Skipping along in Hungary: Public transportation anomalies

A bit of an explanation of the title. If outside of Hungary one uses public transportation without paying for it, it is called "cheating." In Hungary they call it "bliccelés," the same word students use when they skip a class here and there. "Bliccelni" generally means to gain a certain advantage by cleverness, by outfoxing the authorities. It is not really a crime.

It seems that twenty-five percent of people who use public transportation in Budapest "skip" the price of the ticket. To tell you the truth, I'm surprised that even that many pay their fare. (Of course, there are large segments of the population who can legally ride for free.) Ticket inspectors don't regularly check to see whether passengers have tickets. Moreover, because the ticket inspectors don't have the right to demand to see valid identification cards people without tickets can give false names and addresses. The "skippers" (bliccelők) sometimes feel so self-righteous that it has happened more than once that some indignant passenger physically attacked the inspector. Or the guilty ones complain about the rude behavior of the inspectors. Of course, sometimes the criticism is valid, especially when the inspectors behave in an unacceptable manner toward foreigners who don't speak a word of Hungarian and who had no idea that they had to buy their tickets at some designated place before they got on the bus or streetcar. Yelling at them in Hungarian will not promote tourism!

When the topic comes up on forums where there are Hungarians from all over the world there is an interesting split between those who live in Hungary and those live or have lived abroad. The ex-patriots almost unanimously, regardless of the country in which they live, suggest that new passengers should enter in the front and show their ticket or their season pass to the driver. Passengers who want to get off should use the back door. That was immediately rejected by people from Budapest. It would slow down traffic. It would be an impossibility. They added that there are those endlessly long streetcars where this arrangement wouldn't work.That last argument does have merit, but the question is how many of these long monsters are in Budapest. And for the few would it not be a good idea to employ inspectors at every door? I'll bet that the extra money collected would more than pay for their salaries. The Budapesters added that the financial loss was simply not enough to worry about. Peanuts!

To the contrary, for the past few years one has heard more and more about the transit system's staggering losses, specifically the losses incurred as a result of "skipping." Billions and billions of forints. It has taken management a long time, but it seems that they have finally recognized that the current system is unsustainable. As is it, there are talks about reducing the number of buses and streetcars by thirty percent in order to survive. Or perhaps allowing private companies to provide public transportation.

My first inkling that something was in the offing came from a relative in Pécs. I happened to mention to my cousin the practice here of getting on in the front and off in the back. The surprise answer came: they introduced this a few months ago in Pécs.

A few days later what do I read? As an "experiment" they are testing out the system we have been suggesting for years on "less frequented" bus lines in Budapest. The article mentioned four such lines and stressed that this is just a trial run. After assessing the experience with these four lines they will decide whether this new practice could possibly be introduced on other lines as well.

And now comes the modern monsters' case. This is a real problem due to the extraordinary length of the Siemens Combino streetcars recently introduced in Budapest. As you can see from the attached picture checking tickets here might be a real problem.Combino Again as a "experiment" they are checking passengers' tickets at the beginning of their run and only during rush hours. During the day everything is going on in the same old way. The experiment started off well, the "passengers were cooperative."  A reporter sent out by Népszava talked to a man in his thirties who unabashedly told him that he never buys a season pass and only purchases a ticket when he really has to. Yesterday he didn't have to because it wasn't rush hour. And if tomorrow the inspectors  allow people to ride only if they have tickets, he will just walk a few minutes to the next stop where no one checks anything. At home he has hundreds of "summonses" to pay a surcharge on his travels without tickets, but he will never pay them a penny. The reporter did a mini unscientific survey which confirmed the general impression. Out of ten passengers six paid while four skipped. Another man interviewed called the whole checking process "humbug." His wife used his season pass today, so he "skipped." Of course there were no consequences.

During our animated discussions about public transportation we, ex-pats, also suggested queueing up at the bus stops. That too was rejected. First because it slows down traffic. Second, because several buses stop at the same place. Let's say one wants to take bus number 17 but 19 and 23 also stop there. One cannot queue up under these circumstances!  We suggested that perhaps there should be more than one stop if three different buses go along the same road for a while. Well, that wouldn't work either, they answered. It would take up too much space at the curb. At that point we gave up.

This story tells a lot about how difficult it is to introduce anything new. People are afraid of innovation and will go to great lengths to explain why a particular change wouldn't work. It might work everywhere else in the world but not in Budapest. A difficult situation.

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Hettie
Guest

It was first door on other doors off in Szeged between 1995-2000 when I went to university there. I don’t think that changed…
Anyhow, I always buy a pass or tickets when in Hungary (and generally avoid public transport in the city I live now) as was the case before I moved abroad. A correlation can go both ways, maybe Hungarians who pay their busfares are more likely to move abroad? 🙂

Mark
Guest

“And now comes the modern monsters’ case.”
Again, I’m not sure it need be a problem. You could employ conductors. You allow people to buy a ticket on board for a premium price – say, one and a half times that of a normal ticket. If someone has no valid ticket for travel on the streetcar, they have to buy the higher priced one. The revenue would pay the salaries of the conductors.

Öcsi
Guest
I think the problem is that public transportation is not “public.” That is to say, it is not free. And it should be! Public transportation should be as free as street lighting, parks and, dare I say, education and medical care. Yes, I understand that it is not “free,” that someone has to pay for it, but just make it a tax. A lot of money could be saved by getting rid of the ticket checkers that are everywhere. And a tax would be as fair as any tax. Some people benefit and some don’t. (I, for one, don’t have kids but I don’t mind paying school tax on my house.) It makes total environmental sense to get as many people to use public transportation as possible. I am always amazed when I take the 56 tram to Moszkva tér and see the streets clogged with cars, usually with just the driver. It’s a waste of gas, time, roads and I don’t even want to think of the quality of the air those idling cars produce. I agree with you that people are afraid of innovation and change but, surely, there has to be some progressive leadership on this issue.
Mark
Guest
Öcsi: “Yes, I understand that it is not “free,” that someone has to pay for it, but just make it a tax.” This isn’t really the problem. The difficulty with free, or low-cost public transportation is that there is necessarily limited capacity, and if you abolished fares, or reduced fares to a low level so they don’t make people think about the choices they make, you will create unlimited demand. Budapest’s problem (and I use public transport always in Budapest – the last time on Sunday, I last used a car there in 2004) is partly one of inadeuqate capacity due to long-term underinvestment, but it is also a systemic problem in that the BKV cannot manage the demand for services effectively because of fare dodging and too many people paying too little. This systemic problem is behind endemic overcrowding, which is especially noticeable on bus lines. I’m absolutely sure that most of those drivers are not sitting in their cars because of the cost. Most of them do so because public transport is either not an option (especially for those who live beyond the city boundaries, where there is a real need for an improvement in services), or because… Read more »
Kirsten
Guest

Dear Eva,
in your comment to “skipping” in Hungary you write: “Bliccelni” generally means to gain a certain advantage by cleverness, by outfoxing the authorities. It is not really a crime.
I would like to ask something related to that. It seems to me that in every country at least some people try to “be clever” and “circumvent” the rules, but from my (admittedly limited) knowledge of Hungarians I got the impression that in Hungary a large proportion of people thinks that anyone who plays by the rules is somewhat mad. (And your comment today seems to confirm this impression.) I was thinking about why such attitude has gained ground and when. In communist societies (where I grew up) indeed rules were a flexible matter, so is it a relict from these times? Or even older?

Peter
Guest
Skipping is sadly a national sport in hungary, but not only in public transport, also in taxing – cca. 700k people are paying the 80% of the income tax revenue, that is only 7% of the population – so even worse percentage as by public transport. in some countries the system can work without inspections – just pick vienna, only 250 km west… the clever thing would be first door entry on buses, but it couldn’t work on trams, for trams and metro the entry fences would be a solution. but the local transport co. (bkv) is (can’t say anything else) pretty stupid. the inspectors are bad pay so they better work on their own. secondly the ticketing system is also the worst in europe: a ticket is only valid on one line. you are only in bucharest not allowed to change line a ticket. so that means budapest ticket prices are one of the highest in europe – one trip is around 1,1 eur. for this price you can travel at least one hour in rome, madrid – with a much more better system. so this problem is typically representing hungarian reality: the system is designed bad, companies and… Read more »
Hettie
Guest

A one line only bus ticket in Edinburgh is £1.20. LRT, the bus company is owned by the council. I pay £140 a month in council tax (which does not depend on income). Budapest’s public transport is way better than Edinburgh’s (as observed by a bunch of British nd American friends) so Budapesters shouldn’t blame their skipping on a bad system (even better, they should start buying tickets).

Öcsi
Guest

Mark wrote: “This isn’t really the problem. The difficulty with free, or low-cost public transportation is that there is necessarily limited capacity, and if you abolished fares, or reduced fares to a low level so they don’t make people think about the choices they make, you will create unlimited demand.”
Actually, Mark, I never gave capacity a second thought. You have a valid point. However, there is road capacity and, in many parts of BP, it was reached many years ago. The only way road capacity can be increased in the inner city is to tear down buildings. And I don’t think that’s on.
Given all the difficulties the BKV is experiencing (over-capacity, metro 4, cheating, old equipment) I still favour free service. But it need not be introduced suddenly and without serious consideration. If I had a say in the matter, I would push for free public transportation within 20 years. It could be phased in slowly during that period.
I may not have the best idea regarding public transportation but I don’t see too many others that go beyond current thinking about how to solve the problem.

Mark
Guest

Öcsi: “However, there is road capacity and, in many parts of BP, it was reached many years ago. The only way road capacity can be increased in the inner city is to tear down buildings. And I don’t think that’s on.”
Absolutely, and when there is no means of increasing capacity, demand has to be managed. For this reason I support road charges for driving in major cities. It is done in most major cities in Norway, and London charges for drivers in certain parts of the city on weekdays.

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