Ride Berlin Transportation like a Boss

Coming from a place with pitiful public transport (looking at you Seattle), it took me all of 10 seconds to develop eternal love for Berlin‘s comprehensive public transportation. It only took a few seconds longer for me to have strong opinions on what is and what is not acceptable when riding public transportation in Berlin.

Eberswalder U-Bahn PHOTO: Erin Porter

The thing is, everyone rides public transport in Berlin. Unlike more elitist systems in places like New York City, the young, the old, the poor, the well-off, the tourists, and the locals all ride the rails around this massive city. You really don’t need car as you can usually get within a block or two of where you want to go with its elaborate system of buses, trams, U-Bahns (underground), S-Bahns (above ground rail), regional trains, and even ferries. Run by BVG (with some assistance by Deutsche Bahn), it is truly a marvel.

With so many people using it, I am left with a question – How come so many of them are doing it wrong? On a daily basis I am frustrated with the utter nonsense I see on my way around the city. Some of this can surely be chalked up to cultural differences, but other things make me think to myself that they should surely know better.

I said Germans are nicer than you think, but writing this article makes me think twice. Here is how to avoid my silent judgement and ride Berlin transportation like a boss.

Wait for People to Get off First

Before the train car has even come to a stop, a line of fierce opposition has created a total barrier for those wishing to exit the car. This may seem counter-intuitive to efficient public transportation, and that’s because it is.

This is another way of saying Germans can’t make a line (or Schlange if you want to get native on it). For the life of them, Germans seem incapable of standing in a neat row. At the grocery counter, on a packed escalator…pretty much anywhere.

This goes double for public transportation. If you are waiting to get on or off, prepare yourself for battle. You might need to use your elbows. For a fairly orderly people, I am constantly appalled at the old ladies snaking in front of my stroller to get on before, the impersonal shoulder to ensure they get through that bus door first.

What is the deal? Seating is usually ample, most people are only riding a few stops, and the chances of you being left behind on the platform is really small. While there are no white-gloved “helpers” shoving you into the packed car like in Japan, a hesitant traveler may simply be shoved abroad by the tide of Germans rushing in.

Please don’t do that. Step to the side of the door to let people out before you enter. We are people, not cattle.

Take the Open Seat

Speaking of seats, this faux courtesy drives me mad on a regular basis. You’ll see an open seat and someone standing directly in front of it. Not sitting in it – that would make sense. No, they are waiting for someone else to take that seat that they are completely blocking.

A dog on the Berlin U-Bahn

Inside the U1

Most often it happs on crowded trains. I am bewildered why the bulky middle-aged woman who gave me a black eye clambering on is now obliviously blocking a perfectly good seat. This seems to be where a bizarre game of manners is in play; everyone waiting for the most worthy person to take the lone seat. With a flapping of arms, it is pointed out to the elderly woman who stoically ignores it. The old man with the walker can’t get there. So the seatt sits, empty.

This is nonsense. If you find yourself standing in front of an open seat, please sit down. It resolves the issue and frees up some much needed room.

Hold On

There are signs all over the buses and trams in particular telling riders to hold on. “Fest halten!” they cry with cartoons of a lady dressed like an air stewardess tumbling down.

The signs clearly aren’t working. I see someone stumble on a daily basis and people fall all the way to the ground on several occasions. Travel can be quite jerky and there are bars to hold onto and straps hanging from the ceiling everywhere. And yet people – young and old – seem compelled to stand in the middle of the aisle and act surprised when they are tipped over by a sudden stop.

Don’t be a hero. Hang on.

Pay Attention

There are all sorts of bells, announcements, and signs to show you where to go and what to do. Don’t ignore them. They are your friends.

For example, that white line that runs parallel to the tracks on the platform is a do not cross zone. This is the bare minimum of safety in take-care-of-yourself Germany. Don’t cross over it if you can help it, especially when a train is pulling in. That is sure to give you and everyone else with ears a heart attack when the conductor has to lay on the horn. Also don’t force anyone else to cross the line because you are too lazy/in a hurry/walking in a line of friends.

Kottbusser Tor Platform and the white line PHOTO: Erin Porter

In addition to the handy electric signs that give you a very realistic time frame of when a train is arriving and departing, there is an alarm that goes off when the doors are closing.

This signals your last chance to get on or off. If you are a step or two away – hurry! If you are a step away and your friends are still on the stairs 200 meters behind you, please let it go and catch the next one. Do not brace your body against the door, slowing this highly efficient system to a crawl and waylaying an entire U-Bahn of people. Most of the time your next ride is just 5 minutes away.

Obviously these examples need no translation, but even signs are being offered more and more in English, making the excuse of not speaking German, inexcusable.

Buy a Ticket

A frequent complaint is that Berlin transportation is the one thing that is not cheap in this city. Currently, a single one way ticket costs 2.80 euro. A day ticket is 7 euros. Sure the system is convenient, but it’s not inexpensive.

The system runs on the honor system with riders tasked with buying and stamping their own tickets (buses being the exception). To make sure everyone is playing by the rules, Kontrolle (BVG agents) periodically come by and check tickets. It can be months between sightings, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Dressed in plain clothes, they have a look about them if you keep an eye out for the long enough. For one thing, they work in teams, entering at opposite sides of the car and working towards the center as quickly as possible until the next stop. They are totally no nonsense and not interested in any sob story you have to tell them. I’ve heard that is because they work on a quota and once they get their numbers, they are done for the day. Talk about motivation.

Whatever the case, Schwarzfahren (riding black) is not recommended. Remember how I bragged over the virtues of the system? I feel confident in saying Berlin’s public transportation is one of the best in the world and the price you pay is a great deal for this kind of access. Whenever I travel to another city, I carefully weigh the positives and negatives of their system and usually find Berlin’s transport superior. A ticket is totally worth it. So buy the ticket.

What do you see on Berlin’s transportation system that drives you crazy?