public transit

 
 
 

Budapest is almost the perfect size for a city; there is enough room so that every neighborhood can assert its own personality, and yet it’s small enough so that the entire city can be navigated easily and mastered swiftly.  As a result, the best way to see Budapest is to walk it.  If you have any stamina at all, you can get from one end of the city to the opposite in less than an hour on foot. 


Even if it is raining or dreary it’s worth the inconvenience to develop a feel for how the pieces of the city fit together (we try to leave some umbrellas in the apartments so you won’t get stranded in the rain).  Like Boston, it’s a small city that can seem large and daunting if you rely on the excellent subway system to take you from neighborhood to neighborhood.  You descend in the center of one neighborhood and emerge up into an area with an entirely different character and focus.  And yet, when walked, they turn out to be surprisingly adjacent and the Metro stops remarkably close to each other.


Trams, Buses, and Metros.


What follows is my own effort to deconstruct the public transit system in Budapest, and is, I hope, readable and clear but not necessarily authoritative. The transit system -- BKV -- has its own website, in English, with detailed and accurate information: http://www.bkv.hu/english/home/index.html, but it’s perhaps a bit tricky to follow. Consider this excerpt from the official webpage listing ticket prices and explaining their use:


If passengers have a pass with a photo or students' pass with a valid students' card that are valid on the day on which the fining happened, but they could not present it can present their pass and students' card within 8 executive day for HUF 2,500 at a venue that is determined by the company. The subsequent presentation of passes is not possible in case of dogs.


There is also an absolutely wonderful, almost worshipful, website about the Budapest tram system (and, as he says, much more) written and hosted by an avid but seemingly otherwise normal Hungarian computer aficionado (his bio is at: http://hampage.hu/english.html)


That site is at: http://hampage.hu/kozlekedes/e_index.html


And another at: http://villamosok.hu/index_a.html


So, take your pick among the bureaucratic, the infatuated, and the curmudgeonly. 


Here’s mine:


The Budapest public transit system is among the best and most efficient in the world.  Budapest had the first Metro in Continental Europe (which is Hungarian for saying that it had the second one in Europe…London came first).  Hungarians are nothing if not simultaneously fiercely proud and tearfully nostalgic, so they have maintained that subway line in more or less its original form and it runs, frequently, quaintly, and usefully, from Vorosmarty ter eastward along Andrassy, past Heroes Square, and on to the Szechenyi Baths and the city park (and just beyond).  The stops are unusually close to each other (at times, about 2-3 city blocks), the tunnel it runs in is unusually shallow -- more like a trench -- and the cars are small and feel a bit like a toy train.  But it sure makes it easy to get from Gerbeaud to the Opera or the Baths.


There are two other Metro lines and they are in the process of building a fourth line (and dreaming in detail about a fifth).  Together, these lines serve the city (and the traveler) quite well.


The map below is characteristically Hungarian, a language in which the verb ‘to be’ should be routinely translated not as conveying mere petty existence, but rather as expressing wistful hope and expectation – however vain and wishful.  When a Hungarian says "It is."  you will save yourself considerable grief and disappointment if you translate it as, "I wish it were." Plus, you'll experience a small thrill when it actually turns out to happen.


The map, therefore, includes the two metro lines not yet built (the dotted green and the purple outline; the green is under construction, the purple … )):




And here is one with just the three existing lines:




The trams and buses are ubiquitous and have very functional routes (and often can utilize special lanes that make them able to cut through traffic), but are difficult to capture on a map.  Here is a map of the major trams (the yellow lines; the green are the interurban train lines that go outside the city):




Several of these routes have had to be modified as a result of the new metro construction.  Information about the changes and what replaces the lines that have been suspended or modified can be found here: 


http://www.bkv.hu/hirek/20070814budaivillamosok.gif


Another useful source for tram information can be found at the Tram-Hiker’s Guide webpage:


http://hampage.hu/trams/thg2bp/map.html


And a far more detailed map can be found at:


http://www.freeweb.hu/kzsoci/terkepek/budapest_2007-2008.pdf


The BKV website has a very useful tool, in Hungarian only, that tells you how to get from anywhere to anywhere by public transit.  To use it, go to: http://utvonal.bkv.hu/.  Some useful words: ‘indulás’ is your starting point ‘érkezés’ is your endpoint.  Város is the city name, ‘kerület’ is the district number, ‘utca’ is the streetname and number, ‘mehet’ conducts the search.



OK, but how do I actually use the system?


It’s easy once you get used to it, but daunting at the outset.  Basically, all public transit within Budapest requires that you either:


1. Buy and validate a ticket for each leg of your trip (if you change lines or buses you need a separate validated ticket for each.)


Or


2. Have a pass.


IF YOU DO NOT DO ONE OF THESE TWO THINGS, YOU WILL BE ABLE TO BOARD THE TRAIN, BUS, OR TRAM BUT MAY FIND YOURSELF ACCOSTED BY AN UNDERCOVER TICKET INSPECTOR AND FINED -- see below.


Tickets can be purchased at the cashiers in all Metro stations and at machines at some bus and tram stops (and Metro stations). You can buy tickets at all metro stations (if the "pénztár"-cashier is closed, you must go to the "forgalmi ügyelet" which is right next to it and generally looks like a closed door that you have to knock on or buzz and someone will come out). You can buy single tickets or discounted books of 10 or 20.  You can also buy them at tobacconist booths, but there you will only find the simple tickets, not the passes and booklets.


Using a ticket is a 3-step enterprise: (1) get the ticket; (2) validate it before you start out in a Metro or tram or bus; and (3) keep the validated ticket with you until you are back out on the street.  If you don’t follow all three steps scrupulously, you may well fall victim to the plainclothes transit enforcer squadrons that prowl the underground (and the buses) the way alligators are said to wander around NYC sewers.


To validate a ticket you need to get a time stamped on it in code.  There are little red machines for this purpose in front of the escalators down to all the Metros, and in several locations on every bus, trolley, and tram.  USE THEM.  They are either automatic (you stick the ticket in (number-grid end first) and it … ca-chunk … stamps it for you; or they are manual…you insert the ticket in number-grid-end first and then pull down on the rim around the ticket and … ka-thwok … it stamps it).  Here is what they look like at the Metro (there are different styles, this is just one of them):




Passes can be purchased at all Metro stations.  Go to the cashier (pénztár).  The passes come in 1-, 3- and 7-day flavors.  Also 30-day or one year, which require photos.  In general, the one-day costs a little less than 7 tickets; the 3-day costs about what 15 tickets do, and the 7 day costs a little less than 20 tickets.  As long as you carry your pass with you at all times, all you have to do is display it when asked.  It works on subways, trams, trolleys, and buses.  There is also a thing called a Budapest Card that functions as a public transit pass and offers discounts at lots of sights and shops  (it’s not cheap, but depending on what you intend to do it may be a good value).  See:


http://www.budapestinfo.hu/en/budapest_card



Which is the better deal?


That depends.  The passes are no bargain, given how walkable the city is.  I’ve never actually saved any money by buying a pass, though it’s often a close call.  But they are hugely more convenient.  Instead of worrying every time you get on or off a train or bus, you just have to worry in the morning to be certain you have your card in your pocket.


Here’s my strategy when I’m in the city for more than a day or two.  I buy a pass and a couple of tickets.  I keep the ticket in my wallet for emergencies and carry the pass in my shirt pocket.  If I find I managed to leave my card at home, I always have a ticket (unless I’ve left my wallet at home, in which case I’m in deeper trouble than just not having my transit pass).



How is the system enforced?


Sporadically, but pretty aggressively. Small bands of BKV enforcers wander the system in plainclothes (they often appear to be homeless people or clusters of gossiping busybodies hanging around the validation machines).  As you get close, they whip a loose BKV armband around their sleeve and demand to see your ticket.  In Hungarian.  If you show them a valid pass or ticket, they pleasantly go on to the next person.  If they catch you empty-handed or unvalidated, they turn officious and surly.  Still in Hungarian.  They will try to fine you 10.000 HUF. 


Like many Hungarian bureaucracies, the overall system is ambivalent about itself.  On the one hand, they are strict and mechanistic and don’t  want to let you slip through the cracks.  On the other hand, the system as a whole is trying, more or less, to be fair, and the technicalities are not really well worked out and the courts are not sympathetic, and there is a lingering socialist ethos that seems to feel that public transit should be a publicly-provided good.  The result is that those transit stormtroopers actually have no enforcement power beyond the capacity of their lungs.  So, if you refuse to do anything at all there is nothing they can do to you really except scream and shout and make a scene.


Here are your choices if stopped without a validated ticket or pass:


  1. You can pay the fine.  If you pay immediately it should be reduced to 5000 HUF.

  2. You can agree to pay the fine later by giving them the information they need and taking the invoice from them, and signing it, and then paying the money (10.000 HUF) as instructed on the invoice.

  3. You can agree to pay the fine and then throw the invoice out.  They are neither the police nor the government, it’s just a private contractual debt, and while it is unethical to ignore these folks it’s not exactly illegal.  If you choose to do this, just sign the form, accept it.  And then walk away.  After 30 days the amount due goes up to 20.000 HUF but I have never heard of any negative consequences following from ignoring it.

  4. Finally, you can simply walk away from them.  They will scream and shout and make a scene and threaten to call the police, but there’s nothing they can really do.  But there’s no point to it, since you can just take the invoice and throw it away at home.


Personally, the couple of times I have been stopped I have simply paid.


It seems that they feel stuck because they really value the tourism business, but the public transit system operates at a vast deficit.  During high tourist seasons they have been experimenting with less draconian approaches to enforcement, like forcing foreigners to buy an unlimited daily ticket on the spot rather than fining them. 


When I have gotten stopped without a pass, I have viewed it as a form of tax on my own stupidity, benefiting the common weal, and I’ve just paid the fine.  It’s such a fantastic public transit system that it’s hard to begrudge them the thirty bucks.



 

Budapest is almost the perfect size for a city; there is enough room so that every neighborhood can assert its own personality, and yet it’s small enough so that the entire city can be navigated easily and mastered swiftly.  As a result, the best way to see Budapest is to walk it. 

Even so, the Budapest public transit system is among the best and most efficient in the world.  But you have to know how to use it or you can easily find yourself slapped with a substantial fine.

Budapest Public Transit.