Towards Free Public Transport

Written by Judith Dellheim and Jason Prince. This excerpt is part of the book “Free Public Transport: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators” (Black Rose Books, 2017).

With rising costs of housing in cities around the world, increased levels of household debt, skyrocketing costs in education and medical care, all spiraling out of control, it seems unlikely the public purse could afford any new major expense—and never free public transport.

Let us have a closer look into the costs, the true costs, of owning a car:

direct financial costs: the automobile itself; the fuel, which costs nearly as much as the purchase price of the vehicle over its lifetime; insurance; maintenance and debt financing; parking charges; parking fines;
indirect financial costs: municipal road construction and maintenance (the lion’s share of many municipal budgets); highways, bridges and tunnels (some of the most expensive charges in any country);
social costs: commute times (and lost opportunity costs); road rage; shoveling it out of snowbanks (a problem in northern climates);
health costs: accidents; from car-related pollution: cardiovascular disease, cancers, premature infants for those living near highways; obesity; extreme climate events due to climate change;
environmental costs: air quality; landscape fragmentation; climate change; habitat destruction; impacts on water quality; climate change; and these lists could all go on.

Experts, activists and politicians at the municipal level need to package and communicate these true costs of owning an automobile, both to their constituents and to other levels of government, in a compelling and visible way. Then, they need to spell out an effective, realistic and affordable alternative, that will compete directly with the private automobile on speed and reliability of service.

They need to speak directly to the people—and so to the people in the urban periphery—in a language that resonates clearly with their everyday lived reality. Many of these people are not happy with the status quo. They would support a political call to reconsider the pricing structure of transport in their city. The first step would be to provide an exceptional public transport service: clean, on time, state of the art. Major reinvestments to improve the quality and connectivity of the service, and making it the clear priority for moving people in the city with reserve bus lanes—as a start. At this point, the city could eliminate the price barrier: announce free public transport measures. These are the carrots: great service, fast, clearly the priority mode of transport, and free to use.

This bold city would now be in a position to introduce some sticks. In the short term: remove lanes on highways; increase gas taxes and add tolls to bridges; reduce speed limits; increase parking rates; tax kilometres travelled. But eventually: dismantling highways, densifying the cities, reducing space for cars, and (re)making our cities for people, again.

Considering different finance models for public transport, and then for free public transport, is both worthwhile and helpful. International experience is interesting. But only in a few cases will it be possible to import a concrete model. A solution that may work in France, given its legal and societal morays, may not be useful in Germany or Mexico. But the question about finance for public transport becomes even more complicated once you try to decide what is socially just. If authorities put taxes on gas, roads and bridges, what about those low-income workers who depend on the use of a car with no real alternative, should they be penalized?

Considering the broad principles in support of social justice and equity in funding public transport and any free public transport program, we propose the discussion focus on principles such as:

• The rich should contribute to support others less well-off;
• Citizens should pay according to their income and the very poor
should not pay at all;
• The profiteers who own the automobile system should pay;
• Following bonus-malus, anything that pollutes or causes harm to others should pay more, while low and zero emissions vehicles would pay less;
• Employers should pay according to their economic strength;
• Following polluter-pays, established in some jurisdictions, consumers of fossil fuels should pay more; 200 Free Public Transport
• Anyone who could take public transport, but doesn’t do so, should pay for using the car and for parking.

But finally, who can help bring about free public transport financed according to these principles? In cities around the world, there is already a range of actors and agents actively campaigning for free public transport, some of which we have explored in this book.

Our research distinguishes several different approaches. First, there are groups like Planka.nu, in Sweden. Planka.nu is horizontally managed and has no formal leadership, with links to the student movement, trade unions and the Swedish Left Party. While their focus is on fair transport and mobility rights, they also work with refugee and migrant rights groups in the broader struggle for a more just society. They have a radical critique of society, but take direct action to reflect the world they want to live in, based on values of solidarity and good health. Of course, they reject the ‘car society’ completely. And they have lots of fun.

The second group of actors work in coalitions on the left, such as those found in Toronto. The group pushing change is overtly socialist, and their ultimate goal is a revolutionary change in society, breaking old structures of production and consumption, to completely remake society. Free public transport is a tangible goal for working people, around which they can conduct that broader discussion.

The third group consists of residents working for a city in which people of all nations can live together peacefully and in solidarity, examples of which are found in the countries of former Yugoslavia. Their working style is a kind of ongoing social forum that has a working group on the issue of free public transport. This first edition of our book does not include examples from this group, but their work promotes greater resident participation in decision-making, for clean air and a safe environment, and against privatization and social-marginalization, particularly of migrants and refugees.

The fourth group consists of traditional vehicles in the political arena—political parties—such as the Scottish Socialist Party, which has campaigned for free public transport for many years. This political party has chosen the protection, democratization and expansion of the commons as its primary political goal, inviting voters to signal their support in the traditional ballot box.

Finally, some free public transport movements are driven by public administrations who are deliberately working to expand democratic participation of civil society and citizens. These experimental administrations have been responsible for trying out different forms and different approaches to free public transport and have learned by doing. Sometimes free public transport is offered only at certain times in the day, at rush hour or during the middle of the day when the transport network is less crowded. Or for certain groups of people, such as children or seniors. Or it is free only in designated areas of the city, the downtown area perhaps, as in some US cities like Portland. And of course, some have provided free public transport to all of their citizens, in the city-centre and in the suburbs, with Tallinn in Estonia as Europe’s greatest example.

The efforts of these five groups, each working in their own ways and using their own particular strategies, need to be supported and strengthened and connected with others also working hard to make our cities and societies more socially and ecologically just, and more people centered, in the march forward to achieving the right to mobility—the right to the city—in all cities of the world.

We hope our book is a small contribution towards strengthening these efforts.

Activists for Free Public Transport of all cities and regions around the world unite!

November 18, 2017

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