Subway Facelift

Vienna, July 5: I stepped into the U-Bahn at Nestroyplatz and recoiled at the glare. Was it the jarring yellow walls? The red-orange upholstery? The whiter lights?

A few seconds and eyes and mind adjusted. Actually, it didn’t look too bad. Actually I kind of liked it. I mean, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with “cheerful,” as such, as long as you don’t get carried away with a lot of irresponsible smiling.

I looked around. A teenager listened expressionless to the intoxicated thumping of an i-pod; a jowly old dodderer frowned into his Kronen Zeitung; the cropped henna head on the facing bench stared past me into space. Sigh. Everything was okay. Nothing had changed. The same old reassuring gloom and doom.

For the last several weeks a new announcement has been broadcast over the loud speaker in all U-Bahn stations reporting that many travellers have been feeling harassed by organized begging. Rather than encourage this behaviour we are urged to make our contributions to established support organizations.

So the new subway cars were part of the Vienna Transit Authority’s (Wienerlinien) new campaign for domestic tranquillity, an initiative against organized begging and pick-pockets in the subways, problems that have stirred a wave of complaints from riders.

I settled back into my seat  and looked up. A slick new poster nodded at me from above the door. Hold Your Handbag tight! No Chance for Long Fingers. Nearby, a small electric eye stared down. It was a surveillance camera.

Pick pockets? In the Vienna U-Bahn? Well, pick pockets aren’t exactly the problem Wienerlinien spokeswoman Brigitte Gindl admitted to the Viennese daily, Der Standard: In the first 6 months of 2006, the Wiener Linien’s c. 375 million riders had reported a total of 15 incidents in the entire 120-line system.

The complaints were about the beggars and buskers, people who stroll through the trains with an accordion or a guitar, singing for their supper. In May alone the Authority had received 68 telephone complaints:  “In a moving train there is no way to escape,” Gindl sympathized. But even that the Viennese socialist traditions might have been able to swallow.

“The worst of it was that a lot of the buskers play extremely out of tune.”

along the lines of New York City mayor Rudolf Guiliani’s campaign against Quality of Life Crimes.

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