One of the enduring mysteries of Venice is the vaporetto (water bus) honor system. Basically, you are supposed to buy a ticket, validate it in the little yellow stamping machine, then get on the boat and ride. If it’s after hours, you can buy a ticket for a slightly higher price on-board. The ACTV (the regional transportation authority) employees on the vaporetto can – in theory – levy a modest fine on those who fail to produce a valid ticket.
In practice, ACTV employees very, very rarely check tickets, and even then, almost never actually fine anyone. For them, it’s a hassle, quite confrontational, and easier to ignore than to enforce. And the crew has its hands full as it is without having to be ticket cops. Generally, it’s a two-person operation, a pilot/captain who is busy avoiding gondola collisions and a marinaio who is roping and unroping, gating and ungating at every stop.
I have been on a vaporetto at least a couple thousand times, since we lived on an island that was isolated from the rest of Venice and depended on the wonderful transit system several times a day to whisk us across the Canale della Giudecca to Le Zattere or San Marco. Over all those trips, I might have been asked to show my ticket – at most – 5 times. Almost every one of those occasions were at night, when there was virtually nobody on board but me.
So mathematically, the system actually rewards non-payers. The fines are relatively low and rare, and after a handful of “free” trips, you’re in bonus territory, where even if you get caught, you’re ahead. (Note: this is not a confession, just an observation. I used monthly passes, myself.) I had a shameless American friend who, upon coming to understand the flawed system, celebrated each mooched ride with what she called the “Free Vaporetto Dance”, a kind of grind distinguished by a slow circular movement of the hands, as if she were stirring an enormous bowl of cookie dough.
It seems like a novel way to run a for-profit mass transit system in a country where beating the system is a kind of sacred national sport. Since musing about the future of technology is my day job, I can’t help but think about the 10,000 better ways ACTV could call on science to help collect vaporetto fares, all which would quickly pay for themselves by netting the money that that the vap sneakers are making off with.
Imagine the honor system in the US, say, in the New York City subway, where before the switch to the electronic Metro Cards, there were “token suckers” who would literally put their lips on the turnstile slots and hoover tokens into their mouths.
There’s a funny idiom in Italian for fare beating, or avoiding paying a fee that everyone else has to pay. To “fare il portoghese” means literally, “to make like the Portuguese”. While it sounds like a slur on the national integrity of those from Portugal, it actually has its origins in the 1700’s, when a certain Portuguese ambassador in Rome held a reception in which Portuguese nationals didn’t have to pay to enter. Whether these lucky partygoers celebrated their fortune with kind of dance distinguished by a slow circular movement of the hands, as if stirring an enormous bowl of cookie dough, is unknown.