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Monday, June 30, 2008

Navigating the incredibly complex Munich public transit system

The German train system is designed for people who live in Germany, not for people from abroad. As a result, the system is complex in a way that makes optimization difficult, if not impossible, for all but non-natives. Even natives sometimes screw up and buy the wrong tickets (or a more expensive one than necessary).

The Munich local train system is the MVV. How complex can a subway be? If you're German, it can be incredibly complex. There are no less than 3 different ticketing systems!

System #1: For one trip. Here, you buy a ticket for each trip. There are 4 zones, and depending on how many zones you cross, you pay 2.2, 4.4, 6.6, or 8.8 Euros. Unless you buy with a smart-chipped ATM card, in which case you pay a little less. If you don't have one of those, you can get the same discount, but only by buying a Streifenkarte, which is a stripped ticket where instead of buying a ticket for each trip, you use a certain number of stripes and fold them into the canceling machine for each trip.

System #2: For multiple trips in the same day (the Tageskarte system). Again, these are zoned. You pay 5 Euros for inner-city trips, with a sliding scale up to 10 Euros for all zones. You pay for the most zones you'll need, and can take unlimited rides given the same day. To complicate this, if more than 1 of you are traveling together, you can buy the Partner Tageskarte, which runs from 9 to 18 Euros, and lets up to 5 people travel on that one ticket.

System #3: Weekly and Monthly passes. Unlike the other systems, this one doesn't operate on zones but on rings. There are 16 rings, of which rings 1-4 comprise the innermost zone. The prices range from 10 Euros for a weekly ticket that covers zones 1-2, to 200+ Euros for a monthly ticket that covers all the rings. These transferable tickets can be used for an unlimited number of rides within the designated zones. Then, there's the Isarcard 9Uhr, which gives you a discount, but doesn't let you onto the trains between 6-9am. And, for the true natives, you can buy a subscription to the train system, where you pay for 10 months (or 9 months), but get a full year's worth of monthly passes mailed to you.

Toss in the usual mix of discounts for students, kids (which may accompany parents on some tickets but not others) and senior citizens, and you can see why the optimization function can be quite complex. Oh, and before I forget, a day ticket for a bike costs 2.5 Euro. There are no monthly or weekly tickets for bikes. To round it all out, you also have a 3-day city center ticket (for tourists), which provides some other discounts for museums, etc.

In case you're wondering what the machine that dispenses all these tickets looks like:

Oh wait, that machine doesn't dispense tickets using system #3! For those, you have to go to a customer service center, or find a different machine which takes credit cards and has a touch screen instead of buttons. If you're in the main train station, it's easy to confuse those machines with the machines which dispenses tickets for long distance trains.

For someone with flexible work hours (like me), you might think that the Isarcard 9Uhr would be an easy decision. For 60 Euros, you get free run of the entire train system. Well, but I also have a bike, and on weekends, half the time I'll be using the Bayern Ticket with Lisa to make runs outside the city (which is the only time I'll really need a 10 Euro Tageskarte). The rest of the time I only need 5 Euro day tickets or 2.20 trip tickets. So yes, not only is the system complex, it also interacts in an odd fashion with the long distance train system.

Don't get me wrong --- I really like the public transit system (though surprisingly enough, it's not much faster than riding a bike --- I can bike 15.2km to work in about 35 minutes, and the transit takes me 25 --- not including walking to and from the train!) The system is relatively on time (though not as punctual as the Swiss trains), and quite reliable, and useful when it rains.

I started out entitling this blog post, "Navigating the incredibly complex German train system", but I realize that I've run out of time, and haven't even gotten to the real trains, as opposed to just in-city transit, so I'll save that for another time. Those are even more complex!


Johannes said...

I haven't used the system in Munich, but know a similar one from my student days. The system I used (RMV, around Frankfurt) is well setup for power users: flexible and large - you'll get the feeling you're dealing with just one institution, even though train, bus, etc. were traditionally run by different agencies / companies / city governments. For example, you might end up using a single ticket for a lengthy trip between two locations and end up using all of train, tram, bus, underground; and typically, the number of transfers is unlimited, the ticket will be valid for a one-way trip on the shortest path, and the schedules are somewhat synced up. Compare this with the SF bay area transportation, where the systems are out of sync and you need to buy separate tickets for each of them (e.g. VTA + CalTrain + bart + ...). Besides, if you are a student in Germany, you get the semester ticket from your university at a very steep discount, typically. In my case it was around 10% of the regular price - it was actually covered with the mandatory student fees. At that point, the complexities of the optimal pricing became a non-issue. :-)

bawa said...

I don't know how you have managed.That machine looks formidable.

Here in my area (Bilbao-Spain), someone with a lot of sense integrated all the transport systems, at least far as the user is concerned, and the easiest system, where you get a large discount if you buy a prepaid card that can be used by as many people travelling together as you want: e.g. if 3 of you get on the bus, you just punch it 3 times and it discounts the amount each time- this amount will be different depending on the mode of transport.
It is simple to use, but considering the system covers city and provincial buses, the underground, a narrow-gauge rail network, a tram system in addition to two funicular railways, many lifts/cabins, and even a moving bridge! it is indeed miraculous that someone had such foresight.

The different companies actually running the stuff have agreements whereby they divide up the proceeds.

Would Munich benefit from something like that?

Piaw Na said...

What I've discovered is that Germans are not afraid of complexity. These are the guys who invented the hard-top convertible (a complex metal roof with lots of articulation and moving parts) that's reliable just for the heck of it.

That said, I found even Germans visiting from a different city confused by the Munich MVV. Perhaps they will rationalize the system some day.

The Swiss system works the way you describe and I like it very much.

bawa said...

If I go to Munich again, I am printing out your post to take with me!
Maybe they should add it to the tourism page, you seemed to have summed it up quite neatly.