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.
The BVG (Berlin Transit Authority) estimates that about 4% of riders shirk the system every day, costing them some 20 million euros a year. The controllers are mostly plain-clothed males in their mid-20’s, traveling in a couple or in a small group, who board the train but don’t sit down. Watch for strange, conversationless lingering by the door, or a suspicious fanning-out positioning. Controllers are relatively easy to spot, and with a little practice it’s pretty easy to get good at it.
The rules of engagement are ever shifting in this game, and new technologies have brought innovations to the playing field. The Facebook group “Schwarzfahren Berlin” and the twitter feed “schwarzfahrenBE” both provide riders with current and constantly updated information about what stops and train lines to avoid, as well as a forum for experienced riders to post their favorite tips and tricks. The Android-app “schaffner radar” provides smartphone users with maps and routings for current “free ride” train routes.
But no matter how observant you are or what technologies you have at your disposal, even the most seasoned pro gets caught occasionally. Faced with a controller demanding a ticket, try this: point to a friend (or, in desperate circumstances, a receptive-looking stranger) at the other end of the train car, and after exchanging an acknowledging wave, explain, “my boyfriend/girlfriend is over there, holding my ticket.” Cross your fingers that by the time they get to the other end of the train and your friend explains that he’s never seen you before in his life, you’ll have disembarked.
If you want to get really unsportsmanlike, I’ve seen people pulled off the train who simply bolted and made a run for it. If you are a good sprinter and give off a bit of a desperate psycho vibe, you actually have a pretty decent chance of getting away with this. The BVG controllers are not cops; they don’t have the training and don’t get paid enough to make it worth their while to chase you down and risk a physical altercation. Most long-time schwarzfahrers agree that weekend nights are de facto control-free, because it would be cruel and unusual punishment for all involved try to dispense tickets to the belligerent Saturday night crowds.
Even my mom got into scamming public transit for a while. This was a few years before I was living in Germany. I would write her letters using another old staple of scams, the soap-on-the-stamps trick. I signed off my letters: “PS, don’t forget to send back my stamps! I can wash off the cancellation marks and re-use them for the next letter.” My mom is pretty thrifty, so I figured she would appreciate this trick. I didn’t expect that she would take it one step further. Pretty soon she was soaping her subway tickets, later carefully washing the cancellation marks off so that she could re-use them another day. Be cautious about doing stuff like this: while the fine for riding without a ticket is pretty reasonable (40 euros), the penalties for falsifying or forging a ticket are much more severe.
I’ll admit, I used to be a compulsive shwarzfahrer. Once you taste the small rush of riding for free, you want to do it again, and once you experience a near-miss, where you manage a daredevil escape through the closing doors just as you spot a group of controllers boarding, you feel like an invincible outlaw superhero. It gives you something to do on a long ride across town. The minutes zip by when you are tensely alert with panicky anxiety, scanning the oncoming commuters at every stop, holding your breath as the doors slide shut, breathing a sigh of relief when no one produces an ID and begins making the rounds.
I gave up on shwarzfahren after a while. I was taking it too far, acting foolish, exposing myself to all kinds of unnecessary risks in pursuit of hedonistic thrills. I’m a reformed honor system abuser now, back in control of my life. That part of my existence is filed under wild and rambunctious past. I still do vicariously enjoy seeing people get away with it. This morning, as the controllers close in on the guy next to me, he barely makes it, the doors opening at the next stop just as they are about to reach him. He rushes out of the train, walking away at a brisk clip.
It’s fun to ride for free. You could compare it to a sort of low-level form of gambling. The small thrill of getting away with something can be quite addictive. Like any good gamble, what is involved is a combination of luck and skill. Every compulsive schwarzfahrer has their supposedly foolproof system for spotting the controllers, a pet theory for what part of the train is safest to stand in. But in the end, it really comes down to luck. That is what is fundamentally compelling about a game of chance: the possibility of getting lucky, of proving to yourself that you are, in fact, blessed by fate.