Resist Control: A Guide to Riding on Berlin’s Public Transportation for Free
Berlin public transit runs on the honor system. I’m on the U-8 line, on my way to work, when a group of controllers board the train. I don’t know what else to call them. The German word Kontrolleur is derived from French, and the passive verb, to be kontrolliert, has gone into colloquial English usage in a rough direct translation, i.e., to be “controlled” (as in: “God damn it, I got controlled on the train today”). The Kontrolleurs are the people assigned to ride the rails all day, randomly entering train-cars as if administering a pop quiz, to check that everyone on board has a valid ticket. As it happens, today I do, but the guy standing next to me clearly does not. You can tell by the way he feigns inattention as the doors close and the two plain-clothes guys pull out their identification badges; he acts as if he is too lost in thought to notice them, staring blankly ahead, his body gone nervous and tense. The other riders, meanwhile, grumble and fumble in wallets and pockets and purses. The controllers begin circulating the train car, repeating their low-intoned mantra: “tickets, please… your tickets, please…” The guy next to me continues to pretend he’s oblivious, even as he inches slowly towards the faraway door, hoping to stay inconspicuous and make it to the next stop. I decide to play defense for him, moving to block the aisle a bit and resolving that when they get to me I’ll take an extra bit of time fumbling around looking for my ticket, to buy him some time.
Riding without a ticket, or schwarzfahren, is something of a national pastime in Germany, and probably nowhere more so than in Berlin, whose citizenry the reigning mayor, Klaus Wowereit, once famously described as “poor but sexy.” Germans have a reputation for being law-abiding and rule-oriented– schwarzfahren is one of the only social arenas in which order is routinely flaunted, where otherwise law-abiding adults feel free to get crazy and thumb their noses at the powers that be. “Poor but sexy:” while the financial benefit of shirking the honor system is obvious, if you’ve ever been waiting at the back of a long tedious line to buy a U-Bahn ticket just as the train arrives, only to have the person you’re with impulsively take your hand and pull you on board ticketless, you’ve realized that schwarzfahren is a lot sexier, too. You can’t get that kind of romantic spontaneity with turnstiles.