Bus Culture in Germany: Get your Elbows out!

Is taking the bus in Germany really that different to going on a bus ride in England? Hop on, hop off, right? So why write an article about it?

Well, I did not think there was such a thing as ‘bus culture’, but living here taught me otherwise. Travelling on English buses is like an educational trip that teaches foreigners politeness and manners. Of course, I cannot speak for all foreigners since I don’t know about their personal ‘bus culture’, but I can definitely say that Germans can learn a lot from British public transport.

I love the queues that form before the bus arrives, the calm entering of the bus, the polite ‘After you’ loops and the various ways to thank the bus driver for the ride when getting off. What seems normal to you is something I really had to understand and learn, and sometimes I am still tempted to fall back into German manners – especially when it’s raining outside and I want to get on the bus as quickly as possible.
So, if you ever have experienced a person trying to sneak in front of you when getting on the bus, or just bluntly storming out of the bus before everybody else — here is why:

At German bus stops you will not find anyone queuing up. Usually this is because a lot of German buses have two or three doors to get on and off, so people try to stand along the bus stop to be really close to one of the three doors. Instead of a queue, Germans form little clusters (we call them “Menschentrauben”) around the doors.

Naturally, these make it very difficult for people to get off the bus and out onto the pavement, and moreover, this formation leaves at least two people competing for who is to get on first. As soon as the last person got off, Germans will try to storm into the bus to sit down as fast as possible, using their elbows, rucksacks or walking sticks.
Lately, the buses in my German hometown only allow people to get on through the front door, so people can get off unharmed through the back doors. Although passengers that leave the bus might be safer now, the same rude behaviour still takes place – now only in front of the bus driver’s door.

Next problem: Germans don’t like any delays when it comes to bus rides. If somebody needs to pay for a ticket, bus pass holders squeeze past them, and quickly secure their seats. If it’s raining everybody presses into the bus like there is no tomorrow. And since people leave the bus through one of the back doors, there is no chance to thank the bus driver. Yet, to be honest – even if we had the opportunity, we would not do it. Politeness is really not one of our qualities.

Hence, get out your elbows when entering the bus, or you will be the last one to get on and might end up standing. In some cities, you cannot buy a bus ticket from the driver but a ticket machine. Let me tell you – these ticket machines are very tricky! Hopefully you are used to having some change in your pocket, since English bus drivers prefer exact fares as well. But whereas a bus driver can give you change if need be, the machine can’t. German bus ticket machines rarely take notes, so you might end up standing in front of the machine, sheepishly looking around for somebody to help you. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon that other passengers see your misery but decide to ignore it.
Bildergebnis für schwarzfahren deutschlandIn this case, you need to start addressing individual passengers directly, thus forcing them to look at you and check their purse for change. In the best case, other people will feel encouraged to join checking their purses and wallets and somebody will swap your notes for coins. Depending on the willingness of your fellow passengers and the distance you are travelling, the procedure of purchasing a ticket can take so long, you might be getting off the bus without having achieved your goal. Of course, this is not ok! In fact, going on a bus ride without purchasing a ticket is called “Schwarzfahren” (black driving), and is steeply fined. Knowing the English system now, where you can only get on the bus after having paid, the German way seems ridiculous. How often did I jump on a German bus and only noticed my lack of coins when standing in front of the silly ticket machine?! The bus doors close, you are already on and destined to be a ‘Schwarzfahrer’ because you are unable to purchase a ticket. Welcome to Germany!

The only good thing about German buses is that there are screens displaying the next bus stop as well as announcements. This way, you always know which stops comes next and you can get ready for storming off the bus.
The rude ‘Menschentrauben’ also form on train platforms or in front of any other public transport. Hence, when Tom and I are in Germany, it is usually me securing us some seats while my polite British boyfriend is pushed to the back of the cluster and only manages to enter the transport vehicle when the doors are about to close. As much as I love and cherish English queues and politeness in the UK, I immediately fall back into German habits when being confronted with the elbows of my fellow passengers.
However, if there is the chance to get off through the driver’s front door, I happily smile at German bus drivers and thank them for the ride. And since nobody else does it, most bus drivers smile back at me as soon as their confusion has passed.

In summary:
  • Don’t try to form a queue – nobody will join in
  • Be prepared to be the last on the bus – or get your elbows out
  • Make sure you have coins with you – or you will end up as a ‘Schwarzfahrer
  • Get off quickly – German buses stick to a strict timetable and will close the doors again if you are not fast enough

Gute Fahrt!


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