How to stay safe, and alive, on public services
"Do I feel lucky today?" This popular movie tag could easily apply when considering whether or not to chance the public transport network in Sofia. The experience can be something of a roller-coaster ride, and depends on so many variables that no two trips are alike.
There is a wealth of choice, with buses, trams, trolley buses and the underground servicing more than a hundred routes in a city where most of the nearly two-million population commute daily. For the adventurous the city's transport system offers some advantages. Most of Sofia's popular sights are within walking distance of the centre, but there is still plenty to see in the suburbs. The dense network of routes includes nearby villages, landmarks and picnic destinations, so you can get almost anywhere on one or a couple of inexpensive tickets. Special leisure routes take you to several different places on the slopes of Vitosha or on the northern mountain ridge of Lyulin. The buses are small and somewhat infrequent, so make sure to check the details in advance. Some regular routes extend to villages scattered around the Iskar dam on the road to Samokov, or to the outlying regions such as Gorna Banya or Bankya – destinations that make a nice trip off the beaten track.
Whether the occasional accidents and the habitual unreliability of the transport network is a problem or not depends on your point of view and the flexibility of your time schedule. If you ask most of the denizens of Sofia's busy residential and business areas, they can tell you stories of memorable traffic jams, altercations with inspectors or drivers, and of being stranded far from work or home when the trolley bus breaks down. The aged vehicles can be downright dangerous at times. In October 2011 a tram with faulty brakes caused pile-up at one of the busiest intersections and 16 people ended up in hospital.
A golden rule of thumb is not to argue with the inspectors who get on the vehicles at random and check the tickets of all passengers. This happens frequently on buses to and from the Central Train Station and Sofia Airport, where hapless visitors to the city fall prey to the more obscure rules. When caught with no valid ticket or card, you have two options – either to pay a fine of 10 leva, receive a special fine ticket and continue your journey, or get off at the next stop with the inspector, if you refuse to pay the fine. They will then insist that you still pay the fine and inform you that they can call the police to issue you with an even bigger fine of 100 leva. While this is within their powers, few inspectors actually resort to it, preferring to try and shout you down or intimidate you into paying the regular fine. More stubborn passengers cling to their refusal and, after a protracted argument, the inspectors usually move on. Because of reports of physical abuse, measures to regulate inspectors have tightened over time, and they are now required to wear uniform vests with identification and the Sofia City Transport administration has a special phone line to register complaints against them. Generally, treat Sofia's ticket inspectors the same way you would KAT, the notorious traffic police. Be polite, but firm, and don't let them intimidate you too much.
Sofia city transport boasts a complicated fare system reminiscent of the times of Communism. The city is not divided into fare zones, and transfers with a single ticket are not always possible. A ride costs 1 lev anywhere on the network, and you can get tickets at newsstands, ticket booths, directly from the driver or from a ticket vending machine on the trolley buses and trams (make sure you have the exact change in the last two cases). You can also buy vouchers for five or 10 trips at a discount, daily cards for a single day for 4 leva or five successive days for 15 leva, or monthly cards for up to a year, where prices are lower if you want just one or two specific routes.
All of these can be bought at the special bureaus of the transport administration at various locations around the city. The modernisation of the system means you are likely to get your monthly card in an electronic version, which you have to validate using the orange devices when boarding trams and trolley buses or entering the underground. Buses still lack these, but if an inspector gets on, your card will be checked. If you have a paper ticket or voucher, punch it as soon as possible in all vehicles. This may prove difficult in the rush hour, but commuters are used to passing tickets from hand to hand until someone can punch you in, and common politeness dictates that you do the same should anyone hand you a ticket on board. The underground has separate barcode-stamped tickets, sold by clerks and vending machines – but your electronic card is still valid here.
Special rules apply when travelling with luggage, which can catch passengers unaware. If your suitcase or bag is bigger than the size stipulated in the Ordinance (60cm by 40cm by 40cm – odd, isn't it?!) you need to have a separate ticket for it. Passengers with pushchairs and wheelchairs need only have one ticket, although such travellers are usually deterred by the steep steps of trolley buses and trams, or the rails placed in the middle of the entrances. Bikes are not specifically permitted in the Ordinance, so travelling with them may land you a fine from the inspector or a scold from the driver. Pets are not allowed, except for guide dogs with short leashes, muzzles and red cross signs.
When using the transport network, the two most important qualities you need are patience and vigilance. Any deviation from ideal weather conditions (sun shining, birds singing etc.) may mean that your ride will be late, especially in winter. More central stops have electronic indicators that give you an estimated time of arrival, but they do not take into consideration rush hour traffic jams. Watch out for your bus or tram, which may be queueing up behind several others. Drivers at the back of the queue often simply open the doors to let passengers out and the lucky few in, and then pull away from the stop amidst cries of rage. Onboard the vehicles pickpockets are active throughout the year, usually merging into the crowd, so pay close attention to your valuables at all times.
Up until recently it was only possible to figure out the city transport network if you were particularly determined and could read the Bulgarian on the signs at the stops, but now the administration is attempting to make it more user-friendly for foreigners – with varying degrees of success. Signage in English, sometimes obscure or unintentionally hilarious in translation, can be seen on the signs. The newly-launched website of the Urban Mobility Centre (www.sofiatraffic.bg) contains an English version of all its information – including timetables, fares and tickets, and cycle routes, although navigating the site is not as easy as advertised. On the other hand, the Engrish being used will keep you laughing out loud.