What can a ticket collector do when a passenger simply refuses to buy a ticket? The situation occurs a lot on TrenItalia trains and it can either end in a quiet renunciation on the part of the ticket controller – with the unspoken assumption that the free-rider will get off and simply get on the next train – or escalate into a heated conflict. I rode 3 trains this week and on 2 out of the 3 trains, at least one passenger on each trip blatantly and ostentatiously refused to buy a ticket. The Italians I have asked say that the act of refusing to buy a ticket is normalized by a climate of impunity and almost pathological disregard for operating ‘in the white’ that characterizes the current Italian political situation in everything to paying taxes to the mafia-controlled black economy that, by some estimates, makes up as much as half of the country’s economic activity. A climate of passive consent empowers passengers to assert their “right” to a free ride. Is it wrong?
The heart of the matter is that the belligerent passenger places the ticket controller in an impossible paradox: quietly cede control to the passenger and reveal to the other passengers that there is really no enforcement power behind the ticket system, leaving the ticket-buyers’ sense of self-superiority and the non-buyers’ sense of socially imposed ‘shame’ as the only control mechanisms, or confront the passenger personally, all the time knowing that no one has your back…except only maybe the imagination of a quiet, unseen masses of law-abiding passengers. In one case witnessed, the ticket collector quietly and peacefully asked the passenger (a young man who said he didn’t have his identity card…his arm was in a sling. I turned around to peer at him from between the seats) to get off the train at the next stop. In the second case witnessed, the passenger refused to buy a ticket faced off with the ticket controller. The conflict escalated into a high-tension face-off with insults and yelling. The train car was hot and small, full of passengers. The tension kept rising as a dozen passengers were held witness to the breakdown of TrenItalia law. The ticket collector had probably been in the same situation so many times before. She wasn’t going to let the passenger go, but at the same time had no real way to enforce the compulsory ticket obligation. The passenger became more and more belligerent. Should the collector have let the passenger get off at the next stop, with “shame” as the only punitive mechanism, or was she right to assert an aggressive confrontation of the rule-breaker? With 15 minutes to the next stop, there was no end to the conflict in sight. What should the passenger witnesses have done? What is their moral obligation? As I set off for group travel and tourism to Romania tomorrow (or, today, since it is past midnight in Bologna), I think about this paradox and its implications and the rules and economics – of both power and money – that govern and dictate the way we travel, the travel rules we choose to abide by, and those we don’t.