Anywhere But Here
The Memories of a Hitch-hiker
© Copyright 1996–2004, Bernd Wechner


Appendix B: Travelling Black

It doesn't take the average backpacker very long to work out that ticket control on urban transport in Europe is very very lax. Most of the continent works on a system of trust with occasional inspections. That is, you buy a ticket, and ride, then you throw your ticket away, and outside of the occasional inspection, no-one ever asks to look at it. The sensible person, used ticket in hand, that no-one ever asked to see, is asking themselves "What the %&*# did I buy this for?".

What follows is a rather prosaic account of my adventures travelling black and my surprisingly few encounters with police and inspectors on account of that, followed by a ponderous justification of the art itself.

A Student of the Art (Vienna)

My first experience travelling black must have been in Vienna. My first real steps on my own in Europe, were in Vienna. I'd passed through Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Austria to get there but it was in Vienna that I faced my first void of freedom. No appointments, no timetables, nowhere to go, nothing to do, I'd cast myself into that world of the vagrant with no immediate intention of returning. Prior to Vienna I was on a schedule, places to go, people to see, now the adventure had begun. It was in Vienna too, that I first hitch-hiked, but that's another story ...

I was staying at a youth hostel, hanging out with the backpacking crowd, doing the standard museum, and sights thing, when the bad habits of other backpackers rubbed off on me.

The official system was, you buy a ticket or bunch of tickets on a platform, and on the train or tram, or before getting on, you were to "validate" the ticket by inserting it into a "validator" -- a machine that stamps your ticket with the time and date basically, after which it's valid for two hours or so, enough time to get across town in the worst peak hour. You could then get onto a bus, tram or the subway and no-one would ever demand to see your ticket! After the two hours, you'd throw it away ...

The backpackers of Vienna though, would just forget the validating part - buy a ticket and not stamp the time and date on it. The one blank ticket thus lasting their whole stay in Vienna and even being passed down from generation to generation.

It was rumoured that there was on occasional inspection of tickets, but I never experienced one. The plan in any case, if caught with a blank ticket was the old "Oh, I didn't know you had to stamp it!" routine. It was more than credible after all. Where I come from we just buy tickets, and that's that, we don't stamp them! The whole idea of "validating" was in fact seriously odd to me.

The Viennese pattern proved to be the norm in fact, with few exceptions throughout Europe, and the habit (of not validating) - well, it stuck.

Don't Pay the Ferryman (Venice)

The first time I was ever caught without a ticket on public transport was in Venice, not long after Vienna. I was on a ferry from one island to another when along came an inspector. No drama, he just sold us tickets, and warned us about the fine. We were a group of three, all newbie backpackers, and he wasn't doing much to dissuade our newly acquired habit ...

Richie Rich (Bratislava)

The second time, I was nabbed on a tram in Bratislava, of what was then Czecho-Slovakia. Indeed the system was so cryptic in Bratislava I had no idea where to buy tickets, nor did I care much, they're only costing a few cents a piece. True to form, the fine they pinned on me was equally modest, as much as a single ticket would have cost me in Germany!

The ease with which I, as a western vagabond could weather such a fine was driven home to me rather harshly alas. Someone else was caught without a ticket, a young Slovak guy, and the inspectors, with years of communist training in looking mean and intimidating, hustled him off the tram. He had panic in his eyes and demeanour, and sure enough he made a run for it, and the last I saw of him was with two burly Slovak inspectors on his tail. He had more courage than I - thinking of Siberia and Gulag camps. I think he made it, disappearing into the crowd, or at least I hoped so, for I could easily have paid his fine for him if only the opportunity had presented itself (though I'm not sure that would have been any less embarrassing, I don't wear my western wealth well alas, it gnaws at the soul somewhat).

Broke Thumber (Grenoble)

The third time I recall being caught ticketless was just after I'd arrived in Grenoble. I'd hitched from Nice, and was planning to see a friend, Mamoun (whom I've lost touch with since and would dearly love to hear from!). I still had the sign "Grenoble" on card, and my pack, when the doors having shut, an inspection was announced.

I pleaded chronic brokeness, having just arrived in town by thumb, having the sign to prove it, and was shown politely how to buy a ticket and innstructed to do so in future. That was that, nice inspector - clearly not his calling.

A Personal Challenge (Germany)

The Germans are as adept at looking mean and intimidating as the Eastern Europeans! I speak of the tram inspectors of course, not the people. There are certain tests of radiant authority and power that you must pass to inspect trams in some places, and I was nabbed by just such inspectors in one (nameless) German town. This was not like Grenoble.

Again I had all my gear on me. My passport was demanded of me, and I could hardly claim the lack of one, with my luggage visibly attached to my person. Having handed it over, I got the very clear (if not verbal) message I wasn't going to get it back unless I paid the 50 DM fine. The whole experience left me a little harrowed, as it was intended to do. They thrust looks and tones at one suggestive of one's lowly earthworm status and were good at it.

I resolved then and there, that I should not carry 50 DM on my person any more, and nor should I succumb to this intimidation again. It was a petty infringement at worst, and even then I felt happily justified in skipping what I felt were extortionary prices. One ticket in Germany cost as much as a modest meal for this vagabond, the trams were running with or without me, and no-one was checking for or selling tickets as one got on, so what did they have to complain about!

I made it a personal challenge to weather any future checks with the degree of humility prudent in all encounters with authority, but without discomfort, and fear. I was not to be harrowed, intimidated, made to feel like dirt ... I can claim only moderate success in the intervening years, but a degree of success all the same. Travelling black would become almost a game, or challenge to face just such an encounter, and maintain self respect.

Old Ladies and Policemen (Berlin)

I lived in Berlin on and off for the first half of 1994. Coming and going as I was, I couldn't bring myself to buy a monthly pass, which all things considered I was keen and prepared to do. The price was in within reason, and I had no objection, indeed was happy to contribute also to infrastructure. Not least of all because my lover preferred things that way ... Still, in town one week, gone the next and so on, it was difficult to justify. I was never there a whole month, generally not even the better part of any one month. Multi-ride tickets just didn't cut it on the price test (being only marginally less extortionary than single ride tickets). Time passed and I never encountered an inspector.

A friend from Hanover (Henrik) came to visit one weekend, and on leaving, left me with one subway ticket. They were going to change the ticketing system at the end of the month, after which it wouldn't be valid anymore, and he had no intent of returning before then.

I rode with that ticket in my pocket for the rest of the month without validating it. On the last day of the month, I ceremoniously stamped it, and rode a tram out east. As fate would have it at one stop, the doors having shut, the call rang out "Fahrkarten bitte!" ("Tickets please!"). It wasn't a strong voice though, and only one, indeed one single old lady conducted the inspection. Boy, did I have a grin on my face as I proudly demonstrated my valid ticket! I was glad of it too, I think it would have been harder facing up to her, than to gruff policemen ...

Some time later, I was on my way to Neu Kölln when that same call rang out, this time loud, and hard - of course I had no ticket. There were three doors on this carriage and one policeman dressed in green for each door, trained to look mean. They pulled about five of us off that carriage for fare evasion, myself and four others.

I was living up to my mission. Resigned, not panicked I followed the others into a room in the subway station, set aside for encounters like this. I spoke no German of course and was put in the "too hard basket" for a moment while the others were processed and dispelled. Of course I do speak German, it's my mother tongue no less, and it was a task and a half to listen to the proceedings with that disinterested look of someone who understands nothing ...

Indeed when it came to interviewing me, and I made it abundantly clear that I was an Australian tourist, had not 50 DM on me, nor passport and didn't understand anything beyond "Guten Tag, Mein Herr"" (I was living up to my mission!), it was especially difficult and wryly amusing to listen to their discussion: "What do we do with him? I don't know? No ID, No money, Australian ... Get 'im outta here!" - with a despaired shake of the head.

Sure enough I was escorted onto the platform shown how to buy a ticket, handed over some coins and promptly purchased one, then waited for the train and got on, to continue on my way ...

Only then did I realise I was already where I wanted to be. Ouch! I'd not lived up to my mission completely then. Obviously I wasn't cool enough to notice I was already there. Duh! Now I had to cross the platform and catch a train right back, and boy did I hope these cops were gone ...

That was it. Six months in Berlin (on and off - probably three months residence in all) and I was nabbed twice. Says a lot for travelling black.

Debts to Pay (Zürich)

I lived in Bern for a half year at the start of 1996. I was working, and had an income for the first time in years. I did the right thing and bought monthly passes. Well, twice ... to be honest I just forgot to renew into the third month and by the time I'd noticed it didn't warrant buying one. In fact I clean forgot the next month too, and then I found a bicycle and rode that to work and back when the weather was fine (not often enough alas) so I never bought another one. In the end I rode Bernese busses at leaisure for four months free of tickets, and was never inspected. But then Bern is a special place, I didn't have a bicycle lock either, but still had a bike!

Leaving Bern I was headed back to Berlin to visit my (new-found) lover there. It took me through Zürich where I left some belongings at a friend's place - thanks Rolf (I was to fly back to Australia from Zürich).

Taking the tram out of town, I was nabbed. Those Zürich inspectors were every bit as mean as the Germans or the Slovaks, why couldn't they all be more like the French and Italians? In any case I had my bag, passport and in spite of my rule, more than 50 SFr on my person. I felt I owed Switzerland much more than that anyhow and paid the fine without any chagrin. Poetic justice I felt, that on my last day in the country I should pay my debts ...

Wait Right There (Zug-Zürich)

I was looking for work in '97 and sat an interview in Zug, just over the hill from Zürich. When done with the interview I caught the train back into Zürich where I was crashed at a friends. It was near enough to be fit the bill of urban transport and true to form I dodged the fare.

I had this nasty feeling somehow that maybe, being such a longish stretch, it was more like a regional train, even if it looked and ran like a tram. I'll never know if it was just a spot check (as on trams) or a regular patrol (as on regional trains) that nabbed me, but nabbed I was. There I was innocently reading a magazine, and some lady actually wanted to see a ticket from me! The nerve ...

Oddly enough she wasn't in a position to sell tickets or take fines and had to take it to a higher authority. Don't know why they send someone out to check tickets if they can't do anything when they find one missing, but that's what they did all right. She just told me to sit there and wait till a man turned up to take my money for a ticket (with the surcharge of 60 SFr - $40 - of course), she was off to fetch him.

Well, I sat as instructed, there was little else to do after all. Until that is, we pulled up at a stop, and the guy still hadn't turned up. Looking around, I couldn't see anyone, was in fact alone in this wagon. Nothing for it, I got off and waved the train goodbye. Hitched into Zürich …Do I look stupid?

Rapid Fire (Berlin)

I'd lived in Berlin some six months before and was nabbed twice. I came back in late 1997 and stayed about a month around October/November. I was basically looking for work again, the money in Switzerland was good, very good, and I had the right to work there (a Swiss passport through my mother), and a lover in Berlin. That took me to Berlin where I surfed the web for job opportunities.

There was one run between home and the university, a single tram line and about ten stops that I would ply every day. The tram line had just been extended and new trams were running. It was East Berlin and things were improving (I'd lived nearby three years earlier and the trams were just hellish then).

My lover travelled black as well, and I hadn't given much thought to buying tickets, Berlin was so lax, and I'd acquired the habit here years ago after all.

In fact my girl's father was in China for a few weeks around the end of October, and start of November. He already had a monthly pass for November and of course his October pass and they were freely transferable (what the Berliners call an Environment Pass for some reaosn). She took October's and I November's while he was away.

It was still October when I got nabbed. Damn. I offered my November pass confidently. It worked! I was passed by.

One week later I was done again! Jees, what was up here? Anyhow it was November now and I had a valid ticket.

A week later again! Egads! I guess they'd put in a new line with new trams and figured there's be good money to be made from joyriding black travellers ...

This time I had not ticket at all (dad had come back from China), and as the call rang out I was in fact reading the rail map on the wall trying to work our where I wanted to go (not the university for a change). Well, I had no reason to go and greet these inspectors so I diligently continued consulting my map on the wall as if I'd heard nothing. They pass me by, checking the tickets of seated passengers behind me, but something about my aura must have said "leave me alone", because they did, and got off at the next stop never having demanded a ticket of me.

I stopped taking the tram. I rode a bicycle.

The Score

Well, at the time of writing, I'd ridden the urban transport systems of central Europe without buying tickets for more than two years and was nabbed 11 times, paying fines only three times (once a trivial sum, once a learning experience, and once poetic justice). The score is very much in my favour, and travelling black a sensible economic move for the hitch-hiker ... who probably didn't need to hear it from me!

Eleven times in two years may look deceptively like about once every two months. Bearing in mind that I was riding public transport maybe half the time, once a month is a more reasonable average in fact. Indeed in places I'm sure they inspect in roughly monthly cycles or blitzes ...

Why Buy Tickets?

Well, most people buy them for one of two reasons.

The first is a misplaced sense of doing the right thing. To ride without one is quite obviously wrong, and the good citizen just doesn't do that. So, to dispel that guilty conscience, you buy a ticket. Wealthy people can of course afford a conscience like that, but it's not everyone's luxury (having said that, I think I'm a wealthy person!).

The second reason is for fear of being inspected. There's inevitably a small fine involved, but more importantly there's shame - that feeling that all the other good ticket buyers around you are looking down on you as this inspector makes it very obvious that you don't have a ticket. It's an uncomfortable feeling believe me, "down right embarrassing" I think, are fitting words for it. So much so, that many a not so wealthy person will buy tickets to avoid it - or not ride (and I consider myself not so wealthy too).

A moments reflection and a little experience will for many of us dispel both reasons, and we end up not buying tickets, travelling black.

The Good Citizen

In the first instance, this tram (for arguments sake) is going where it's going with or without you and your added weight has no meaningful impact on energy consumption. The good guy at this stage levels the classic "What if everybody did it?" argument. Which is to say, fair enough, it is going with or without you, and your presence won't incur any real cost to the operator, BUT if everyone did it, it would, the operator would go bankrupt and the tram wouldn't run at all.

Nice argument on the face of it, which probably accounts for its popularity. But a misguided one all the same. Let me put it this way: chances are you have some kind of hero. Let's assume for the moment it's Bill Clinton. If you can't stomach that, I'll assume it's Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Harrison Ford, or even Spiderman. I don't really care. But just assume, for a moment that everyone did what your hero does. Wow, can you imagine the mess we'd be in? For starters the trams wouldn't run because your hero probably doesn't drive trams. But your hero is your hero all the same. And if you can't find a hero, settle for someone you respect. And if you can't find anyone you respect, get a life.

My point of course is, that the "What if everybody did it?" argument is a crock. Systems only work because everyone fulfils their role, and each role is different. Sure there are systems we're all compelled to pander to for the sake of social harmony. I have no gripe with them per se, but it would be as naive to assume that everyone pandered to them as it would be to imagine that no-one would. Yes, there are people who pay no tax! But the system hangs in. Some people to pay tax. Not everyone does it! - pay or avoid tax, that is, whichever you choose.

Now, my comeback to the "What if everybody did it?" argument will generally be "Well, they don't, so where's the problem?". This is why the European system works in the first instance, and because it works it's kept in place. In places where fare evasion is too rampant, London and Paris for example, controls are much tighter. But elsewhere they remain lax. Basically, because not everyone does skip fares …

There are two great benefits in that. The first is, that the not inconsiderable cost of policing tickets is saved. Imagine for a moment what all those automatic turnstiles in London and Paris cost and what each of those inspectors at each and every entrance to the subway attracts in the way of a wage. That opens another social argument of course, that of providing these poor people with a job, but I won't explore that here, there are plenty more constructive tasks we can put them to in our social network (schools, hospitals, you name it ...).

The other rather significant social benefit, is that they who need to travel for free can and do. In Berlin for example you see all manner of homeless people and buskers on the subway. You imagine these people are buying tickets? More to the point when the occasional inspection does come around they're not even likely to be fined, unless they meet an inspector who's had a really bad day and feels like pulling the wings off flies …

That is a benefit in my eyes, as mobility creates a vibrant populace, and economy. If these people can get around they have more chance of getting somewhere, so to speak. More chance of pulling themselves out of that homeless rut.

But back to, "what if everyone did it?" Consider an interesting icon for success in this modern world of ours - good business - which floursihes on diversity. We idolise novelty, ingenious ideas, breaking from the crowd, to do things no-one else has done! Our economies are run by and based on people that think like this. If you can do something no-one else does, you have a chance to succeed, to sell it, or if you can do something that others can, only a lot better you also have a chance for success. Break free of the mould!

Of course that argument is generally bought-into only for things that not everyone can do. If everyone can do it, then being the only one to do it, isn't such a recipe for success as being the only one who can do it is!

I will though, attack the distinction. The semantic distinction between what you can do, and what you choose to do is a fine one, not at all as clear as it first seems. The problem crops up in law a lot when we need to define precisely the difference between choosing to do something and being compelled to do it for example. The Heroin addict is a classic example, does the addict choose to take heroin? or must the addict take heroin. Can the addict not take heroin?

I've known people I'd class as not being able to dodge fares, for example. The choice jsut isn't there. It runs too deeply against their very being. No criticism there, a perfectly happy state of affairs in fact. Worthy to note though, that the distinction between can do and choose to do, isn't radiantly trivial.

In essence though what I'm getting at, is that if someone rides a tram without a ticket, and you look down on them in disgust and utter "well what if everyone did that?", you are in fact making a plea to common-sense. The common-sense notion that the system wouldn't work if everyone did that, and that's just not on. The problem of course is that there isn't any common-sense involved. It is in fact little more than one's own social programming showing through, the concept of good citizenship.

The Shamed Citizen

The second reason people tend to buy tickets is the fear of being caught. The fines are laughable. As a rule a fine for fare evasion in Europe costs you about as much as 20 to 30 tickets, or 10 to 15 days worth of tickets. I have yet to find a place and meet the people that can tell me they are checked once every ten to fifteen days. Years of experience in various central European countries suggest the expected frequency is about once a month. That is if I never buy a ticket, I'm likely to pay for 10 to 15 days of travel every month. No rational person can see that as a disincentive, and it's not, it's an incentive not to buy tickets. Half price travel!

No, the disincentive comes from the fear not of a monetary fine but of shame - having other people go "tut, tut", and apply that beloved "Well, what if everyone did it?" argument to you, making you feel small, and dirty, and unworthy. This is in fact a very real disincentive. Most inspectors are very good at delivering this demeaning spiel.

The Bottom Line

There are some further disincentives for permanent residents of course. Firstly monthly passes are generally affordable and not so ludicrously expensive as single trip tickets (why the discrimination against transients I don't quite know, but it is very real and sold socially as "rewarding the regulars" or the "bulk buy discount"). Secondly if you get caught three or more times things can get a little more serious as a rule, court appearances and so on. Not real good.

But of course monthly passes are not a realistic option for the passer through and nor is getting caught and identified three times while in town. So there's no drama there.

But then the chances of being fined as a passer through are also slim. The "How, what, when, where, why?" line of attack and disorientation is wildly successful. Backup strategies involve keeping an unvalidated ticket on you, not speaking the local language (even if you do), never carrying enough cash on you to pay the fine, never carrying any formal ID on you and so on -- they all work wonders.

The chances of actually having to pay are slim. The chances of it going further are also slim in spite of the technical illegality say of not having any ID, and if on occasion you do pay a fine, even in fact if you pay one every time you're nabbed, you're saving an awful lot of money over the simple ticket fares.


© Copyright 1996–2004, Bernd Wechner
The Memories of a Hitch-hiker
Anywhere But Here