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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Der U-Bahn (die Geschichte)

My friend, Steven Samols, is studying abroad in Berlin. Though I attended the same program in the fall of '09, Steven has learnt from my mistakes and has been graciously keeping his observations written down. This small passage reminds me that the Berlin subway system (U-Bahn) is one of the more fascinating aspects of the city:
The Berlin U-Bahn system allows for a fair amount of small personal freedoms but still retains some creepiness of its German past. In one sense, it reflects the socially liberal culture of the city.
There are, for example, no turnstiles. It is the individual’s responsibility for buying an U-bahn ticket and calculating the risks for not buying one. In the same spirit, drinking any type of alcohol on the U-bahn, at any time of the day or night, is also permitted.
Surprisingly, this system seems to work. When random ticket checks do occur, nearly everyone seems to have one. Most people who drink on the U-bahn are usually in control of themselves (at least when there isn’t a soccer match going on).
But there is still something disturbing about the way this system is made to work. The official ticket checkers are always disguised, in plain clothes. So it could be anyone around you. Then when the under-cover official makes his move, by flashing his badge, it looks like a mugging is taking place. Everyone rushes furiously through their bags and wallets to get out their tickets. It feels like a quick race to prove yourself innocent of a crime.
Looking around me as I get on the train, I usually try to play the game of trying to figure out which person could be the undercover ticket checker. I remember that one in eight East Germans were secretly spying for the state police (Stasi) against their own citizens. The historical comparison of the secret Stasi officers with the secret U-bahn officers has an obviously amusing ironic quality. But then again, maybe the idea of Stasi’s effectiveness is why a remnant of it still exists here.
What do you make of this?

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  1. They've had the same system in Denmark for more than 30-40 years. Works great. I never felt like I was being mugged, but it was all very courteous. And at least when I lived there, the conductor might through (in a uniform) and checked tickets. If you didn't have one, there was a big fine.

  2. This brings back memories! When I was a twentysomething working in Japan, my wife (then girlfriend) and I were once returning from a trip to Hiroshima. It was a long trip back, but she bought two tickets for the next stop just to get us through the turnstile. (I didn't notice the 110-yen ticket, which should have been a couple thousand yen, until after we were on the train.)

    I voiced my displeasure at what she'd done, turning me into a petty thief just like that, and she laughed at my squareness. She told me not to worry because the tiny, old local station in the countryside where we'd end up was on the honor system after a certain hour and you just deposited your ticket in a little metal box hanging on the wall. I didn't like it, but it was too late.

    Of course, when we got to our final destination, there was a station employee checking tickets (something she'd never witnessed at this station before at such a late hour). I could've died of embarrassment.

    This is the same girl who had me tightrope-walking a railing six floors up with nothing to hold on to, (I just leaned against the roof), to enter her bedroom window until she and her mom could figure out a way to break the news to her dad that she was dating an American.

    I did this maybe seven or eight times until I told her I refused to do it anymore. It was not a question of if ... it was a question of when I would fall to my death.

    She responded with, "You big baby. I did that every weekend night all through high school."

    She married up.

  3. It seems like the system works. I would probably live in constant fear though. Not because I would not buy a ticket, but because I would be afraid to lose it and be wrongly accused.

  4. It is my experience this works in Germany because most Germans are rule followers. That is why the Autobahn works so well, everyone stays in the right lane, unless passing, or going the speed of heat in their Mercedes.

    It won't work here because we are not a nation where everyone knows and follows the rules. Look at our interstate system and count the cars in the left lane "just 'cause" that is where they want to be and won't move over when being overtaken.

    Regarding uniformed and undercover ticket checkers, maybe a holdover from the cold war when Berlin was a divided city?

  5. Sorry, too much of the word 'seems' being used for me to rubber stump such a system. Besides, personal observation and anecdotes are not enough for me to declare that a system 'works.' Where's the hard date and figures?

    Anyway, this system strikes me as typical European 'freedom': a mile wide and an inch deep. In such a scheme that relies on fear "little personal liberties" are meaningless since you can't really enjoy them in total peace and comfort. Any 'freedom' on the U-Bahn is an illusion at best.

  6. Highly recommended:

    Nimrod Antal's Kontroll

    about Budapest ticket inspectors who troll the underground rails in teams suddenly faced with passenger suicides and a hooded figure down in the highway catacombs.

    It's good bleak fun about the contradiction of control: to over-control is to be out of control, mostly. Some people succumb to unknowable motivations that compel and propel them to exert it over others, while others don't know why they accept it-- or even that they do.

    The psychological is political.

  7. When I was in Berlin, in the early-mid 80s, before the wall came down, American military personnel were allowed to ride free when in uniform.

  8. When I was staioned in Mannhiem thay had the same system, though I never heard of the tickets bening checked, but everyone bought one. The multi-language sign explaining this translated the leaglese German word for word into English. Actully the English said, if you parced it to see what it said, was any one found with a validated ticket would pay a 20 mark fine. No one ever tested that.

    When I was in Paris it was obvious that such a system would mean free metro rides

  9. It's been a long time since I left Germany. Glad to hear they still have the same system. Is the DC Metro for example a preferable system? Ever tried to get a ticket refunded when the turnstile can't read it for some inexplicable reason? Good luck! Perhaps Berliners are not more honest. Perhaps they feel well served by their U-Bahn. Makes it much harder to rationalise cheating.

  10. Hah. Dude, right. I was there and was clueless and had a ticket but did not stamp it. Everyone on the train was really nice ... they were telling me to get off because the undercover cops were there. "You're black," they said (illegal). I said "auslander" to the cop and he said OK. Then I did get it stamped and saw the same cops on my connecting train and they checked and saw I did stamp it. [Without stamping it, it remains like new.]

    Beautiful women in Berlin, maybe a lot of E. Europeans explains it. It really is like some vision of Paris in some era that really never was. Anyway apartments are cheap and the city is nearly as walk-friendly as NYC or Boston. Everyone is artsy or sciencey or just cool.

  11. The UBahn is a great concept because everyone is so used to it and they all (for the most part) follow the rules. Besides -- the fine is hurts if you get caught.

    Same for the motorways. Everyone follows the rules. I felt safe driving 230kph knowing that any vehicles I encountered would move out of my way, or they would make room for me to get out of the way of someone going much faster than I.

    Drunk driving is nearly non-existent. last time I was there I was told that if you got caught you lost your license. period. I don't remember how long, but it was long enough to make my work colleague wince when describing the penalty.

  12. Not everyone is following the rules on the UBahn.

  13. They use the same system in Baltimore on the light rail. It seems to work well enough, most folks I see buy a ticket anyway.

  14. When I lived in Hamburg, in the early to mid 80s, they had the same system, although I don't remember the checkers (who seldom appeared) being 'undercover.' The few times I can recall, it was a uniformed subway officer who check.

    I do vividly remember the rampant advertising on the subway walls, however. "Ich bin schwarzgefahren. Nie wieder." [I rode without a ticket. Never again.] It was a series of headshots, each with a person holding their right hand in front of their face in shame, saying what they could have bought if they hadn't incurred the fine. Heh heh. Apparently they thought there were enough violators that the issue needed addressing. Still, it wasn't a bad system.