Trusting your bus fellows – Paul Lorentz

Trusting your bus fellows – Paul Lorentz

It’s actually one of the first things I noticed after arriving here. People handing over some money to each other on the bus. A 5 hryvnia bill passing from hand to hand until it reaches the driver, where it can be exchanged for a bus ticket. And then the ticket going backward, sometimes unsure whether it will find its rightful owner, or not.

That was really flabbergasting to me. And the more I think about it, the more it is. It takes an enormous amount of trust in each other to handover your money like this. Of course, it is not a large sum of money, as it represents only about 20 cents of euro. But first, it is, relatively to Ukrainian standards, way higher than it would be for me, back in France. As a comparison, there, a tram/subway ticket is about 2euros (50 hryvnias).

Second, you don’t actually trust each other with those 5 hryvnias. You trust each other with the possibility of being fined 100 hryvnias. And controls happen often. I have been more controlled here in 2 months, while taking the tram 3 or 4 times a week, than I have ever been to Paris, using public transportation every day for several years.

Don’t get me wrong. You shouldn’t pay the ticket out of fear of a fine, but instead to co-finance a functioning public transportation system, allowing everyone to travel at an accessible price while being ecologically responsible. But it doesn’t fundamentally matter, in our situation, if you are that kind of idealistic moral person. In order to trust people with your money, you then have to believe everyone on the way to the bus driver will share that belief, over simply enjoying a free ride. And that’s a very different level of idealistic.

So when you take the chance of sending some money to some complete strangers to travel the whole way to the driver, back and forth, you consider it likely enough that the ticket will come back to you, or that the probability of both it not returning AND being controlled is low enough to risk it. And of course, as you don’t know any individual along the way, you have to consider all of them equally as a potential risk: every single one of them is susceptible to decide to simply refuse to pass it on and keep it for himself instead. The only variable is how high is that risk, therefore how much do you trust your random fellow bus-taker.

Concretely, that habit probably started with one guy, one day, who realized he had no way to get to the driver to pay for the ticket because the bus was too crowded (or that he was simply too lazy to go), then decided to try his luck by sending some money over, that he was going to flip a coin and trust every single individual on the way with his money and make it circulate freely among them.

And, surprisingly, it worked.

It would never have happened in France. More, people would have considered you stupid for even trying. They would likely consider you deserve to be stolen if you’re naive enough to hand over some money to complete strangers. Because what will you do if you never receive your ticket back? Ask the whole bus where it disappeared? What if someone tells you, yes, I took your money? What are you going to do about it? Get angry? It will be a pathetic show if, as it is very likely, he is not impressed at all. Be violent? Out of moral implications, go ahead, risk a criminal record, pay 1000euros in damages, all of that to get 20 cents back (or 2euros). That is, in the eventuality, you actually ‘win’ them back instead of simply ending up with a broken nose. Call the police? They won’t even come. And if they would, it would be to laugh in your face. You can just either go get another ticket, or sit back and pray no controller shows up, in shame.

But in Ukraine, it worked. And not only did it work the first time. It worked a second, a third…. Until some people decided to follow up, slowly developing into a general habit. It means that the ticket going back and forth was not a statistical aberration of one lucky dude. It means the bond of trust between individuals in Ukraine is strong enough to trust each other with their money on a daily basis. It means they respect each other enough to consider that this habit shouldn’t be abused, that you shouldn’t sit on the bus, wait for one ticket to get to you, and just use it for yourself, or this habit would be short-lived.

I am not sure if it sticks together because of some kind of auto censure, a culture of mutual social surveillance, or some generally shared ethics. It actually happened also several times that some people checked on tickets that didn’t belong to them at all (‘Did you pass over the tickets I gave you money for already?’). It is very possible that such a gesture is made possible only because, in case of abuse, people would collectively pressure the abuser. Taking him out of the tram for example. It nonetheless means that the incentive to protect that possibility of cooperation is stronger than simple social inertia and/or apathy (‘this is none of my business’).

And that’s somehow all together beautiful, coherent, poetic, and a bit scary.


cover credits: Osama

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