• 2008-01-09

By now Latvians are inured to price rises, so on Jan. 1 when the cost of a one-way ticket on Riga's public transportation jumped 33 percent to 40 santims (0.57 euros), most people just rolled their eyes or shook their heads in quiet resignation. Rigas Satiksme (Riga Transportation) is just like any other enterprise and is forced to raise its fares to keep from sinking in an environment of soaring energy and labor costs. To be sure, Riga's public transportation remains relatively cheap. True, a one-way ticket in Vilnius is 0.4 euro, but in Tallinn it is 0.82 euro.

But Riga's new fare system, as things turn out, is nuanced, particularly on trams. A one-way ticket costs the usual 40 santims, but if a passenger opts to buy directly from the driver, the price jumps 25 percent to 50 santims. This surcharge for the convenience of "buying on-the-spot" is not novel and is used in many countries. However, in Riga, where a certain part of the population still maintains a Soviet mentality, this new approach quickly flopped. What happens, after all, if the kiosk is out of tickets?

Aware that a ticket from the driver costs more, passengers naturally try to buy the 40 santim tram ticket at the nearest kiosk. But kiosks in the first days of January were mysteriously out of tickets, so passengers were forced to pay the surcharge (or else scour the town in search of a 40-santim ticket). One can only wonder who to blame for this predicament. Certainly Riga Transportation is at fault since it simply did not deliver enough tickets to the kiosks on Jan. 1 (or at least by Jan. 2). Why not? Could it be because the company wanted to gouge the extra 10 santims from as many passengers as possible?

At the same time the deficit could be the result of passengers buying up all the tickets fearing that they may be forced to pay 50 santims for a late-night or early morning ride when the kiosks are closed. Still others, particularly older people, may see the 40 santim fare as a discount 's something that they must take advantage of while they can 's so they buy up as many tickets as possible. Hence, the deficit. 
Wherever the truth lie, the situation is increasingly frustrating. Public transportation in Riga continues to be unsatisfactory. Drivers are often deplorable, the trolleys frequently detach from the wires, and the whole system grinds to a standstill during rush hour. Walk along Valdemara Street from Stabu to Raina at 5 p.m. and you will see a very long line of empty trolleybuses and buses. The passengers have abandoned the vehicles; it's quicker to walk.

Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be even a glimmer of hope 's either in terms of price or quality. Energy and labor expenditures will continue to climb throughout the year, increasing Riga Transportation's outlays and maintaining pressure on the city budget for subsidies. The driver-deficit 's Riga Transportation needs over 400 drivers 's will not go away, and may even worsen. And the company will inevitably ask for either more budget funds or permission to raise fares again.
We propose that in the future any increase in fares be linked to an improvement in overall quality. Otherwise, this fashionable raise-price-but-ignore-quality mentality of Latvian corporate management is bound to continue indefinitely.