a system called 'permit to travel'. This is where you can put any coin (1p, 2p, 10p etc) in a small machine which prints one of these permits. This is not a ticket, but it means that if you're found without a ticket (at the barriers or by an inspector) you won't be fined, merely have to pay the price of the ticket. The idea is to prevent people missing their train because a queue or because the ticket machine wasn't working. But it also allows anyone to hedge on a bet that there will be no inspection or that the barriers will be open for just 1p.

Lastly, I was unlucky enough to be fined once. When they levy the fine they give you a sheet of paper telling you about how to pay the fine, how you must do so within 28 days etc. It's a form, printed on ordinary paper, that the inspector fills out. When you reach your destination, if there are barriers, you can show it to the man and he will let you through. Essentially it acts as a ticket in its own right. Given its generic nature, it would be no effort at all to forge one, allowing for free one-way journeys even when there are barriers.


Dave Manning

I had this happen to me in Frankfurt, Germany in 1985. I'd had a monthly "strasse" pass for three years, but my family was returning stateside, so I didn't buy one for the last month I was there. Hopped the subway to go one stop, with 40 Deutschmarks in my pocket to buy a ticket to see Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street band - and got fined. You guessed it, 40 marks.

M. E.

That sort of honor system may work in Europe, in countries with relatively homogeneous populations, but to a New Yorker it's a laugh out loud and fall on the floor proposition. Absolutely no one would pay, ever, and there would need to be a high ratio of "checkers" to passengers.

But why would that be, exactly? Is it the sense that the NYC MTA is so hopeless that one shouldn't have to pay? Or is it a more national phenomenon, that unlike Europe we in the US receive absolutely no value for the taxes we pay and so it is perfectly honorable to avoid taxes and fees whenever possible?


In Mumbai, India, there's in fact a unofficial insurance scheme - you pay the agent a monthly fee ala premium in exchange for coverage against ticket checkers and their fines. Don't buy a ticket ever once insured; if they catch you, calmly pay the fine, and then get it reimbursed from the agent in exchange for the proper fine receipts.

Guess, there's no social stigma attached to it if it is quasi-legalized! Maybe some additional wastage of time in dealing with the agent and the ticket checker, but many feel that this scheme is worth it.


In London we have automated ticket barriers. If you don't have a ticket you have to jump the barrier; which makes you *very obvious* to any staff watching (and there are usually staff watching). It is true that they don't operate at all hours (if there are no staff they can not be used) but they operate at the busiest times. We have had this system on the London underground for many years; it is getting more widespread use in mainline train stations now too.

Ian Kemmish

If the number of people buying tickets declines, then the return on investment from each sweep by the inspectors goes up, and if it declines far enough it probably becomes profitable to hire more inspectors and have more frequent inspections. When that happens, presumably the number of people who, acting out of rational self-interest, buy tickets increases again.

The question is: does this process lead to equilibrium or to oscillation?

And why don't the Germans have automated ticket barriers, anyway?


Uh, Daniel, beyond the economics of it, beyond the embarrassment of being caught, how about buying a ticket because it is the HONEST thing to do?

We can all figure out shortcuts that save us money (after all, there might even be a statistical support for shoplifting over buying something), but we ought to do some things just because they are fair and right.

Of course, I know you, of all people, know this. But let's save the odds and statistics for Las Vegas--ha!

Jeff #3

If I recall correctly there was a previous post/comment on the Freakonomics blog that dealt with a similar situation.

In India there was a company offering insurance for people who got caught on a train without a ticket. Since the ticket price/enforcement ratio is similar to what you mentioned, people can buy insurance for being caught without a ticket, and the company will reimburse the insured for the fine they receive.

From a cost standpoint, this is a pretty good deal for the ticket skipper.


What I learned from a holiday in Prague on trying to cheat the system: that if it was obvious that you were tourists, chances of being caught were higher (tourists would have the least experience and understanding of the system), and that ticket checkers aren't necessarily dressed in uniforms (in my experience they disguised themselves casually as commuters!).