To Buy or not to Buy: ‘Schwarzfahren’ around Europe and the Fare-dodging Gamble7 min read

The movie started at nine PM, so we started our way to the Open Air cinema an hour earlier. The three of us, as groups do, had more or less selected one person to be responsible for our navigation. We heard the rickety tram arrive before we saw it. The doors opened, we got in. As sometimes happens in groups of people travelling together in a public transport system unknown to them, we shortly debated whether to buy a tram ticket for 1.80 Bosnian marks (0.90 Euros) per person1.

We decided that we’d be OK and sat in front of the driver. One stop later, two men dressed in black entered the tram. Immediately, I got up and went to the driver to ask to buy a ticket. One of the guys named the price: 26 Bosnian marks (the equivalent of 13 Euros). I refused, and a five-minute argument ensued. My high-pitched and completely unfounded “but I’m trying to buy a ticket now” excuse clashed with his rightful assertion in broken English that well, I should have bought a ticket earlier. Our act of playing ignorant tourists wasn’t working. After his companion threatened to call the police, pulling out his cell phone and starting to dial, my fellow movie-goers and I gave in. We paid up.

One stop later, two men dressed in black entered the tram. Immediately, I got up and went to the driver to ask to buy a ticket. But our act of playing ignorant tourists wasn’t working.

Tram tracks running from Sarajevo center through the Otoka district
Tram tracks running from Sarajevo center through the Otoka district

The Most Expensive Tram Ride of my Life

The most expensive tram ride of my life also turned into one of the most enjoyable ones. The tram driver and I started joking around, with him (trying) to help us get where we needed to be, although this ended up in us getting out at the wrong station. We didn’t end up finding the movie theater. lnstead, in the process of asking everyone we saw on this pretty empty street in the Sarajevo suburb, I ended up meeting a Bosnian guy of maybe 20.

The next week over coffee, beer, and cevapcici, we told each other stories about public transport mishaps and he made fun of me for paying that ticket. While 13 Euros didn’t make a significant dent in my travel budget, particularly as Bosnia is really not an expensive country for those used to Western European prices2, I began to think what not buying a ticket on public transport says about the public transport system and the ethics of travelling.

Schwarzfahren

In English, there’s no one term for what Germans call ‘Schwarzfahren’ (literally: riding black), i.e fare-dodging or taking public transportation without a ticket. The lack of a precise word in the language already reveals much about the mentality of different places toward this behavior. Certain systems of public transport are obviously more predisposed towards Schwarzfahren than others, but I think so much of whether, where and when people don’t buy a ticket is based on more than just location.

Crossing with tram lines in front of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegowina.
Crossing with tram lines in front of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo. During the siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996, this was part of the city known as “Sniper’s Alley” and extremely dangerous.

I remember reading an article about life in Berlin, basically praising that the metro system in Berlin is pretty unconstrained. There are no gates you need to pass through and scan your ticket: the train and U-Bahn stations are completely open, and the chance that you will be checked is relatively small. However, if there are ticket controllers, you pretty much have no method of escaping.

Multiple plain-clothes inspectors will get into the train cars at the same time and only flash their badges once the doors are closed. This gives you pretty much no escape route. The article I read was arguing Berlin’s merits in it giving you the freedom of choosing whether you want to buy a ticket or not: if you don’t and you get caught, you accept your fine of 60 Euros, maybe a bit sheepishly, but without question. It’s the price you’ll now pay for your free rides.

Because that’s what Schwarzfahren is, for me, much of the time: a gamble, a game in which you rely on your intuition to keep you “safe”.

When I lived in Berlin, my university semester ticket for public transport expired and I wasn’t willing to pay the 80 Euros a monthly ticket costs. This meant I was taking a lot of buses (back then it was pretty much unheard of that you would be checked in the bus, although this has changed). I would take the U-Bahn only late at night, and buy a ticket only at those times I really felt: this could be it. Because that’s what Schwarzfahren is, for me, much of the time: a gamble, a game in which you rely on your intuition to keep you “safe”.

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The aboveground metro station of Ragsved, a Stockholm suburb, in March.
The aboveground metro station of Ragsved, a Stockholm suburb, in March.

Playing Games with Public Transport Systems

On the other hand, sometimes it’s happened to me accidentally: the first time I took a train without a ticket, it wasn’t on purpose. Running to catch the train that left our town twice every hour, my friend and I got on the train without a ticket. I remember it being one of the most stressful and angst-filled half an hour of my 14-year-long life. That was the first and last time I dared not buy a ticket for a long, long time.

Some city’s public transport systems make it easier for you not to buy a ticket. Visiting my friend in Prague, I only had large bills from the ATM and the ticket machine only took coins. When I first arrived to Sarajevo’s Eastern bus station, there were no ATMs and I had no local currency. So, I got on the bus without a ticket and luckily without being asked to show one. In this case, not buying a ticket can be a more or less legitimate excuse, but it is certainly also a fun game I played with myself and the public transport systems of the city I visit.

And sometimes, it’s just pretty much impossible to get around without paying. In Amsterdam, you can barely enter the metro system without a ticket. Most train stations also have well-watched ticket gates you must pass through. If you get into a tram in Amsterdam, you are meticulously watched by either the driver or the seated ticket seller whether you buy your ticket. Once, I got into the exit door instead of the entrance door in an Amsterdam tram, even though I did (I swear!) check myself in. Well, I was called to the front of the tram by the cranky Dutch driver, who then checked me out and back in… what a waste of 90 cents.

Deceptive discrimination

Three weeks after my experience in Sarajevo, I spend a few days in London. With an Oyster Card borrowed from a friend, I was travelling south in the Overground. I was noticing the signs telling passengers: “if you travel without a valid ticket, you may be eligible for a fine”. After experiencing my stereotypical slide into slight ridicule towards what I perceive as the typical British apologetic rhetoric, I realized that it never occurred to me not to buy a ticket in London, although I was never checked once.

It was then I became aware of my own discriminatory attitude. I’ve completely bought into the opinion that what I’m going to term “order” here is higher in Western European regions such as the UK and the area in southwest Germany I grew up in. In other places, I am less likely to buy a ticket. Maybe this is because I am visiting place foreign to me. I feel more free and am less scared of social consequences here. But I believe it is also very much me acting on the stereotype of chaotic and unregulated Southeastern Europe to keep me safe from public transport fines. Obviously, this is a deceptive attitude: I was checked twice in my three weeks in Sarajevo, and only once or twice in my entire childhood and teens in Germany.

Maybe I take the gamble because I am visiting a place foreign to me. I feel more free and am less scared of social consequences. But I believe it is also very much me acting on the stereotype of chaotic and unregulated Southeastern Europe.

When I visited Athens with a friend last year, we discussed how to act financially as two (politically left) Germans vacationing in Greece. This influenced our choices in where to stay, where to eat, and how to handle our AirBnB host’s offer to freely help ourselves to the food in his apartment. However, it didn’t keep us from taking the metro without a ticket. After paying the fine in Sarajevo, but still not buying a ticket most of the times I took the tram afterwards, I began to remember and reflect on this episode and question our visit to Greece and our inconsequential behavior.

A Game of Chance for the Privileged

Schwarzfahren isn’t a rational weighing of the possibilities and potential costs. In the end, it’s a game of chance. It suits people in a privileged position like me well to realize when, where and why we decide to travel without a ticket and what the consequences of us doing so are. I’m lucky that 26 Bosnian marks aren’t a big deal for me. But neither is paying 1.80 marks for a one-way ticket. As much as I would be irritated at paying a 60 Euro fine in Berlin, at least I have the financial leeway to be able to pay for the game I play. Not everyone can do so, but in the end, public transport is essential for urban mobility and needs to be maintained with sufficient funds to keep it running.

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Just like getting rid of the last few coins you have in a foreign currency by leaving them to someone who can use them, it’s of my favorite things at the end of a trip either to use up non-validated public transport tickets, or to give them to someone else. Once in Berlin, and once in Budapest, someone gave me their non-validated ticket, and it made more than my day. In Zagreb, my most recent travel destination, I thought about how visitors use and abuse the public transport systems. Then, I bought myself a tram ticket… from time to time.

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  1. A note about the photos: lacking significant photo material of trams or trains, I’ve decided to illustrate this article with photos I’ve taken of tram lines or public transport stations in a few of the countries I’ve visited and lived in the last years. Therefore, they’re not per se related to the article’s content.
  2. Putting average salary and average prices in Bosnia and Germany in comparison though leaves you baffled. The average gross salary in Bosnia in December 2016 was €431 (keep in mind also the high fluctuations in these numbers the country experiences; in Germany in 2017, €3.771. Sources: 1, 2 )

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