Tram Culture 101: Tickets and Customs
First some Brno trivia for the day: trams are called šalina in the local dialect rather than tramvaj. When you hear šalina jede, that means the tram is coming, and you can even buy a special šalinakarta rather than tram pass.
Now, welcome to “Riding Czech Trams 101.” The most important thing is to have a ticket. Tickets are most easily bought at automatic ticket vending machines, at street-side newspaper stands, or from the tram driver. (The last option is least popular for a few reasons. If you buy tickets from the driver they are more expensive and you need exact change. The drivers only sell the most basic kind of ticket. Plus, everyone else on the tram will be glaring at you for slowing them down; after all, they already have tickets and are having to wait for you to talk with the driver.) Unless you are buying from the driver, you will have to choose what kind of ticket you want. They are divided into a surprising number of categories. Since it probably won’t be necessary for most of you to know all about tram tickets, just a few basics: the major distinction between tickets is how long they are valid. In Brno, the cheapest ticket is non-transferable (only valid on one bus or tram) and lasts for just 10 minutes (cost, 8 crowns or about 30 cents); the next step up lasts for 60 minutes (90 minutes at night or on weekends) and is a transferable (cost, 13 crowns or a little less than 60 cents). Here we see yet another reason that Brno is preferable to Prague: comparable transfer tickets in Prague cost 20 crowns!
Even from this simple example you can see that the system, like all Czech bureaucracy, is flexible but incredibly confusing. It’s not just enough to have a twenty-crown coin. You must know how far you’re going, whether it will require a transfer, and when you will validate your ticket (is it after 8PM or a weekend?). And I haven’t even mentioned the routes and timetables posted at each stop or the system of zones that sometimes require different tickets. As you might imagine, it is common to see tourists gazing confusedly at the ticket machines (it doesn’t really help that these machines often have an English language option). Those of us with monthly tickets laugh on the inside when we pass by the gawking or grumpy lines at the ticket machines thinking, “Well, at least we don’t have to do that anymore.”
Next, immediately upon entering the tram, you have to validate your ticket. To prevent you from riding all day on a ten-minute ticket, you are obliged to find a yellow box, immediately upon entering the tram, to insert your ticket (proper end first if you notice the little arrows that tell you this), and to get a stamp that notes all the important information (the tram’s number, the route number, the zone you are in, the date, and the time). I have always wondered in what case they would need all this information, but that’s just the way it is. It didn’t strike me as quite so strange until I rode Ukrainian trams. In Lviv, you just get on the tram; then a lady with an apron full of change and little slips of paper – “tickets” – comes around (not immediately but whenever she feels like it) and collects your money. I suspect that the Czech obsession with details on tram tickets stems in part from a wish to feel more “civilized” than the “primitive” system of the Ukrainians (for example), but I digress.
Much more interesting are the unwritten rules of tram riding. First, you’re not supposed to look at other people. Of course, everyone steals glances at each other – “What did she buy at the store?” “What’s in his backpack?” “Why does he smell like beer?” – but for the most part these looks should not be conspicuous, and as far as I can tell, you are supposed to pretend that there is no one else on the tram at all even when it is full of people.
Younger people who are seated must get up and offer their seat to the elderly; able riders should give up their seat for the handicapped or disabled; and to a certain extent, though not as much, men are supposed to offer their seat to women. This can get a little dicey. For example, if one gets up for an “old” lady who is not really old enough yet to be recognized as such on the tram, then often the seat stays empty because she wants to prove that she is not as old as you think. This makes both of you feel embarrassed, so giving up your seat is certainly an honorable act but it is accompanied by many social implications. In the opposite situation, if you don’t get up when you are supposed to, then it often seems like everyone else on the tram is glaring at you until finally a middle-aged woman will usually get up and yield her seat to the old lady, meanwhile shooting a scolding glance at the offending young person. (Of course, Americans are well aware of the political implications of seats on public transport, particularly in the wake of Rosa Parks’s recent death.)
Czech mothers also have a strange obsession with wheeling their babies around in prams. This is not a problem until they want to ride the tram; normally in this case they will ride with a friend. But if they are traveling alone, then other riders are expected to help them get on and off. The first people asked are younger males who, by virtue of their age and gender, are supposed to be strong and chivalrous. I didn’t notice this until August when I was riding the tram in Prague. I was on my way to check into my hotel, so I was carrying a very heavy backpack and a suitcase. And it was vedro (a hot, humid day). I was standing in the back so I didn’t bother other riders. Unfortunately, this is also the area of the tram that prams are supposed to go (there are usually signs indicating this). When we pulled up at one stop where a couple of women were waiting with their pram, who was asked to help them up the steps? Me. Even though there were other completely able riders who were not carrying their worldly possessions with them. So, even though the last thing I wanted to do was lift a heavy baby carriage, I dutifully got out and helped lift the pram into the tram. (I don’t have a problem with this obsession with prams or taking babies for walks, but anyone who’s seen the films Otesánek or Horem padem will know that there is definitely a strange connection between Czech women, babies, and prams. Why don’t they find a more functional way to carry their kids, like a backpack?)
If you are wondering why I have gone through all this detail, here is the reason. Trams are fun, and for me riding them is more than just a way to get from point A to point B: it can be a great way to learn about a place. As you’ll see when I post my story about the number 4 route, tram rides are opportunities to learn about the history of the city, to experience the character of different neighborhoods, and to find beautiful areas that you never would otherwise. Riding the tram can be an adventure, it can be exciting.
This is only an introduction, so don’t expect to know everything about public transport if you visit the Czech Republic. Please, relate your experiences, agree or disagree, or make additions in the comment section.
Tags: trams, transportation, Brno, Czech