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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.