Screw the BVG!

Fresh from our March issue, Wladek Flakin unleashes a world of rage on Berlin's public transportation system and its problems. Read this and more in our March issue! Also, check out what people like you think of the BVG in our vox pop and chime in.

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Photo by Veronika Jonsson

We all use it – and we all hate it. Exorbitant fares, bad service and now a financial scandal… Berliners deserve better public transport.

“Fuck the BVG!” It’s a ubiquitous refrain, from pop music (see rap group K.I.Z.’s hit “Wir ficken die BVG”) to Exberliner’s metaphorical water cooler. “Why can’t you get a replacement when you lose a monthly ticket?” groans one staffer, who had to re-pay for a full month after the wallet containing her ticket was stolen on the 2nd. Another had a ticket valid from 10am and had to pay €40 after hearing the ominous “Die Fahrscheine, bitte!” at 9:55.

It all comes down to the prices. The BVG has raised the cost of a one-way ticket three times in the past four years: from €2.10 to €2.60 since last summer. Now, a round trip longer than four U-Bahn stations will set you back a minimum of €5.20. In Paris, a one-way fare is €1.70, only €1.37 if you buy a 10-pack. Here, the only bulk option is four tickets at €2.20 each. And this in the city branded as Europe’s cheapest metropolis? Come on!

It’s no wonder an estimated four percent of Berlin’s train, tram and bus passengers ride without a ticket. Last year, 229,000 people were fined for Schwarzfahren. The BVG takes in about €9 million each year in form of Erhöhtes Beförderungsentgelt, the bureaucratic term for the penalty.

But then, according to Uwe Hiksch from the TicketTeilen campaign, the company spends €20-30 million on controllers and fee processing. (A BVG spokesman refused to provide the numbers but assured that the controls pay for themselves.) Since 2003, the fine for Schwarzfahren has been steady at €40. However, there are currently proposals to raise the fine to anywhere between €60-120.

Interestingly, the term Schwarzfahren doesn’t mean “black riding”. It derives from the Yiddish word shvarts, meaning “poverty”. Today, most people travelling without a ticket are not hardened criminals – they’re fed up and sometimes they barely have a choice. Hartz-IV welfare provides €19 per month for transport, but a reduced “social ticket” in Berlin costs €36! These people can’t pay the fines either, and when the BVG hires a debt collection agency, they just confirm the old saying that you can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip. After three unpaid fines, the case goes to court and the Schwarzfahrer can land in prison. An incredible fact: about one-third of inmates at the Plötzensee prison at any given time are there because of BVG fines – at an annual cost to the taxpayer of €4.2 million.

But the real delinquents are running free – as demonstrated by the recent financial scandal involving the BVG and the British branch of investment bank JP Morgan. The company is now on trial in London for a bad investment they made back in 2007, when the financial markets were reaching dizzying heights. Joining in the speculative frenzy, the BVG management bet on “Synthetic Collateralised Debt Obligation” at the advice of JP Morgan. The bank is now suing them over nearly €150 million, which the BVG claim they shouldn’t have to pay because they “didn’t understand the risks involved”. Good to know the BVG is so causally gambling away the €300 million it makes in government subsidies per year!

And they cry over the €20 million they arguably lose annually due to non-paying riders?! Well, Schwarzfahrer could go about their business for seven and a half years before causing as much damage as the BVG’s board of directors caused in one spur-of-the-moment financial decision.

The chairman at the time? Thilo Sarrazin, finance senator from the SPD, now better known for his racist books. Back then, as the city’s cuts commissar, he massively lowered wages for BVG workers. A portion of the bus drivers were outsourced to the subsidiary Berlin Transport, cutting their wages in half.

Meanwhile, current BVG boss Sigrid Nikutta earns €390,000 per year – okay, it might be less than the €900,000-plus the London Underground boss earns, but it is 17 times as much as the average Berlin bus driver. She also has access to a whole fleet of company cars. So we humble public transportation users can’t expect a lot of sympathy from her.

Then what can we do? A direct confrontation could be dangerous, since so many controllers appear to come from the right-wing bouncer scene. I have personally been thrown to the ground by BVG personnel. “We should throw you onto the tracks!” the gorillas informed me.

But passive aggression can go a long way. Did you know that as long as you have a ticket on you, you haven’t done anything wrong? Dragging out your search for as many stations as you can might deflect controllers’ attention from someone like an illegal refugee, for whom a missing ticket could mean a world of trouble. And remember that ticket checkers need to show two forms of identification – a Betriebsausweis in addition to a Dienstausweis – before they can ask for yours. You’d be surprised how often they forget!

Then there’s TicketTeilen, which is calling on people with an Umweltkarte, who can take along a second person on weekdays after 8pm and on weekends, to wear a yellow button to indicate that they will let strangers hitch a ride. But why stop there? In Stockholm, the Planka campaign collects €11 a month from members and in exchange pays their fines – extra money goes to advocacy for free transport and helping refugees. In Brazil, when the government announced a hike in ticket prices, youth across the country started a small insurrection – and the prices were lowered again.

And why not go even further and ask for free public transport for everyone? In 2013, the Estonian capital Tallinn did just that, eliminating bus and train fares for local residents. In just one year, traffic in the city centre was reduced by 15 percent – CO2 emissions dropped by 45,000 tonnes. In Berlin, the BVG has revenues of just over one billion euros a year – about 70 percent comes from ticket sales, but 30 percent is from subsidies paid for by our taxes. It’s not so crazy to think about a transport system in which everything is paid for by taxes on luxury condos, Russian oligarchs and other things the city could do without.

So let’s not just sit around and complain about the BVG. It’s time to get active and organised, share our tickets and lobby for affordable and sustainable transportation system for Berlin.

Check out what people like you think of the BVG in our vox pop and make your own voice be heard.

Originally published in issue #125, March 2014.