The culture of fear on our `public` transport
Russell Degnan

On Saturday night I savoured two of the least pleasant aspects of city life that I've come across in the past few months. First came a rather hellish walk from Flinders St. across the river (this was tolerable), and down to the ABC Studios on Southbank Boulevard (sic) for a concert. The concert was excellent, but the streets of Southbank are terrible for pedestrians, traffic heavy, lifeless and ugly. But that is not the focus of this piece.

Rather, it was the trip home. I jumped a train round the loop to Melbourne Central because there was some confusion at Finders St. On board were two grey coated ticket inspectors. After accosting a passenger and threatening her with a fine for having her feet on the seat, they stood at the back of the carriage, angrily muttering to themselves about passengers having no manners and how they need to be 'taught'; aggressive in their demeanour, unfriendly in expression. In short, the archetypal petty official. Full of their own power, and their ability to inspire fear in their so-called 'customers'.

I habitually avoid public transport where I can, because I prefer to walk, and because in the past ten years I've been using it it has declined from a relatively user friendly (if slow and occasionally incompetent) system to one of sheer obnoxiousness. I blame this, mostly on the fact that the inspectors operate under a privileged legal position that few - if any - other businesses are able to employ. That of fining people who do not pay their fares.

The collection of fares should be the responsibility of the operator. There is a cost to this, in machines, or in hiring conductors. But there is a cost to receiving payment in any transaction, even if it is rarely onerous and that cost should be borne by the business. But it isn't in this case, or rather, they have found a way around their own inefficiency at collection, by fining you, heavily. Further, they fine you for many other misdemeanours that no other business could dream of. Lacking the competence to run a socially inclusive system they have resorted to the tactics of a repressive police state, with all the negative consequences for the user's experiential aspects that this entails.

It is a pathetic piece of system design that can't collect fares without resorting to intimidating tactics and excessive fines. And it shows a massive failure of imagination on the part of the operators and particularly the government. I am all in favour of repealling the fines aspects of the Transport Act to force operators to obtain a better solution. If that means rehiring people to provide service, then that is what must happen. But the current system is not a solution at all. It is a disgrace, and an embarrassment to the city of Melbourne.

Sterner Matters 9th August, 2004 01:27:44   [#]