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!
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