How Paris can use technology to solve its €100 Million fraud problem

Sep 3, 2013
Vote on Hacker News

1167682_10151804334047722_1761882515_o

This week the CEO of the Paris region metro system (RATP), Pierre Mongin, announced[fr] that he will implore the Minister of Transportation to increase penalties for metro, tram & bus passengers caught riding without a ticket. Fines for not buying the €1.50 metro ticket range from €30-€60 today (the latter for urinating of defecating in the metro or station), less than the price of a one-month pass, which costs over €60 today.

Mongin announced that there are over 1,000 full-time employees dedicated to giving out fines, while ticket fraud costs the company roughly 100 Million euro per year[fr]. In reading this announcement, I wanted to explore alternative methods to reducing fraud in the metro system, but first it seemed important to identify the ‘weaknesses’ in the Paris Metro today.

Problems with the current system

If you’re wondering how I know all the weaknesses in our lovely, super-convenient transportation system in Paris, it’s because I used to take advantage of all of them when I was living off of an intern’s salary in a Paris startup. I’ve done it all: jumped turn-styles, talked my way out of reasonably priced fines by screaming in purposefully broken French, and I learned a lot watching other pros of the metro system navigate the seas.

One of the most enjoyable experience for any metro traveler – especially unsuspecting tourists – is that beautiful moment when you insert your paper ticket (yep – paper tickets), and go to push through the turnstyle, only to feel the brisk clasp of someone’s belt clank against your backpack. Oh no, you’re not being pickpocketed yet, sweet traveler, you’ve just saved someone the trouble of having to jump over the 1-meter turn-style by having them hijack your ticket space, passing through with you. The alternative, of course, is employing your high-school track-and-field experience to do a two-hand vault over the turn style before the protective door closes behind the honest passenger.

Modifications of this technique

  • Passing through the electronic doors (several variations) before they close
  • Going through the exit doors by either A) opening the motion sensor ones from the outside wih your hands or B) passing through abruptly after someone exits them

See Metro. Strasbourg St. Denis for more examples

The problem is: it’s too easy NOT to pay. It’s mildly similar to what Kevin Spacey said about online TV content: if you make it easy enough for people to pay, they will do it.

“It’s not my job to stop you, go ahead and jump the turn styles”

One of the most shocking results from any of the above experiences is that, in almost every situation, turn-styles are within eye-sight of a RATP employee; it has become almost a passive approval for RATP employees to look turn-style hoppers in the eyes as they do it, without so much as picking up a radio or wagging a finger. Mongin wants higher fines – I want more efficient security.

In some stations, such as the Asnières-Sur-Seine regional train station, there aren’t even turn-styles. It is a 5-minute train-ride from Paris to its suburb, with no turn-styles on either side, and no one checking on the train – a ticket costs north of €2.30 for those commuters, and I’d be surprised if anyone’s paying at all.

In the end, however, my real issue is that, beyond all that lack of security, if you happen to stumble upon any of the 1000+ full-time employees whose job it is to check tickets, you will quickly realize that most of the people who habitually don’t pay (those who Mongin wants to increase fines on the most), have already discovered that tickets only get checked at exits, so all one needs to do is tread lightly as they get off the metro, and see if people in front of them get stopped, in order to avoid getting fined.

How Technology can solve this issue

Now that I’ve painted a beautiful picture of how this writer spends his time on the metro, let’s examine ways that we could avoid increasing fines (or do it anyway, it’s irrelevant in the end) by using technology to solve this issue.

Go Paperless – Where’s the Paris Oyster Card?

New York & London both have less convenient metro systems than Paris; however, I carry around an Oyster card in my wallet en permanence just as a reminder of how convenient the pay-as-you-go metro system is. In Paris, you have a paperless card; however, it is NOT pay-as-you-go, and if you travel at any regular frequency, it’s not even monetarily incentivized. Buying the one-year metro pass  costs roughly 10 times the one-month pass – in their own advertisements they point out that, since you take two months of holidays anyway, this works out perfect to your travelling habits. I now carry a handful of paper-tickets around in my wallet, because I travel infrequently by metro, and I don’t want to wait in the 9-hour line to buy metro tickets on the days I do take it.

For tourists, the Paris metro system is entirely ridiculous. You have to study an outdated map that you’ve never seen before and has no indication of where monuments are, in order to understand what Zone you’re in now, what Zone you’re going to, and what Zones you might travel to in the next few days, if you get a weekly pass. A weekly pass, by the way, starts on Monday, and ends on Sunday. No matter when you buy it. For tourists arriving on a Friday or a Saturday, good luck figuring out the best way to travel.

What if, instead of patrolling, we just had drivers issuing tickets?

Mongin complains that the most fraud occurs on buses and (above-ground) trams – I agree. I haven’t paid for either in years, and yet I say hello to the indifferent bus driver every time. In a recent visit to Amsterdam, I was shocked, yet pleased to see that their above-ground tram employees are there to make you pay. They’ve got multi-language explanations of their one-trip and one-day pass tickets, and you either pay or get off. One unsuspecting tourist tried to sneak on a side-door, and was subsequently chastised as there is exactly one door for entering the tram – all the rest are for exiting.

The RATP declared a 27.6% increase in revenue in H1 2013; I really doubt that making money is their big issue. The option Mongin opts for requires zero investment on their part, and will ultimately lead to the same problem a few years down the road.

Zero investment, zero results

The real problem is that those who don’t pay (even me, once upon a time) are allowed to ride. The investment required to fix such a problem is promised for the future – 2015 is the due date for paperless transportation – but Mongin would rather raise prices on fines that will ultimately go to tourists and the unprepared first-offenders, leaving the experts the same escape routes they(we)’ve always used.

In an economic crisis, RATP is one of the only publicly owned companies in France that is relatively unimpacted by the crisis, and is performing very strongly internationally (they have an eight-figure contract with the city of Shenyang in China). Paris tourism is on the rise, even though the amount tourists are spending is stagnating – all the more reason for the augment in traffic and revenue for RATP – this is an opportune moment for Mongin to double-down investment in overhauling the payment & passenger system.