Last week I started my first of two work placements at the Hamburger Verkehrsverbund (HVV, the Hamburg Public Transport Association). It is the regional transit association overseeing all transit provision in its Metropolitan Hamburg (a great source of information, and the graphics below, is found here). I wanted to talk a little about the structure of it, since it is very different from regional transit agencies in the U.S. Important is that, similar to Washington DC, Hamburg is its own state (Bundesland). And similar to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), HVV’s coverage includes transit in the neighboring states as well.

First, public transportation in the region is organized according to the three-level model:

  • Political (meaning the government level) – this includes the City of Hamburg, the neighboring states, counties, and municipalities. There are 10 total.
  • HVV – manages the transit services based on the needs and desires of the political bodies.
  • Operators – the firms that own, manage, and operate the trains, buses, and ferries. There are 28 total.


Based on the needs and desires of the government entities, HVV puts contracts out for competitive bid to provide transit service and manages the contracts. It also monitors specific quality standards for service, cleanliness, etc. The contract however, is actually between the operator and the government entity (not HVV).

Contract Image


As a very general overview, HVV compensates the operators for transit services. The farebox revenue, which lately has covered 72% of operating costs, funnels into a funding pool. HVV distributes these funds to the operators based on formulas for kilometers driven and passengers, or based no contracts. Specific subsidy programs such as reduced fares for school students and the disabled, and general funds from government entities cover the difference. HVV also assesses financial penalties for not achieving certain service goals, and bonuses for achieving and going beyond them.


HVV plans all the service changes to the transit network. Generally a government entity, the operator, or HVV itself will propose a service change, whether it is a route or schedule modification, or an entirely new route. HVV then analyzes the proposed change for impact on ridership and confers with the operator to determine the cost of the modification. The government entity must approve the cost based on the proposed benefit. The operator is then responsible for implementing the service change (siting and installing bus stops, buying new buses, etc.).


Interestingly, there are several activities that are standard with U.S. transit agencies that are also contracted out to a specific operator per activity to perform for the entire HVV area. These include:

  • Fare and payent systems
  • Printing advertising, customer information, and customer service (including phone services)
  • Time-based passes, corporate tickets, special offers
  • Advisory services for youths and seniors
  • Cooperation and contract fares
  • Subsidies

There are also other initiatives that HVV is coordinating with all the stakeholders, such as handicapped accessibility, market research, electronic fares and sales, and multi-modal coordination.

Again, most transit agencies in the US do not operate like this. Generally planning, operations, financing, marketing, and most everything else is all done within one agency. To imagine how this system would look, I will use Chicago as an example. Many people are calling for a more regionally organized public transportation system, where currently a lot of competition exists between the Chicago Transportation Authority (CTA), Metra (the commuter rail provider), and Pace Bus (the suburban bus provider). The Regional Transportation Authority plays a much less prominent role (except for its clever new marketing campaign). If Chicago transit were organized like that of Hamburg, the RTA would competitively contract out transit services to CTA, Metra and Pace (or Megabus, Van Galder, Amtrak, or whomever else would bid on them)on behalf of the City of Chicago and surrounding counties and municipalities. From the passenger perspective, s/he could use one fare (or day pass, monthly pass, etc.) to get from point A to point B regardless of mode, only paying once. This could make routes like the Loop Link, the upcoming Bus Rapid Transit which connects to Metra and Amtrak routes at Union Station and Ogilvie Center, much easier to use for commuters and visitors.


To give some background on HVV, it was founded in 1965 by four private transit operators in order to increase the transit mode share in the Hamburg region by providing a unified fare structure and coordinating schedules. In 1997, it was restructured to be an association of government entities instead of an association of operating firms. HVV was the first organization of its kind in the world, and is enjoying its 50th birthday this year.