Inspectors, so the signs on the buses say, "look just like you" – in other words, ordinary. That certainly went for the inspector who boarded the 507 at Victoria one evening last week – and it was his lucky day. But his victim was not one of the street drinkers who seem to regard free bus travel as a right; nor was it one of those young men who push past the card reader as if daring the driver to stop them. No, this was quite a young woman, who blushed and whose eyes welled with tears.
The episode brought to mind – how could it not? – the girl who was raped in Nottingham after being turned off a night bus for want of 20p. More recently, the father of a 14-year-old in London kicked up a fuss after she was "humiliated" for not having enough money on her card, after mislaying her child's ID. On the 507, though, my misgiving was not that the inspector failed to exercise discretion – why should he? – but the disproportionate size of the fine.
Of course, it could be that the woman was a regular fare-dodger who deserved all she got; possible, too, that she decided to risk it just this once. But it could also be that she had simply forgotten to "touch in" when she boarded or believed her travel card had another day to run. The 507 is one of the few London buses you can enter without passing the driver. For genuine mistakes, the size of the fine – £80, which is halved for prompt payment – seems out of all proportion to the crime.
Public transport should take a leaf out of the Environment Department's book. It recently announced that local authorities were slashing the fines for what might be called "bin crimes" – putting the infernal thing out early or filling it too full – accepting that people might just make a mistake. Fines will come down from more than £100 to around £40. There will be stiffer penalties for repeated or more heinous offences.
The same principle should apply to transport. In most other countries, fines for not having a ticket generally bear some relation to the fare you should have paid and must be paid on the spot. An immediate £20 would surely be enough to deter chancers, while not bankrupting those who just made a mistake. Penalties were raised to the current level at the start of the year because, it was said, of the extent of fare-dodging. But more consistent checks, rather than higher penalties, should be the remedy. As with higher rates of income tax, less might turn out to be more.
Air-con is not just for wimps
I wouldn't mind betting that you felt scant sympathy for those Americans who fled their homes after recent storms left them without air-conditioning. Time was, when I too, would have regarded them as wimps. Even when – in the 100 degree heat and 90 per cent humidity of a Washington July – fires in underground junction boxes left our neighbourhood without power, I resolved, in time-honoured British fashion, to tough it out. As the porter in our block might have said, but refrained: "Not so fast, lady."
It was not just the dark streets, security cordons and armed National Guard patrols that made me think twice about staying. It was the impossibility of living. No working lifts meant a torchlit struggle to the seventh floor. Sodden food in the freezer; rotten food in the fridge. No power for cooking; candles and barbecues banned. Worst of all, though, was the heat and the fetid air. We escaped to a (profiteering) hotel, and stayed there until the power came back two days later.