51 years ago, if someone wanted to take transit from one side of Hamburg to the other, taking the subway to the commuter train to a bus, that person would have to pay three different fares to three different transit providers to make one trip. With the competition of the private automobile putting pressure on public transportation systems worldwide, the three biggest transit providers and the City of Hamburg decided to collaborate and form the Hamburger Public Transportation Association (Hamburger Verkehrsverbund – HVV). The goal was to provide a unified fare structure, a unified fare card, and a unified timetable. This is the first such Public Transportation Association in the world, spurring dozens more within Germany, Europe, and also the US.

Many urban residents in the US also shared the same problem, albeit until the 1930s or so. Streetcar and train lines were generally privately owned, and city governments granted these private companies rights to operate on certain streets (often through bribes, blackmail, and other nefarious means). The problem of transferring between different transit companies was often solved by local laws requiring free transfers. However, in the 1930s and 1940s many private transit companies went bankrupt due to competition with the private automobile and aging infrastructure that needed to be replaced. City governments usually consolidated transit lines under one semi-public entity (for example the Chicago Transit Authority [CTA]), that was responsible for both the transit provision and operations, as well as the financial authority, fare structuring, planning, and general politics of public transportation.

Today, there are many cities and regions with several, sometimes competing, transit providers and no regional entity that unites them. For example, in Chicago, the CTA, Metra commuter rail, and Pace suburban bus all fall under the funding umbrella of the Regional Transportation Authority. However, there are bitter fights just about every year for funding among the three providers. With regards to a unified system for passengers, the three providers began using the contactless Ventra system for passengers to pay for all three transit services (but only after the Illinois General Assembly mandated it) over the last several years. But due to the fact that a passenger pays based on distance on Metra, but to board CTA or Pace bus or train, the fare structure is not unified, and each provider decides for itself the fare and fare structure (see below).

CTA Fares
CTA Fare Structure. Source: CTA
Pace Fares
Pace Suburban Bus Fare Structure. Source: Pace
Metra fares
Metra Commuter Rail Fare Structure and Example of Zone Clarifications. Source: Metra

In Hamburg, the fare is the same regardless of the provider or how many transfers, and only depends on the locations of the origin and destination based on the (extremely precise and sometimes incomprehensible) ring and zone structure. The basic ticket is for the blue A and B rings (Grossbereich) in the center (See Map Below). Then, depending on how many rings, the price rises. For more local trips, there are short and close tickets, and tickets based on zones, especially for the outer, rural areas. (Most passengers use daily, monthly, or annual passes.) But despite how complicated this sounds, with a basic Grossbereich ticket a passenger can travel anywhere within the city limits of Hamburg (plus some) on any mode, be it local bus, commuter train, ferry, subway, or any combination of those, no matter which transit provider one rides with. It should also be noted that Hamburg, like most of Germany, uses a proof-of-payment fare system, so that officials can verify that a passenger has indeed paid to be in a specific zone. This is in contrast to most US systems (like Chicago), where a passenger simply pays to enter the system or vehicle, no matter how far one rides. Therefore, some of this would not be transferrable to many contexts in the US.

HVV Fares
HVV Fare Zone Map. Actual price tables unavailable. Source: HVV

Transit providers are paid through the HVV using a calculation that combines kilometers driven (as is the case with many Latin American BRT systems) and passengers. Because of this, it eliminates competition for passengers, which originally led a provider to run express buses parallel to the express train routes. Instead, HVV can plan transit routes from a system-wide perspective so that, for example, bus routes feed into the train stations and connect areas not served by train service. This creates a more efficient system without decreasing profits for the providers.

Organizationally, HVV began as an association of transit providers. However, as the HVV grew (and the HVV jurisdictional area), more providers fell under its purview. In the 1990s, because its role involved negotiating contracts on behalf of municipal entities, its role changed to an association representing these municipal entities instead of the transit providers with whom it negotiated contracts. Therefore, much of the technical expertise of operations was transferred to the providers.

Today, HVV represents seven state and county-level transit authorities, and oversees the operations of approximately 30 transit providers. It provides quality control over all the services, and often represents the perspectives of passengers in transit-related matters. Below is a list of HVV accomplishments over the past 50 years:

  • 1966/67 – First unified fare card for individual rides for the entire HVV area.
  • 1967 – First schedule book listing exact bus schedules for all bus services
  • 1970 – Abonnements – monthly on-going subscriptions, 20,000 customers in the first year
  • 1972 – First women bus drivers
  • 1980 – Telephone customer service starts
  • 1981 – Bicycles allowed on subways and express trains
  • 1985 – Combo-transit tickets with concerts
  • 1988/89 – Founding of the Handicapped Advisory Council with the goal of making the entire HVV network fully accessible
  • 1991 – Introduction of the subscription tickets for large customers (employers)
  • 1994 – Semester tickets for students
  • 1995 – Electronic schedule system
  • 1996 – Restructuring of HVV from an association of providers to an association of transit authorities
  • 1997 – HVV webpage is live, and the founding of the Passenger Advisory Council
  • 2001 – Metrobus system is introduced, guaranteeing 10 minutes headways until 9pm.
  • 2001 – Online ticket sales began
  • 2002-2004 – Expansive HVV growth
  • 2005 – First night trains (weekends only)
  • 2007 – Smartphone ticketing
  • 2011 – Customer guarantee (on-time or your money back)
  • 2012 – HVV app and mobile ticketing
  • 2012 – HVV expands its role to carsharing and rental cars

What does the future hold? Besides system expansion, the short answer is e-ticketing, real time bus/train information, accessible stations, modifying its role from exclusively transit to broader mobility, and emission-free vehicles.

So, Happy Birthday HVV, with many more to come!