Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Trust: Why Zurich has better Public Transport than Brighton

Zurich is a filthy rich capitalist city. It also has one of the world's best publicly owned urban transport systems. Zurich's trams are fast, efficient and electrically powered.

Brighton UK is a relatively poor seaside resort which generates its income from restaurants and bars, language schools, universities, drink and drugs. For public transport, it relies on privately owned buses which are adorned with self-congratulatory advertisements. The buses are slow and polluting, even if less so now than in the past.

But much of the difference in the systems is due to differences in the degree of Trust people in the two cities place in each other, not to the wealth differences.

In Zurich, each tram stop is equipped with a large ticket machine. You buy your ticket and board the tram. There is no conductor to check your ticket and the job of the tram driver is to drive, not check tickets. There are inspectors, but not many of them. I have never been asked to show my ticket.

The calculation must be this: What you lose on free riders who don't buy a ticket you (easily) save on staff and ticket-checking machines. In addition, your trams are able to load and depart quickly from any given stop.

In principle, your kerbside ticket machines can be burgled. It just doesn't happen often enough to cause a problem. Maybe even the thieves in Zurich are proud of their public transport system.

In Brighton, there are no kerbside machines. Maybe the private bus company is too mean to install them. But more likely they reckon Brighton full of thieves and vandals. Machines wouldn't stand a chance.

So you board the bus and pay the driver. Yes, the driver. We don't have conductors any more - they double the number of staff needed to operate a bus. Nor do we have machines on the bus - too many thieves and vandals again.

Even though many passengers have passes to wave at the driver, it's nonetheless the case that Brighton buses are excruciatingly slow simply because the driver has to issue tickets. Your heart sinks when you see a large queue at the next bus stop where you will stop and load up. If humanly possible, I walk into and around the city just to avoid that.

The moral is quite simple. If you can trust other people, life is not only more pleasant but your economy is going to be more efficient because - in the example I have described - you cut the time needed to travel from A to B.

Building a Rapid Transit system is not just about Technology; it is also about Trust.

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