Featured, Germany, Travel Advice

Berlin Transportation – The Honor System

18 Comments 02 May 2013

Berlin U bahn

The Ubahn runs over the Oberbaum Bridge in Berlin

I walk down the stairs and hear the familiar sound of the Berlin Ubahn arriving on the tracks below – I instinctively pick up my pace and start to race down the stairs, around the corner, down a final set of stairs and slip into the Ubahn before the doors slide shut! It’s days like today that I feel like a local in Berlin. Getting comfortable with the transportation system is always a first step to really learning about a city for me.

I take a seat and catch my breath and realize that there’s one thing that made this Berlin Ubahn dash possible – the ticket ‘honor system’. There was no gate to pass through as I ran down the stairs and onto the train – no one or no system to check a ticket at the station.  However, I’m safe as I know that I have a validated ticket in my pocket. The entire Berlin transportation system runs on the idea that people are being truthful – that they have a ticket. The only checks and balances of this system are the occasional Ubahn agents who roam the trains asking to see your ticket. Of course if you don’t have one then you are faced with a hefty fine. But I wonder how many of the Berliners have validated tickets who are riding this train? Does the honor system actually work in Germany?

Berlin public transportation

Me riding my local M10 Tram.  Do you think all of these people had tickets?

Could this system work in the United States? (please leave your opinions in the comments below) What if the NYC the subway was run on the ‘honor system’ would people actually pay – or would they try to gamble with the system? I took some time to ask locals if they gamble with the system in Berlin and on average the majority were truthful – in fact it didn’t really even dawn on them to not have a ticket since it’s operated this way forever. Yet if I ask the majority of Americans – I’m willing to bet that they would gamble on the system.  If we can find a way around something – we normally do it.

Ubahn music

Ubahn performers – what is this instrument?

The honor system is only one of the reasons I adore the public transit system in Berlin. The complete system is one of the most extensive systems in any city I’ve been in. You never have to walk far if you don’t want to once you’ve mastered the Ubahns, Sbahns , buses, and trams. Between the 4 systems – you are always close to some sort of public transportation. It’s so extensive I don’t even know if there is one public transport map with all of the various lines on it. I normally had to use two – the Ubahn/SBahn map and the tram map. I never really learned the buses…that’s the transportation big leagues – I was still in the minors.  The whole system is technically advanced as all of the stops have boards that tell you when the next transport will arrive. Only once in the month did that system fail me – pretty impressive.

Berlin Ubahn

Berlin U bahn

Ubahn stops are color coded – making it easy to know when to get off!

The Ubahn was the first thing that I mastered. It’s is the subway system that occasionally runs above ground in some neighborhoods. It’s old – but easy to use. There are 9 lines, with 151 km of track and 170 stations.  However during the weekdays, they don’t run all night – they generally shut down around 1am and yes – I’ve been caught without a public transit way home before.

One thing I love about the Ubahn is that each stop is color coded. I quickly learned that Alexanderplatz (which I affectionately refer to as Times Square thanks to the many connections there) was an aqua colored tile. While other stops were yellow or red, or blue. So even if you were coming to a stop and didn’t see the name on a sign anywhere – you sort of knew if you were in the right place based on the color. I used this knowledge more than once!  In fact – I recently came across this great Ubahn photo documentary of all of the stations here.

Berlin Sbahn

Berlin public transport

The SBahn running outside on a cold March day!

The Sbahn circles the city as well as cuts through the center. They always run above ground and are great for getting from one end of the city to the other in a quick fashion. There are 15 lines and they integrate with the Ubahn and the ticket system there.  If you take the S5, S75 or the S7 lines that cut through the middle of the city – you can see the visible change in architecture from East to West Berlin that still exists today lingering from the Cold War.

Berlin Trams

Berlin trams

My local tram arrives at my stop.

Now it starts to get a little more challenging – the trams run in old East Berlin mainly. They wind around the neighborhoods like a pretzel. The trams serve 789 stops, which means one stop every 459 metres.  So you can see that I had a much harder time figuring out where these all went – but I did take the time to learn the main lines that were directly around me and pretty much stuck to those. If I had been there longer I would have got on them randomly to see where they went – that’s probably the best way to learn!

Berlin Buses

Then there’s the buses – I only rode those with a local or with a local’s help. They are easy to use – but figuring out their routes and stops are more time consuming.

Berlin public transportation ticket

Validate your ticket!

Berlin transportation ticket prices are pretty reasonable at 2.40 € for a single ride – but they offer daily, weekly, and monthly tickets that are a much better value.  And all of this on the honor system – there are no machines to check your tickets or gates to pass through. But if you do decide to do the right thing and pay for a ticket (which I suggest that you do!) don’t forget to validate your ticket at the little yellow boxes on the platforms or on the buses/trams – else you your ticket means nothing.

 During my stay in Berlin I was a guest of Go with Oh who furnished my apartment in Friedrichshain.  However all of the opinions expressed here are my own.

Your Comments

18 Comments so far

  1. I like to think that most people would be honest. I know I would. But, yeah, there would definitely be a segment of the population that would take advantage of an honor system.

    In any case, I love the public transportation options in Europe. :)

    • Sherry says:

      Yes – transportation all over Europe is wonderful. I think that’s why so many people travel to Europe – it’s easy to get around and everything is relatively close!

  2. Georg says:

    You left out the ferry service! Probably the best mode of public transport in Berlin! http://digitalcosmonaut.com/2013/111-places-in-berlin-ms-tempelhof/

    • Sherry says:

      Wow – I had no idea there was ferry service! It was so cold in March when I was there that I never really looked at going on the water anywhere! Will have to check it out next time I’m there!

  3. Richard says:

    I bet a lot of people would be honest, but I think there would be a higher percentage here than in Berlin who would try to bypass the honor system.

    I do remember the first time I went to Prague, where, at least at that time, they also used the honor system. I was visiting my sister Peggy who was teaching English in a small town about 2 hours away from Prague. We hopped on a tram to go up to Prague Castle and forgot to buy a ticket. An inspector came by who asked to see our tickets. In spite of my sister fake crying that we simply forgot (which we did), we each got fined…..a whopping, about, $3.00 each! But, that was back in 1993.

    I really do enjoy your posts about Berlin, Sherri. I’ve been there a few times, the first of which was in 1989 when East Germany still existed. I also was there on October 3, 1990, the day the two Germanies became one country (Unification Night). That was great fun. I had been working on a huge project back in the States and decided I needed a break. I asked my boss if I could take a week off, and he said, sure, go ahead. So I bought a ticket for Munich to go to the Oktoberfest.

    While at the ‘fest one night, I ran into some Germans who said they would be going to Berlin for the big party. So I decided to go as well. I hopped on the train the next morning to head to Berlin. While on the train, I saw a young guy (I was young, too!) who kept on going to the restaurant car to get beer. I started talking with him and found out he was from Australia. He was globe-trotting around Europe, trying to find work whenever he could, and just visiting various places.

    We soon ran into a small group of East Germans. They also were heading back to Berlin and invited us to dinner at a local restaurant. We had dinner and then took the U-Bahn to the Brandenburg Gate. Along the Wall, we saw a group of East Germans with a crane. They were using that crane to pick up an old East German car, a Tribant, and dropping it multiple times. They finally set it on fire, singing “Auf Wiedersehn!”

    The crowd was huge. We were on the East Berlin side of the gate at midnight that night, when the official unification happened. Right at midnight, a symbolic leaving of East Berlin through the Brandenburg Gate took place, with many people, our group included, going through it into the West. It was great!

    We ran around East Berlin until about 04:00 in the morning. One of the East Germans I was with invited me and the Australian guy to come stay at his sister’s place in East Berlin, where we went and got some sleep. Later that day, we went to a big park in East Berlin and had a picnic.

    Another time I went to Berlin was in 1998. My sister Peggy, who was working on her PhD in Art History, moved to Berlin with her husband to do research for a year. I was working in The Netherlands at that time, so for Christmas, a couple of American friends of mine whom I was working with went to Berlin and stayed at Peggy’s place. That was nice. (We later flew to Edinburgh for Hogmanay, New Years Eve!)

    Your posts are really getting me wanting to go back to visit. In addition to travelling, I also love photography. Earlier this week, I went on a photo group event at an old factory near where I live. An organization is collecting various pieces of architecture from old buildings not only in the St. Louis area, where I live, but also from around the country. They are housing them in this old warehouse area. Wondering around and taking pictures in these old warehouses is something I’d love to do in Berlin….I really have enjoyed the pieces you’ve done on the old building photo tours. Might just have to plan a trip back to Berlin soon!

    • Sherry says:

      Richard – thanks so much for sharing your stories about Berlin. They are unbelievable. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to be there for such a time. I vaguely remember watching the news when I was in college and hearing about it. But I had never left the US at that time and didn’t really appreciate it as a grand moment in history like I should have! I do hope you go back and see how things have evolved in Berlin!

  4. Alani Kuye says:

    The trainfrom Schipol to Centraal Station in Amsterdam is also based on the honor system. I’ve neer been asked or prompted for my ticketsi years of going here. Thoughtthe occassional staffer has asked maybe one or two other passengers.

    • Sherry says:

      But it sounds as if you purchase tickets every time – even though they don’t ask! I too noticed this ‘honor system’ to be used throughout Europe – and it seems to work!

      • Alani Kuye says:

        Pardon the typos, fast fingers on my phone. Yes I purchase tickets every time…it’s the honorable thing to do. I too notice the “honor system” to be used throughout Europe (mostly Western Europe though).

  5. I used to have a young German professor back in university who had lived in Berlin, and he would use public transportation for ‘free’… I’m sure there’s more than one local hopping on the ubahn without validating their ticket.

  6. Jonathan says:

    I live in Salt Lake City, Utah, and we have a similar type of public transportation system. A single company called UTA runs the bus system, and the TRAX (small, above ground trains). They do check tickets on the busses, but it’s the honor system on TRAX. The first TRAX line was built in 1999, to get ready for the olympic games that were held here in 2002. The city was already in place, and there was a regular train line that was unused that the UTA bought, and put in the first TRAX line. And because it is all above ground, there isn’t a good place to funnel people through a gate, or ticketing machine. There are people that walk through the trains checking for tickets sometimes, but not always. I do feel like most people here do purchase tickets, instead of riding for free. It does happen, but I think that for the most part, people are honest.

    • Sherry says:

      I was in Salt Lake City years and years ago – and didn’t take public transportation. Thanks for sharing – interesting that it is working in some places in the US!

  7. Sophie says:

    We have the same system in Norway, though I’ve never thought of it in terms of an honour system, but more as a question of efficiency (and lower personnel costs).

    (btw, the instrument is a Russian balalaika, albeit a giant one.)

  8. Jaée says:

    The honour system is alive and well in Calgary, Alberta, Canada – at least on the LRT (light rail transit, an above ground system). The assumption is made that everyone has paid the fare in some way and on occasion (rarely did I experience it twice in a month, and I rode the train multiple times a day in all directions) the C-Train Cops come aboard and check. If you have not paid, the fine was $250. Most people were honest; if memory serves, in my 10 years taking the train I only observed four tickets.

    Could this work in America? I don’t know. Calgary is very often called the Dallas of Canada so take that for what you will.

  9. Judith says:

    Fantastic system that’s been around “forever” – I lived in Germany in the 70’s, and really appreciated it, especially the clockwork punctuality of all public transport. Queueing isn’t a strong suit in Germany, though – you’d better be aggressive or you might get trampled.

    Would the honour system work in the U.S.? I’d like to think devotion to efficiency could see it implemented eventually, but how would people react if caught cheating (which incurs hefty penalties)? Hmmm – maybe not such a good idea in a country where concealed-carry’s beooming legal in more and more states. You’ve got to love this country!

  10. jenny says:

    I can’t imagine this system working in many places other than Germany, to be honest. Still, taking the underground is always a fantastic way to understand a city better I think

  11. Aus says:

    Switzerland has an honor system for riding inter-city public transportation very similar to the one you described for Berlin. I am positive 90+ percent of the people who live in Switzerland abide by the rules. The honor system works particularly when there is hefty fine associated with breaking the honor code.

    I have always thought that these honor systems are rare, but I have discovered they still exist and work well in some parts of Europe. For the U.S., not so sure.

  12. Marilyn says:

    NYC actually does have some system like that, from what I remember.. it is only for the select service bus route which are peppered all over the city. you buy your tickets next to the bus stop and it is actually just a receipt, then mta people are to check the receipt whenever they show up. pretty weird but interesting concept!

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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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