Transit notes on Berlin, Germany — easy does it

Bus stop with electronic sign.

Berlin bus stop with electronic sign.

On a recent trip to Berlin, I abstained from car travel and instead relied on 7 Euro (about $9) day passes to take me around town on the U-Bahn, the S-Bahn and the bus. I was seldom confused, always on time and saved tons of money. The money part was a good reminder of how expensive it is to drive anywhere. Even though Californians have ample reason to complain, in Berlin gas prices are more than twice what they are in L.A.

The ease and frequency of Berlin transit has a lot to do with the maturity of the massive system that began construction in the early 1900s. Just think what the L.A. system could look like 100 years from now.

Among factors contributing to ease of travel:

Constant updates. As studies have shown, confident travelers are happy travelers. Constant real-time arrival updates on electronic boards in S-Bahn (above ground) and U-Bahn (subway) stations and most bus stops made waiting for the next train or bus comfortable, even when the next one was 20 minutes away.

Names. Station names in Berlin tend to be utilitarian, marking locations or major sites.  Headed for the Zoo? Get off at Zoologischer Garten. Taking a trip to Potsdam? Go to Potsdam Stadt. Off to the Olympic Stadium? Head for Olympiastadion. Simplicity in names promotes clarity.

Clean. There was at least one snack shop (selling beer, of course) in each of the dozens of stations that I used or saw. Lots of people were carrying food and drink. Yet seldom was there trash on the trains or in the train stations.

berlin stick sign

Maps and signs. Train cars had electronic “next station” signs inside the cars. They also had maps that were too detailed to read in a hurry — so relatively useless — but train stations had much larger maps and (best of all) subways had pedestal signs listing stations in order of appearance on the line. So it was easy to glance at the pedestal and determine which train you should board (on which side) and to count the number of stations to your destination. Emergency signs were marked SOS … the universal sign of distress. And when there was more than one train running on the same track, clear hanging signs explained which train went where.

The honor system. Berlin trains operate without turnstiles. And like L.A., traveling controllers check that passengers have purchased tickets and issue citations to those who have not. Tickets are easily purchased with cash or credit card from machines on all train platforms and in subway stations. The machines read out in a variety of languages — as Metro’s do — and are fairly easy to follow, although it took a couple of tries to figure out the system. Tickets are sold by zones but since there are no turnstiles, this too is dependent on the honesty of the traveling public.

Shopping. Some stations — Central Station, for example — are actually destinations, containing restaurants and multi-leveled shopping malls.

So many other people ride. Public transit is like a party. If people like you are riding then you may be more comfortable. Coming out of the Deutsche Oper (opera) at 11 p.m., it was comforting to see dozens of other music lovers hopping onto the U-Bahn to return home.

Even mature systems have construction. Currently there are cranes and messy construction in the middle of Unter den Linden, the beautiful boulevard extending east from the Brandenburg Gate. Construction is to complete an extension of the U-Bahn line … an extension that was stalled for a decade for lack of funds. Sound familiar?

Public transit as tour guide. Since the S-Bahn runs primarily above ground, it’s a great way to see the city from the comfort of a train car. Next time I have company in town I’m going to buy them a TAP card, give them a map and drop them off at the Orange Line.

Human help. Not only were other passengers willing to offer directions, they even volunteered. It was a good reminder to be generous with fellow travelers on the Metro system and to take a minute to offer concrete help when asked how to get to the beach from Union Station, which is a common request. Before visiting Berlin, I would vaguely mention the Big Blue Bus when asked about reaching the beach. After Berlin, I whip out my iPhone and turn to the Metro Trip Planner. Because one good direction deserves another.

13 replies

  1. To second @Noel Braymer’s comment. Describing a ‘proof of payment’ system as the ‘honor system’ is really inaccurate and I think contributes to the idea that this type of system won’t work well here because “people can’t be trusted”. The zone system is also not trust based. You have to stamp your ticket at your originating station, so if you go into another zone, a fare inspector can tell.

    Berlin is also similar to LA in that it is multi-centric and doesn’t have as strong a commute in in the morning and out in the evening trend as many cities do.

    One thing Berlin does not do as well as LA is integrate bikes. You can take bikes on trains for an additional charge, but not on buses. There system is so much better built out that they don’t really have the same degree of ‘last mile problem’ that we do which may be one reason.