A Tale of Two Cities: Paris vs Zurich

I left Paris on a Thursday headed for Zurich, Switzerland. One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Zurich is that it appears to be a very honest and trusting city. After leaving the airport I headed for the Tram station to go to my hotel in Old Town. Once at the station I realized that I had purchased a, more expensive, ticket for the Train instead of the Tram. I thought I remembered seeing a sign that said passes were good on Trains, Trams and Busses. When the Tram arrived, I asked the driver if it was ok for me to use my ticket to ride the Tram. She spoke very little English, and I speak no German, so we had a bit of difficulty understanding one another. She eventually told me it was ok to ride the Tram using my Train ticket. I thanked her then immediately looked for a place to scan my ticket. Not finding anything, I decided to just have a seat. As I rode through town I noticed at each stop that no one ever stopped to present a ticket or scan a card or anything. People just got on and went directly to their seats. At that point I assumed that it must be like the D.C. Metro where you pay as you exit. But that still didn’t make much sense because in D.C. You still have to scan your ticket when you enter. Your fee is based on the distance you travel. I eventually arrived at my stop and exited the Tram. Again, I looked for a place to scan my ticket. Nothing. So I checked into my hotel and went about my day.

Later I texted a girlfriend back home and told her that I suspected the transit system in Zurich might be on the honor system. Like me, she had trouble believing that it was even a possibility. She then reminded me not to try and test the system. I assured her she had nothing to worry about. I’ve been known to test my luck, but I have no intention of going to jail in a foreign country! The next day while on a tour of the city the tour guide informed us that the transit system really was on the honor system!! She said that the transit authority would sometimes stop riders to inspect their tickets but it was rare. However, if you’re caught on a Train, Tram or Bus without a valid ticket, a fine of CHF 150 is levied.

Coming from a place like Chicago, where the transit system always seems to operate at a deficit, I just can’t imagine CTA allowing us to ride using the honor system. But I’m curious to know how many people actually would pay if they knew no one was really checking.

Paris has to have the most strict payment enforcement process I’ve seen in any city I’ve ever been in. During my 25 day stay I was stopped three different times and required to produce my ticket. Not only did I have to show them my ticket but they took it and scanned it to ensure that it was in fact valid for that ride. I had my ticket scanned during a bus ride and twice while exiting different trains on different lines. I also saw several other checkpoints during my stay.

When I first started seeing these checkpoints I thought the transit authority might be overreacting a bit. But the longer I stayed, the more I understood their need to enforce payment. Not only did I see people hop over turnstiles to avoid paying, I actually saw someone pop the lock on an exit door so that he could avoid having my to pay at the turnstile. Travelers would also sneak into exits as you exited stations. It was sometimes so bad that people exiting could barely pass through because others were trying to push their way, illegally, into the exits. I even had one guy try to follow me through the turnstile. These are normal sized turnstiles. They’re not nearly big enough for two adults to pass through. They’re barely big enough for one person. I initially thought the guy was trying to rob me so I pushed myself backwards into him causing my backpack to hit him in the stomach pushing him backwards and pinning him between the turnstile and the gate. He wasn’t expecting that. He apologized profusely. I almost felt bad when I noticed that he might be injured. Those gates hurt! But then I remembered that he’d been trying to steal (either from my bag or a free ride) and went on with my day. That’ll learn him!

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