Let’s talk public transportation: Getting around in Hamburg

As an American, one of my favorite things about Hamburg, or Germany in general, is the use of public transportation. And while some may complain that the trains or buses do not run as frequently, especially if you live in a small village, it is still worth appreciating and looking at how well-run and mostly efficient the German and Hamburg public transportation network is. 

Hamburg’s entire public transportation system, also called the HVV, pretty much allows you to travel wherever you want within the city. The HVV consists of an integrated and efficient system of trains, railways, buses, bikes, and even ferries, all at use as means of public transportation. Hamburg’s railway system consists primarily of five zones, or rings, labeled A-E, with rings A and B consisting of the city’s more densely-populated area and rings C-E consisting of the more suburban parts of Hamburg. Each ring is further broken down into tariff zones, which represent certain areas or neighborhoods of the city, which illustrates just how large the public transportation station truly is.

A photo showing a transportation map of Hamburg's railway system.
A map of Hamburg’s extensive public transportation network

As a student, my favored and most utilized forms of public transportation have to be the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn. In Hamburg, the U-Bahn, or the subway, has four lines, the U1, U2, U3, and U4, all of which are scattered throughout the city, with each line consisting of a stop that connects to either another U-Bahn or S-Bahn line. Each day of the week, besides Sunday, you can expect the U-Bahn to run every 4 minutes, which means you will never have to wait too long to reach your destination. Likewise, the distance between each stop is generally shorter in distance and time when compared to the S-Bahn, or the Schnellbahn (literally fast rail). The S-Bahn, like the U-Bahn, has numerous stops and stations throughout the city. The biggest difference between the two is that the S-Bahn travels farther distances between stops and the wait time for each train may vary depending on where your S-Bahn station is located. 

Both U-Bahn and S-Bahn provide travelers with a smooth and easy ride, and an easy-to-understand map is almost always located in each station and cart, in case you are unsure of what direction you need to take. Besides Hamburg’s railway networks, the city also contains an integrated bus and night bus system. Though the buses do not run as often as the trains, which means you may find yourself waiting 6 to 15 minutes for a bus depending on the time of day, they also provide travelers with smooth travel throughout the city and can typically be found in almost every district of Hamburg.

A photo showing an empty subway station. The ceiling is lit with giant green lamps/lights, and on both sides of the platform are railway tracks.
What a subway station in Hamburg looks like!

Likewise, through Hamburg’s Stadtrad system, city-goers can use an app to hop on the for-public-use bikes throughout the city, which makes traveling through Hamburg’s more hard-to-reach places that much easier and exciting. The last, and probably best, form of public transportation that Hamburg offers has to be the ferry. Happen to find yourself at the harbor and want to take a sail down the Elbe? No worries! Hamburg also offers relatively cheap ferry tickets for those who want to take a trip on the river.  

Another thing worth mentioning about Hamburg’s public transportation system, and Germany’s in general, is that the system runs on an honors system. This means that you do not have to insert your ticket before entering the subway or the bus. The public transportation network assumes that, as a person utilizing the transportation lines, you have paid to use their services. Though it may seem easy to just hop on the train or bus without paying, security guards who work for the HVV will often come around to check if you do own a ticket, and if not, the fine usually starts at around 60 euros.

I know it sounds like an exaggeration when I say that one of my favorite aspects that I will dearly miss after heading back to the States is the public transportation system, but being able to hop on and off trains and buses to meet friends or travel to other cities feels easy, comfortable, and enjoyable, a perk that is not always available in the car-dominated United States. 

Learn about other public transportation systems across the world here!

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