Ticket off (reprise)

Last year we looked at the way that the pricing structure of no-change-given ticket machines is often – apparently – designed to lead to overpayment, and I posed the question of whether councils/car park operators actually draw up their budget based on a significant proportion of customers overpaying.

Parking ticket machine in Totnes, Devon

Parking ticket machine in Totnes, DevonParking ticket machine in Totnes, Devon

I’m still no closer to answering that last question, but I was reminded again of this ‘the house always wins’ idea last week by this ticket machine (above) in Totnes, Devon. Look at the price intervals: 25p, 90p, £1.70, £2.55, £4.20, £5.75 – those are some rather odd figures. The price jumps – 65p, 80p, 85p, £1.65 and £1.55 – are odd in themselves, but given that the machine does not give change, it’s a fairly safe bet that,unless they carry a lot of change, many people parking for 1 hour will pay £1.00 rather than 90p, many 2 hour customers will pay £2 instead of £1.70, and many 3 hour customers will pay some amount larger than the very awkward £2.55. Why not £2.50? What’s the logic behind that extra 5p if not to force overpayment by people not carrying a spare fivepence?

One car park visitor was clearly sufficiently irritated to label the machine with exactly what he or she thought of the pricing policy (third photo above)!

Dublin Bus ticket details at Dublin Airport

An interesting case: Dublin Bus

One detail which was thrown up in the comments last time by Undulattice is that at least one no-change-given policy, that of Dublin Bus, is accompanied by the ability to get a refund if you really want, by taking your receipt to Dublin Bus’s headquarters (which are at least located in a fairly prominent place in the city centre), as explained on signs such as the above (photographed at Dublin Airport earlier this year):

Dublin Bus have operated an ‘Exact Fare – No Change’ policy for years now. In the case of over-payment, they issue a ticket receipt which can be exchanged at Dublin Bus HQ.
Oh, and they don’t accept notes either!

and Damien added this:

I can’t remember which one, but there was a charity in Dublin that started collecting the Bus refund receipts and cashing them as donations. Great idea.

The Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation, St Francis Hospice and Barnardos are among the charities actively asking for the receipts – as Barnardos says:

Did it ever occur to you that you are throwing away real money – and lots of it!

As much as €750,000 a year is going into rubbish bins across the county!!

In 2004 there were over 150 million passenger journeys on Dublin Bus routes right across the city. If ONLY 1% of those journeys were over–paid by 5c that’s a total of €750,000 that often ends up in the bins!

This forum discussion from 2004 suggests (how accurately, I don’t know) that Dublin Bus has more than €9 million in unreturned change. As with the car parking overpayments, how do accounting standards deal with this kind of overpayment arrangement? Can budgets be drawn up based on projections of massive overpayments along these lines? Are there businesses (bus companies, car parks, etc) that are only profitable because of the scale of overpayment? Some forum posts suggest that drivers may pocket and redeem a lot of the receipts themselves, which may further complicate the picture further.

The charity initiatives are a fascinating way to ‘fight the system’ and achieve some good – a mechanism for recovering overpayment en masse – and it does make me wonder just how much overpayment Transport for London’s bus ticket machines receive each year, and how that money is accounted for.

A different strategy

Back to parking ticket machines, Carrie McLaren of the brilliant Stay Free! commented that:

…in New York, like most major cities in the US, parking meters are priced way below their market value – so “the house always wins” claim wouldn’t apply here. Anyone able to find a metered spot is getting a real bargain, even if they don’t have the right change.

This is an interesting strategy, very different to that used by most car parking operations in the UK. Restricting the number of spaces and not deliberately overcharging for them seems to be clearly targeted at discouraging drivers from even thinking of driving into the city, while not ripping off those who need to do so. This generally does not happen in the UK, where parking charges (and fines) are a major revenue source for councils and private operators, and while high charges (and forcing overpayment) may pay lip-service to ‘discouraging traffic’, the still-full car parks would tend to show up that this does not work. I’ll look further at this, and ‘architecture of control’ strategies for parking, in a future post.

9 thoughts on “Ticket off (reprise)”

  1. Oh – I forgot to note the €1.90 fares on the Dublin Bus poster! Yes, those 10c overpayments will soon add up for someone, whether it’s Dublin Bus or the drivers themselves…

  2. In the Netherlands we have a debate going on on the pricing in parking garages. Normally prices are by the hour of half-hour. That means that if you come back after 62 minutes you pay for 2 hours. A retail trade platform is even complaining about lower revenues because of this injustice.

  3. Gerald Moore, a friend from Cambridge, sends me this:

    Slightly off-topic, but I’d be interested in your thoughts on the following way of circumventing what might broadly be linked to architectures of control.

    A few years ago, I was living in Finland at a time when the Helsinki tram authority was also attempting to introduce changeless ticketting (timed, if I remember correctly to coincide with the introduction of the euro). In this instance, enforceability of ticket purchasing was slightly attenuated by the ease with which passengers can board a tram without paying, since ticket machines are external (in shops and at stops) and there are relatively few conductors. In response to perceived price-hikes, disgruntled commuters set up the Helsinki Freeriders Association. At a modest €30/year, subscription entitled you to full reimbursement of the fines for not having a ticket.

    I suspect the council found a way to curb it eventually, but the scheme was hugely successful in the short-term!

    That’s a very interesting way of ‘insuring’ oneself against something fairly unlikely (getting caught) – I wonder in what other contexts something like that could work?

    Presumably the tram authority was still able to operate the trams viably even with a significant proportion of travellers not paying, otherwise enforcement would have been rapidly improved. So, overall, the system ‘balanced’.

    Does anyone have any more information or other examples of this kind of thing working?

    @Joost: Thanks for the comment – I suppose parking prices (and hassle) are probably a factor in drop-off in trade in city centres compared with the free parking at large out-of-town superstores. There seems little reason (other than encouraging overpayment) for not offering smaller time increments.

    Thinking further, the very nature of being required to estimate how long you will need to park for, and paying, beforehand, rather than when exiting the car park, could be construed as encouraging overpayment. I think most people end up paying more when guessing how long they’ll be – you pay for longer than you need ‘just in case’ – whereas a system where you pay on exit at least allows more accurate assessment.

    Don’t get me started on ‘tickets not transferable’ policies: I’ll save that rant for a future post…

  4. “I wonder in what other contexts something like that could work?”

    Filesharing insurance, perchance? Pay a few dollars a month; if the RIAA ever sends you one of those “pay us $3000 now, or face the wrath of our lawyers” notices they will furnish the $3000 to make the RIAA go away.

  5. I used to go shopping in a town called Mold in Wales, where the car parking was 0.20p for two hours, quite possibly the cheapest parking in the UK. What often happened was I would only spend about 1/2 hour going to the bank then return to the car park with an hour and a half still on the ticket, so as I left the car park I would hand my ticket on to someone just coming in. This was quite frequently the case with other users as well. About 18 months ago the council there changed the machines to issue tickets with the car registration details on them, hence removing peoples ability to transfer their unused time to someone else. They never increased the tarrif though, so its still really cheap to park there, but obviously now they have increased their revenue as everyone has to buy a ticket.

  6. Off on a tangent a little here, but last time we went to the cinema we used a pay & display car park, and noticed that the drain grille that ran along the length of the parking slots terminated just under the machine, somewhat clumsily extending itself past a kerb edge in order to do so. If you dropped a coin I’d say there’d be a 50% chance it’d go through that grille, which prompted some paranoid speculation about the council using the drain to implement a ‘clumsy tax’. Though with our council some kind of “if it falls on the floor it’s legally ours” law would be more likely, with coin attendants ready to pounce.

  7. Also a little off-topic, and I’m not sure if this is deliberate or just plain stupidity…

    In Melbourne a single ticket can cover your journey on the trams and trains (and buses too I think). On the trams there are coin-only ticket machines, but at the main railway station at Flinders Street larger machines also accept notes. Conveniently, there’s also an ATM right next to one of these machines, in case you find yourself without any cash at all…

    However there’s a catch… The largest denomination note the machine will accept is $10. The smallest denomination the ATM will deliver is $20. In close proximity are a number of newsagents, snack vendors, etc. All with signs saying “No change without a purchase.”

    Three-way collusion between the retailers, the bank, and the transport authority?

  8. Magnus’s ATM vs ticket machine problem described here is not unique. In Guildford, the nearest municipal car park to the railway station – pay on foot at the machine before exiting – accepts notes, but only £10 denomination. On the station there’s an ATM which is really useful if you’re arriving by train with no cash and need to get your car out of the car park – except it only issues £20 notes. You can always go and buy something in the station newsagent to break your £20 note – but only after you’ve walked to the car park and discovered that the machine won’t accept the notes you have just withdrawn from the ATM!

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