Fine Madness With Helsinki’s Public Transport

Public transport is a public good that exists to reduce land usage, (building and maintaining parking spaces and roads are incredibly expensive), to reduce accidents, and to keep our air clean thus making substantial saving for public health costs. 

But Helsinki, like Berlin, does not treat public transport as a public good – if you do not have a ticket then you will get fined €80 by a ticket inspector… and that is a lot of cash…

Let’s consider the unintended consequences of this policy:

  1. The collection of the fine can best be described as a public shaming – we got rid of public executions years ago…
  2. The costs of inspection and fining are probably not even cost efficient.
  3. The application of fines is discriminately focused on low income people, pensioners, young people and women, the biggest users of public transport.
  4. Fines are not, and cannot be, applied to all commuters.
  5. Simple forgetfulness is treated the same way as deliberate cheating.
  6. The fact of fining is a disastrous way to attract visitors to the city and reduce traffic.

City-owned public transport is permitted by law to hand out fines if you travel without a valid ticket, and now the state-owned railways have decided to impose fines.

Back in the old days you could buy a ticket from the driver or conductor but now, these people have been removed because of cost saving and replaced with inspectors…  

What happens in the bus or tram is that a heavly-clad uniformed ticket inspector moves around and asks to see your ticket. Naturally you have put it in your wallet and purse and that is in your handbag (women) or your rucksack (man or woman), which you now must fish out in front of everyone. Many people get flushed and cannot remember in which part of the bag the ticket is stored. The delay is the first evidence of guilt… Once you have it out, the inspectors hold their electronic devices above you forehead and scan it. The whole affair takes several minutes and this is how they move around until the next stop. It is quite a show…

The drama of these moments is that there is always a busy looking man or woman dressed in a nice suit who does not have a ticket or some poor down-and-out drunk who does not have the money to buy proper food, let alone a ticket. The drunk is only there to keep warm or get out of the rain… The suited forgetful person must show his identity card and be doubly shamed. He or she then gets the fine printed with his name certifying that he is a sinner, while the drunk is firmly removed at the next stop without anything more than a grunt. The inspectors know that it is a waste time and money trying to fine somebody who will never pay! The suited one has now be shamed and we all feel bad for him or her. The fact that everything is in public view is bad enough, and even worse if the person has just been forgetful or left the wallet at home…

Under the Finnish Constitution all men should be treated equally – here are some quotes from the Constitution:

“The constitution shall guarantee the inviolability of human dignity and the freedom and rights of the individual and promote justice in society.”

“Everyone is equal before the law.”

“No one shall, without an acceptable reason, be treated differently from other persons on  the ground of sex, age, origin, language, religion, conviction, opinion, health, disability or other reason that concerns his or her person.”

… and according to our written Constitution the only people who can give you a fine must be authorised by law. Handing out fines for not having a ticket is regarded to be really serious, and, although not a crime, you can have the bailiffs round at your house and have your name on the credit defaulters’ list meaning that getting a bank account or loan will be tricky if not impossible. Since the city buses and trams are owned and operated by the municipalities they can authorise inspectors to fine you €80, the current fine in Helsinki.

Again the Constitution says:

“A public administrative task may be entrusted to a non-public authority only by law or under law, if it is necessary for the proper performance of the task and does not jeopardise fundamental rights, legal certainty or other requirements of good administration. However, tasks involving a significant exercise of official authority may be entrusted only to an authority.”

Municipalities can authorise inspectors and there are a million regulations to be followed to make sure that the inspectors have the right badges and clothing….  

However, although the government owns the State Railways (called VR here), VR does not have the right to fine you if you do not have a ticket! In spite of this legal limit, the heavy-handed VR bosses have decided to ignore the Constitutional, (the parts above) by introducing fines. VR says these are not fines because they are  using another name! This is a great idea – the next time you rob a bank just say that you were borrowing the money quickly with the intention of repaying it sometime in the future…

In the 1980’s, your correspondent was apprehended in Berlin when he could not find his tourist 3-day ticket while standing in a crowded train. The inspector was really rude and forcibly removed me off the train at the next station even though he was with friends who had the same tickets that had just been purchased. The angry young inspector actually shouted in bad English and better German. Anyway after a new search of the pockets, the offending ticket was found, and that was that. That happened almost 30 years ago, and still to this day it is difficult to understand why cities want to force people though such experiences.

It would be so much simpler for everybody to be asked to pay the due fare if caught without a ticket. It is wrong to treat simple forgetfulness and deliberate cheating in equal fashion, especially when we are dealing with just a few coins. Of course there are those who want to fine all ticketless cheats, but the number of deliberate cheats is small and the cost of trying to catch them all is probably higher or equal to the costs of keeping a flock of ticket inspectors busy day and night 24/7.

The final nail in the arguments for removing the fine policy is that it discriminates against low income families, women, pensioners and young folk. These are the people who are the biggest users of public transport. 

Foreigners are also caught in the ticketless trap. Try reading the English language signs at the bus and tram stops. They have not been designed to be easily understood by suitcase carrying first time tourists to Helsinki…

There is nothing wrong with having a random ticket inspector making his rounds, but let’s scrap the fines – just think how nice it would be to hear him asking politely for the payment of the due fare, if found to be ticketless, and if payment then is not possible. It would be lovely for the inspector to give the commuter a printed card with payment instructions and nice smile, instead of being faced with the threat of a debtors’ prison…

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