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

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


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.

12 Responses

  1. David Bruant

    Ooohh… That was a good article!

    “For tourists, 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.”
    => Hmm… Not really fair. I’ve been disappointed abroad by the lack of information when it comes to transportation. Most recently, I discovered that all BART stations don’t even have a map of the BART “network”.

    “What if, instead of patrolling, we just had drivers issuing tickets?”
    => The reasons bus drivers ignore passengers and don’t want any contact with them is the recurrent aggressions they undergo. Every 4-6 months, RATP folks do a 1-2 days strike as support for one of their colleague whose been either sent rocks at, punch right in the face, threatens in all sort of ways, etc. (they’re also asking for safer work conditions in their strike).
    Which brings me to…

    “Mongin wants higher fines – I want more efficient security.”
    => Yes. Major train stations have military protection, but that’s to deal with terrorism threats, not daily problems of routine aggression. Not sure how to solve this one. This is a problem that spans beyond just the metro and may require coordination with the city. In Bordeaux, occasionally, there are cops in the tramway. It’s more of a prevention measure than anything else from what I observed.
    But the cultural context and ambient aggressiveness is nothing like Paris’.

    Some left-wing extremists suggest public transportation should be free (actually paid by taxes of course). It seems like it would solve the 100M€ fraud problem… It would also save money from the 1000+ people whose job is to make sure people have paid their ticket (since there is no need for tickets any longer). Or part of these jobs could be turned into people being welcoming to travelers, answering questions, making them feel safe.
    It’s not even completely crazy to have companies who benefit from these transportations (their employees and clients use them, don’t they?) contribute taxes too. They have to refund half of the price to their employees anyway…
    As you say, the money isn’t the issue at all here. It’s more a political issue.

  2. Pierre Chapuis

    > The problem is: it’s too easy NOT to pay.

    It is easy not to pay and hard to pay. RATP started *selling physical devices* to reload Navigo passes from home. Seriously, why!? They *identify you* when you use your Navigo pass, couldn’t they design the system so that you could log into your account from any computer and use your credit card to pay for the month?

    > Go Paperless – Where’s the Paris Oyster Card?

    This. There is something similar in Tokyo too.

    By the way, Tokyo. RATP should send its senior employees there for internships. No turnstiles, almost no controls, way less fraud. Not to mention all the other things they do better. I can admit that the Japanese mentality is different from the French, but still.

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

    The problem with that is that it slows down the bus at each stop. I went to Greece recently, and they have another system there: you hop into the bus through any door and sit down, then a dedicated employee comes to your seat with a portable machine to sell you your ticket.

    Of course, that means you need two people per bus instead of one now. But I am not sure it wouldn’t be less expensive than fraud added to the cost of paying controllers. And we do have an unemployment problem, don’t we?

    • cup o' joe

      I would say it’s not the RATP workers who could learn from Tokyo, it’s the riders.They have a better sense of civility; for example, the reason the stations there are spotless is because the riders don’t litter.

  3. Jean-Marc Loingtier
  4. Julien Duponchelle

    You can use your Oyster card in RAPT Network 😛

    Another problem is the zone system. I you are far away you pay more. It’s seem logic, but a lot of people are poor in this area and can’t pay the ticket.

    But you are right we have a cultural problem about that.

  5. iCal

    I read your piece in The Rude Baguette about the RATP and I have a few remarks :

    1 – Pierre Mongin is a civil servant (he is graduated from ENA, the same year as President Hollande and a lot of current statesmen), and a former Chief of Staff of various ministers. He was appointed at RATP to replace Anne-Marie Idrac, who was appointed at SNCF (the state owned railway company). Then, it’s not insulting for Pierre Mongin to assume that he is state-oriented in his assessments, decisions, visions. He cannot think outside of the box, outside of the state intervention, etc. So he cannot think as an invester or an innovator.

    2 – About the fraud : I’m not sure if it’s true, but some users of the RATP made a fund to pay for the fine when they are catched frauding in the subway. With a 5 to 7€ subscription per month, someone can be part of this fund, and all his fines will be payed by the fund. See : (I don’t know if it is true)

    3 – Only 30 to 40% of the RATP turnover come from customers direct payments (purchase of a ticket, annnual subscription, etc.), the rest come from a tax collected by an agency (STIF) from the payroll of the companies operating in the Ile-de-FRance

    So changing anything in the RATP is a highly political issue.

  6. NoBusesForMe

    One aspect of RATP pricing makes no sense to me: if my trip includes a metro line and a bus line, I have to pay twice, but I can spend an entire day going from one metro line to another! This is ridiculous. And don’t tell me it’s a technology problem.

  7. Al Machete

    Please dont give any ideas to RATP.

  8. iCal

    Two undergraduate students at MIT designed a ring to replace Boston’s transit card, the Charlie Card, to pay public transport fares with ease. The inspiration came from forgetting their Charlie Cards time and again.

  9. pfrancois

    i have some remarks:
    > RATP should introduce an equivalence of oyster card (pays as you go) to reduce fraud. for person who fraud, it doesn’t matter if they don’t use an card or a paperticket.
    > a weekly card start always on monday.
    yes but recently RATP create “paris visite” pass that could start anyday from 1 to 5 days.
    > the drivers should issue tickets. almost every month, there are bus driver aggressed by riders.
    > the map is obsolete :
    for a parisian point of view, the london metro map have at least same problems:
    * not the monument on the map
    * you don’t know the zone
    * more over with the oyster card, there are also two type of prices depending on the time if the days

    for tourist pass, they made some simplifications (3 zone for paris, 5 zone if you want to go to eurodisney, versailles or airports)

    you couln’nt say that oyster card pricing is easy. take a look on the table

    but i agree on the fact that fine could be increased.

  10. weeq

    The zoning problem is mostly due to the fact that RER (suburbs trains) are operated by RATP inside Paris and SNCF outside of it.
    That’s why until recently if you had a card to go from zone 1 to 3 and you and wanted to go to zone 4 you had to pay a 1 to 4 ticket.

    But let’s not forget that unlike tokyo, the ticket you buy in the subway will work in every transport system in Paris and its suburbia

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