Friday, July 16, 2010

BKV: the Triumph and the Tragedy

In Paris, fare-hoping has become a popular pastime, as well as a form of civil disobedience; so much so that there is actually a group that – for a small monthly fee – will insure you against the monetary penalty of getting caught. Leave it to the French, who treat sticking it to the man like a national sport (and doing it with such élan!). There is no doubt that such a scheme would fail in Budapest, where – like in my home country – somebody would certainly shout “socialist!”. Being caught red-handed, without a ticket, can be a disconcerting experience. Despite directives against such behavior, the controllers can be a grabby, peevish bunch indeed.

Like many Budapesters I know, I pay most of the time, but bliccel (fare-hop) when economics deem it necessary. I don’t do this with zero pangs of conscious, but the pangs are small and easily chased away: more like pings. From a passenger’s point of view, it makes sense. Three hundred and twenty forints for a few stops up the Grand Boulevard (as the BKV’s site call it) makes common taxi banditry look chivalrous.

But what about the oft-investigated, fund-hemorrhaging public transport company BKV? It turns out, they also have high expectations of their passengers. Which brings me to the real point of this meandering post: the BKV web site. It’s fabulous, for no other reason than they have constructed a little testament of denial, certainly created by people who never ride public transportation. In this case, context is everything. I ask you to pause for a moment, and go to the BKV English language main page. Have a listen to the sound bytes: if you live here, you know these as the jingle the tram makes before the doors close. It is actually kind of a sweet little tune as public transport signals go (is that a harpsichord?). But in real life, having sweated a bumpy ride, the tune sounds nothing but mocking. Real life on the BKV rarely lives up to the site. For instance, in the Terms and Conditions page, it states that it is forbidden “to behave in a way which is scandalous, antisocial or breaches law.” This is clearly a case of double-speak, as one can only benefit from being as anti-social as possible on public transport. Perhaps the porn crew that appropriated the back of an in-service tram for a shoot had researched the BKV and considered what they were doing quite social.

Asking their passengers to refrain from being anti-social and scandalous is optimistic, but further down the accepted-behavior list reveals the authors of the BKV constitution to be delusional. One is forbidden to “travel in filthy clothes or in a drunken state.” Instead of checking tickets, I would dearly love to see controllers sniffing underarms, socks. As for traveling in a drunken state: anyone who has taken it knows that the night bus is not much more than a poor man’s booze cruise.

But the BKV reserves its best for handicapped passengers. It is not enough to arrive at a metro station in a wheel chair to use the lifts: you have to pass both “theoretical and practical exams” to prove your disability. A more motivated writer would uncover just what the ‘theoretical’ aspects of paralysis one must master before being allowed to use Budapest’s public transportation, but – in terms of the practical portion – I am guessing that this is an exam that you pass by failing. You do, however, have the bonus of being allowed to humiliate yourself at either the Mexikói station, or the more luxurious venue of the Széchenyi baths, where the practical exams are administered.

Not long ago, according to pestiside, BKV ran a survey, attempting to analyze exactly why locals fair-hop. The answer seems obvious to me: with their thuggish controllers and silly by-laws, they have created an ‘us against them’ mentality. Instead of just punching your ticket at the metro, you punch, and then submit it for inspection. There is a whiff of subjugation in this act, and from that springs the urge to resist, to bliccel. And anytime there is a dynamic where an individual stands against some monolithic entity – public transport companies included – I have to side with the outlaw. Ride in good heath, fare-hoppers, no matter what your motives, or how antisocial and smelly you may be.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

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