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John Riceburg: Let’s stop the ticket checkers on the BVG

#weilwirdichlieben. "Because we love you." The BVG has a hashtag! John Riceburg isn't feeling loved, especially by the ticket controllers.

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#weilwirdichlieben. The BVG, Berlin’s public transport company, has put up thousands of posters – just to let us know they love us. Berliners reactions have been – was anyone surprised here? – more or less hostile. A stranger telling me they love me 20 times a day feels a bit stalkerish.

Most of the contact I have with BVG personnel is in the form of Kontrolleure or ticket checkers. Mostly body builder types with short hair – the kind of guy you’d normally only find full of steroids and cocaine in front of a terrible club. I don’t really feel “loved” by these people – often quite the opposite.

“Fahrscheinkontrolle” – when you hear those ominous words, you could get out your ticket, if you have one. Isn’t that the easiest solution? But wait – think about the other people who might be in your train car: What about the destitute Berliner who simply can’t afford a ticket, and might end up in prison for the “crime” of Schwarzfahren? What about the criminalized refugee who might get in a world of trouble? Is there some way to show solidarity?

As Exberliner has reported, up to a third of prisoners in Berlin jails are there because they can’t afford a train ticket. As one Facebook page put it, this is the BVG’s “tough love”. The tax payers of the city are paying €4.2 million to lock up the poor.

Every second the Kontrolleure waste with you is one second they’re not harassing vulnerable people. And as long as you have a ticket, you’re following the rules. Ten years ago there was a big campaign to disrupt the ticket controls and it helped a lot of people.

Last week, after a very unpleasant run-in with some Kontrolleure, I decided it was time to revive the campaign. Let’s all try it out together this week! What are some strategies?

1. The naive tourist

“What is going on here? Do you need money? Who are you?”

The BVG people might know their rules well – in German. But in English, they’re playing on your turf. So let them explain everything. Let them identify themselves. Tell them, with lots of detail, how your friend was visiting Prague and got cheated by criminals pretending to be ticket checkers – can they prove they’re real? The BVG knows they have almost no chance of getting money from people from other countries anyway. So often they’ll walk away. If not, just show your ticket when you feel the situation is about to escalate.

2. The know-it-all

This one works best if you know German well, and the Kontrolleure are relatively new:

“I’m happy to comply, but all you’ve shown me is your Betriebsausweis, and that is only valid when presented together with a Dienstausweis. I’ll copy down all your information, then, after I’m done, you’re welcome to see my ticket.”

You’d be surprised how many Kontrolleure don’t actually have valid ID on them.

This can backfire, however, if you’ve got some experienced people who can find an obscure rule to fuck you over with. Kind of like Sam Lowry’s, “I’m a bit of a stickler for paperwork.” This is what happened to me, unfortunately, when they noticed a minuscule tear in my ticket. Now I’m out €7, I’ve got my ticket replaced, and I’m switching strategies:

3. Passive agressiveness

“I’m sure my ticket’s in here somewhere. Let me just check my wallet. Wait, maybe it’s in my briefcase. Or maybe my pockets. Wait, let me check my wallet again.”

Or why even answer them right away? If you’ve got headphones, you don’t even need to acknowledge them until they’ve passed a few times. And then I have to properly fold and stow my newspaper before I can be asked to go for my wallet. And I’m not a very quick person anyway!

As long as you’re polite, they’ll stay in the train waiting for you. So keep them waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting. My personal record is four stations: I even looked through the individual pages of a book, all the while trying to suppress a laughing fit. “Oh wait, here it is in my wallet!”

The challenge

So the challenge is: How long can you keep the ticket checkers from doing their work? (Just so there are no misunderstandings: Be polite and don’t start a fight. Just have them invest at least minute in each customer. If everyone did, the whole system would break down.)

Now some of you might think: “Aren’t the Kontrolleure just doing their jobs?” Yes, sort of, but their jobs are terrible. What they’re really asking you to do: “Could you give us a hand so that we can use your tax money to throw poor people in prison?” I think any decent human being would not want to offer more help than is absolutely necessary.

The BVG has plenty of other work for the poor schmucks that check tickets, like driving the goddamn trains and buses (maybe they could give their drivers more than a few minutes for a break!). All we need to do is make public transport free, by taxing the rich, and we could eliminate all this stress for them and for us.

Until then it’s a basic act of solidarity to sabotage their work as much as possible. Tell us about your experiences in the comments section.


A BVG press representative has informed me that all Kontrolleure are educated in “polite, respectful and appreciative dealings with our customers”. In fact, “the customer is king,” since they should “treat every customer as they would like to be treated.” Well, I guess that settles that!

They offered to have a second look at my personal case. I think I’ll pay the €7 and keep my professional integrity!