You don’t need to pay to enter Berlin’s U and S Bahn, the city’s subway system. Station’s are largely employee-less, and ticket distribution is done through automated ticket machines on the platforms. Very rarely, ticket collectors check for paid fares once you’ve boarded the train, and if you get caught without a ticket, it’s a 40 euro fine. In Berlin, paid fares essentially rely on an honour system.

Naturally, it is very tempting to ride the U and S Bahn without purchasing a ticket. At 2.30 Euros a ride, it can get very expensive taking the subway — and many people I’ve spoken to have used the logic that if they use the metro without paying and only get ticketed on average once a month, the 40 Euro fine is much less expensive than a monthly pass (which is more like 70 – 80 Euros).

Arguments regarding the morality of taking the S and U Bahn without paying aside, I find it fascinating that the public transit system is able to function with such a loose fare collection system. It seems an unlikely combination of a municipal-bureaucratic institution — the BVG (Berlin’s transport authority) — and anarchy. There must be a significant amount of people who ride without paying, yet the system runs incredibly efficiently, and covers the city very well. Obviously the honour system is working.

I really love the way tickets are done in Berlin. There is such freedom associated with this open method of fare collection, and it changes the nature of the transit system and its relationship to the city. The subway stations are literally open wide to anyone who would like to enter, whether one has paid or not. The staircases that emerge from the platform to the street are truly an extension of the street, and not divided into space of those with-money and those without.

The honour system fare collection also acknowledges and works with the essential anarchy of a city. Of course there are going to be people who don’t pay, and this is a good thing — a city government must provide for its people whether or not they have money. Acknowledging this and basing the system assuming that some won’t pay, while those who do cover the costs, assures that all kinds of people are able to participate in the transportation service. It’s like the “pay what you can model” that I’ve experienced at the Midnight Kitchen and the Evolve Tea Hive. In a situation where profit is not the goal, I have found that asking people to pay what they can results in some who pay way more than they need, because they can and want to, and some who don’t pay at all. While some of these non-payers are free loaders, others truly can’t pay, but still get to participate in the service based on the support of those who do pay. This is getting to deeper fundamental issues of politics — which is why I like the Berlin fare collection system: it is an example of a large scale, functional “pay what you can” system!

In Toronto this situation is different, and less in line with the inherent anarchy of cities. One must pay at a personed ticket booth before entering a subway station: there is a divide between those who can pay and those who cannot, a social barrier physically expressed in the transportation infrastructure. Yet, the essential anarchy of a city prevails, because of course people use public transit in Toronto without paying. I’ve seen it often, on a crowded street car that is picking up hundreds of people from a subway station where people squeeze into the back doors without getting cleared from an employee. Of course, some of these people who squeeze in the back door have paid, and they wave their transfer to the driver who is looking the other way and can’t see this gesture — but some, I’m sure, have not paid — and that is okay and natural to the workings of a city.