The BVG, Berlin’s beloved and despised public transport company, is even more chaotic than usual. Theoretically, every Berliner should be able get a monthly ticket for €29. But the BVG is so disorganized that many riders have found it impossible to purchase a subscription — as our news blog has reported, “it’s a mess.” Others who managed to pay the money back in October still haven’t received their physical tickets.
The solution here is shockingly obvious: change the law! Make riding without a ticket a misdemeanour, just like parking without a ticket is.
This means they now have to deal with the company’s infamous Kontrolleur:innen, or ticket checkers. Several weeks ago, the TV news magazine Frontal put out a shocking nine-minute video about Out-of-Control Controllers (only in German unfortunately). The assaults committed by this publicly owned company are deplorable: a broken nose, a broken finger, broken ribs… It’s hard to overlook the fact that most victims are people of colour. These are just the ones that have gone public. The problem has made international news.
The BVG has refused to provide anything but boilerplate (“we tolerate neither discrimination nor violence”). In practice, they avoid accountability by outsourcing most their ticket checking to private companies. When one of these “external employees” gets violent, the BVG can claim they have nothing to do with it — despite paying the assaulter.
Jeremy Osborne, an opera singer originally from the United States, was assaulted by the BVG in October 2020, despite having a valid ticket. Since public prosecutors often refuse to press criminal charges against controllers, Osborne is currently suing the BVG under Berlin’s Anti-Discrimination Law (the full German name — no joke — is Landesantidiskriminierungsgesetz). To my non-legal mind, this sounds like an open-and-shut case: a Black man attacked by men with BVG IDs who were spewing racist insults. The BVG, however, is arguing that the law doesn’t apply, since the contract between the BVG (a public company) and its riders (the public) is a question of private law. Discrimination, it would seem, is thus legal.
In the Frontal video, a former controller explains how violence is built into the system. They are instructed to perform a kind of “citizen’s arrest” if they catch someone without a ticket. Thanks to a law passed by the Nazis in 1935, riding without a ticket is a felony. But as Berlin’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry explains, controllers receive no training in how they are supposed to detain people. Hence, the orgy of improvised violence. The BVG says that their “external employees” are trained in deescalation — but they haven’t wanted to share said training materials with anyone.
The solution here is shockingly obvious: change the law! Make riding without a ticket a misdemeanour, just like parking without a ticket is. Then no one, not controllers or anyone else, would be allowed to use violence to prevent such a “crime.” I have taken the subway in Stockholm where employees are explicitly prohibited from touching riders. Believe it or not, the trains are still running and society has not collapsed. Does someone avoid paying a fare once in a while? I would assume so. It seems like a small price to pay to avoid violence.
if we eliminate the constant threat of violence on trains and busses, won’t they just descend into Schwarzfahren anarchy?
Germany’s three governing parties have promised to change the law — but who knows when they will follow through? The BVG doesn’t need to wait for them. The company could proclaim: “We are ending racist violence. We are instructing controllers not to touch anyone, under any circumstances, and we will press charges against any who do.”
BVG chair Eva Kreienkamp — who makes over half a million euros per year, for some reason — could implement this policy right this second. But I couldn’t get her to say anything about her company’s pattern of racist violence on the record.
Berlin’s Transport Senator, Bettina Jarasch of the Green Party — who hopes to become the next mayor — could instruct the publicly owned company to end the violence. Yet after several weeks of corresponding with her press office, all I know is that she is too busy to comment on the assaults.
Readers might be wondering: if we eliminate the constant threat of violence on trains and busses, won’t they just descend into Schwarzfahren anarchy? There is an easy solution to this as well. Just get rid of tickets entirely. The BVG is already largely funded by taxes. If we could get Berlin’s oligarchs — both the German and the Russian ones — to pay minimal taxes, we wouldn’t need the income from tickets.
With the €9 ticket this summer, we already had three months of essentially free transport. Did that feel like The Purge to anyone? I thought it was fine. The BVG is a public good. Fares for use public services are just a form of regressive taxes: the poorer you are, the more of your income you have to pay for the basic democratic right to get around the city.
At the moment, the BVG isn’t really even able to sell €29 tickets to people who want them. So it seems doubly absurd to be assaulting customers who don’t have one.