New transit adventures in Berlin

BERLIN

The IFA tech trade show is not like CES in many ways, but transportation tops the list. Unlike the gadget gathering that’s owned my January schedule since 1998, Europe’s biggest electronics event takes place in a city with an immensely more advanced and useful transit network.

I thought I’d figured out Berlin’s expanse of U-Bahn, S-Bahn, tram, bus and regional rail lines fairly well, but this week here has taught me a couple of new tricks.

Photo shows a €9 ticket held in front of an arriving S-Bahn train at the Hackescher Markt station.

My first update came from taking advantage of Germany’s move to ease the pain of inflation, the €9 universal transit ticket it introduced in June. While I only had two days to capitalize on that promotion, buying one at a ticket-vending machine at Berlin Brandenburg Airport Tuesday still dramatically cut my trip costs over those last two days of August.

I enjoyed being reacquainted with the things I like about taking trains in Berlin. The rail system reaches almost everywhere (the now-shuttered Tegel Airport being a notable exception), trains come so often that waiting more than 10 minutes (as I had to do on the U5 Tuesday) comes as a shock instead of the usual, and the fare system prices every trip the same regardless of which exact service you take.

Thursday morning, I bought a 24-hour ticket at a ticket-vending machine. But then I screwed up by not getting a second one earlier than Friday evening, when crowds of IFA attendees lined up at the Messe Süd station’s TVMs. Only then did I think of downloading Deutsche Bahn’s app and using that to buy a ticket and avoid the unlikely embarrassment of having a fare inspector bust me for riding without paying.

Installing this app took only a minute or so, thanks to T-Mobile now offering full-speed roaming in the 11 countries in which its corporate parent Deutsche Telekom provides wireless service. Setting up an account and buying a 24-hour ticket took longer, thanks to the app demanding an account registration that included my street address and then not letting me select a credit card stored in Google Pay. But by the time I was three stops out of Messe Sud–the barrier-free, proof-of-payment regime let me board without paying upfront–I had my ticket.

And I’d learned that DB’s app cuts passengers a tiny break on fares, with a 24-hour ticket in Berlin’s A and B zones costing €8.80 instead of the TVM cost of €9.20. That makes DB Navigator a download I don’t mind having added to my small collection of transit payment apps—a set that now includes software for Austin and Las Vegas, but somehow not the city I’ve called home for more than three decades.

Comparing IFA to CES

BERLIN–I’ve been to CES 15 times and I’ve only attended IFA once, so I don’t have an enormous amount of experience with this trade show to compare it to the one that’s been welded to my calendar since 1998. But a few things jump out at me.

One is attendance. Although CES doesn’t draw as many attendees–156,153 this January, compared to 239,518 for last year’s IFA–the former convention feels more crowded. I think that’s because IFA, unlike CES, sells tickets to the public (last year, about 105,000 people) but doesn’t admit them until after two days reserved for the press and other “trade visitors.”

Another reason has to be the location. The Las Vegas Convention Center consists of three enormous halls large enough to store airplane hangars, while the Berlin Messe sprawls across 27 smaller structures. The LVCC pays for that simpler setup with perpetually gridlocked connecting passages, while this facility offers more, and more confusing, ways to get around. Some of these connections can only be described as Escher-esque.

The Berlin Messe also offers more food options with shorter lines–and beer on tap–and its bathrooms seem less disgusting than the LVCC’s.

The selection of exhibitors at IFA and CES doesn’t overlap nearly as much as I thought. While you have the same usual electronics-industry suspects–LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba but, of course, not Apple–IFA draws fewer obscure Asian manufacturers but collects far more appliance vendors.

These companies, many European-only operations that I’d never heard of until getting here, fill the lower levels of eight halls. I have never felt so inadequate about my oven, dishwasher, refrigerator, washer and dryer until now. Another, more pleasant, side effect: All of these manufacturers feel compelled to show off how well these machines work by offering snacks and beverages prepared with them, causing this part of IFA to double as a cooking show.

Far more actual news happens at CES, so that makes it more relevant overall–covering technology without going to that show borders on journalistic malpractice. (As you know, the Consumer Electronics Association pays me to blog for them, but I would have written the previous sentence anytime in the last 15 years.)

Getting to and from the show and around the city, however, is no contest: The U-Bahn shuts down the Las Vegas Monorail in every way. Berlin itself is more my kind of city, with things like walkable neighborhoods, mostly human-scale architecture and trees that can grow without constant irrigation. Yeah, Vegas has casinos–but there is one a short walk from the press center here, on the third floor of Hall 7. I think I’ll show a little more common sense than I do at most CESes and save that distraction for some other time.

(Updated 9/5 with an embedded slideshow of my Flickr set from the IFA trip, included after the jump.)

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