Living in Berlin

Busted on the BVG

Let’s say you are foolhardy enough to attempt avoiding the plaincloth ticket controllers on the BVG (Berlin transport system). Stand on the platform waiting for the U-Bahn and see who gets onto your carriage. A group of children? Check: you’re safe. Veiled women with baby carriages? Check: you’re safe. Hipster tourist with photo equipment? Safe again. Scraggly person who looks semi-homeless with big pockets? Damn: you’re nailed.

Recently, I saw an unwashed man with dreds hold up his ID to control an elderly Die Zeit reader. The offender refused to believe that the controller could possibly represent the law. When the BVG man produced a sophisticated machine hidden in his deep pockets to print the ticket, the elderly man stood up, pulled the emergency brake of the train, and skipped off over the platform at a remarkable pace for a pensioner. A quicker dash than even in that scene in Oh Boy!

Not all evasion techniques are so successful. And recently it’s been rather difficult recently to avoid these plain-clothed ticket controllers, as they have been involved in what seems like a sweep operation this past week. It appears that on every train, they are enforcing the law––or standing on the platforms in twos and threes cornering the unlucky. You can go for months here and not ever be controlled, then suddenly the controllers are out in massive force. Must be a form of advertising to get people to invest in a Jahresabo (annual ticket) which is available for purchase until the end of the year.

I for one actually believe in paying for public transportation––I feel blessed by such an amazing public infrastructure after so many years living in cities that have crap transport––but somehow I did not realise that my 10-hour Umweltkarte exceptionally did not allow an additional passenger on weekends (unlike the full fare one). Between Kotti and Görli, I offer my ticket to the greasy controller with confidence and then bewildered am hustled off the train, my ID taken, a 40 EUR fine issued, which demands either a bank transfer or a visit to the central office at Jannowitzbrücke to plead your case. If you’ve simply forgotten your ticket at home, your penalty can be reduced to 7 EUR, in theory. Waiting your turn to pay the fees at Jannowitzbrücke is an experience in branding, everything in the waiting hall––slick, new, with sophisticated numbered waiting––is cast in an unearthly yellow light (the trademark colour of the BVG). I feel like I’m waiting to see a doctor in a clinic that treats jaundice.

So now I’ve succumbed and bought a Jahresabo to avoid being dinged again––the 40 EUR gift certificate to IKEA that’s included will cover my recent fine. But with this integration into the world of legal travel comes a sense of disappointment. Honestly, I might just miss the prickle of fear, and the thrill of detection, that comes with betting on which post-punk, tatooed, scowling, mean-spirited Mitfahrer is ready to pounce.




Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

2 thoughts on “Busted on the BVG

  • I was also busted on BVG in 2010 (I think) just 2 stations before my stop. I wanted to buy a ticket but a machine didn’t accept my bill, so I thought I’d just might to get “home” for free. Well, wrong! 🙂 Of course controllers didn’t even try to understand my excuse, too similar to the one “my dog ate my homework.” Well, I went back to my home country (in EU), got the bill but still haven’t payed it (“advise” from my fellow couchsurfer). After 4,5 years, I just hope that one day I won’t get my fine again with interest.

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