Free Public Transit?

subway_crowds_3435.jpgA crowded moment in the Tunnelbana, Stockholm, Sweden's efficient and easy public subway system.

In Stockholm, Sweden, a fascinating political intervention has been taking place during the past few years. Starting originally around 2000-2001 in an anarcho-syndicalist youth organization, Planka.nu is a surprisingly innovative and effective transit activist group. Today it is still an entirely volunteer organization without paid staff, but they have a comfy office tucked on the western end of the Stockholm island of Sodermalm, just a hundred steps or so from the target of their activism, the Tunnelbana, or local subway system. 

Paradoxically they openly advocate gate-crashing (the name Planka refers to that process, especially when getting in to a concert or something like that) or fare evasion, but thanks to a clever redeployment of capitalist entrepreneurialism, they invented a "ticket fund" which insures planka's dues-paying members against fines they incur if they ever get caught by transit police. They have been so successful that about 50% of the organization's revenue is derived from the surplus accumulating in their insurance fund.

woman_in_jammed_subway_car_3438.jpgWe found the system easy to use and on the line we mostly rode there was always plenty of room, but here you can see a local who is not too happy at being crammed in to the crowded car!

In this video, you can see how they handle the various barriers that the Tunnelbana has used to enforce fare payments. Towards the end, the green-vested monitors approach the planka gate crashers to admonish them and insist that they go back and pay. But these monitors are not police and have no legal authority to detain anyone, something that the planka activists know well and encourage others to understand. So you can just ignore them and there's nothing they can do. Obviously quite different than the conditions we might face in San Francisco!

At the beginning of the idea some years ago, a great number of Stockholm youth were jumping turnstiles to ride the subway for free. But the activity was somewhat stigmatized, and they were doing it almost out of desperation, certainly out of necessity. The local culture refers to their own activity not as fare evading, or gate crashing, but affirmatively as "Free-Riding." In discussions among the anarcho-syndicalist youth there was a desire to find a political expression for this behavior. Moreover, they were part of a larger European-wide discussion about the new structure of work, often referred to under the rubric of "precarity." One of the founders, Christian, put it in context:

"The main political force in Sweden has been the workers movement, which has always focused on peoples' everyday lives. But there has been such changes in power in workplaces between the employers and workers. Nowadays people have temp jobs or are studying, and it's harder to have this traditional relationship to work or to the Social Democratic tradition. So that's when we turned to look to other parts of society, where we WERE in the same place (like the factories), but it turned out to be the subways, or the internet."

traffic_convergence_3287.jpgTwo train bridges, a freeway, several major thoroughfares, along with some dedicated bikeways, and an estuarial waterway, make this spot in Stockholm an impressive transit viewpoint!

Simultaneously another local political formation was engaged in a study group, reading Harry Cleaver's "Reading Capital Politically," learning about the 1970s autonomist movement in Italy where "autoreduzzione" or "self-reduction" was widely employed by youth and housewives in festivals of proletarian shopping, taking things for free. As it happens, both the anarcho-syndicalist youth and the activists in the study group were hanging out at Kafe44, an anarchist cafe in eastern Sodermalm, and their circles were cross-pollinating. Taking action around shared experiences on public transit was one idea that emerged. Another was the now-infamous Pirate Bay, which sought to extend and reinforce the digital commons based on peer-to-peer free sharing, and the like.

Before long the idea took shape to create the ticket fund/insurance policy. As the city raised fares on monthly passes, more people were looking for ways to avoid paying. Instead of buying a 400 Swedish kroner monthly pass (now it's up to 700 a month) you can pay 100 a month to the Ticket Fund. If you are "controlled" by the police and given a ticket, the fine is 1200 Swedish kroner, and Planka pays your fine. Thanks to the relative lax enforcement after you cross the gates in Stockholm, the finances of this system work well, as most members are never controlled. The surplus funds go into furthering the work of the organization, which is now expanding into a larger range of transit-related activities in Stockholm.

bike_along_water_3303.jpgLots of bike lanes around Stockholm, not so many bicyclists during this cold December.
bike_lane_intersection_3211.jpgNothing like a full bike lane intersection next to a busy street!

Plans by the city to build a new highway to the west of the city, bisecting 20 kilometers of relatively wild forest and opening the area to suburbanization, have already been approved. But Planka is actively campaigning to derail this plan, and thus far, the financing for this new road has not been allocated. Allies in the Green Party and the Left Party are campaigning to stop the plans, and support is building in the long-dominant Social Democratic Party. It's thought that the next elections, about a year hence, might well tip the balance of power towards those who oppose the road plan and support the expansion of tax-financed public, collective transport.

Because this is the heart of the conflict in today's Sweden: a vision of society based on their historic legacy of tax-financed collective goods, or the neoliberal shift towards a fee-based system of supporting public infrastructure. The museums here are all charging hefty entry fees now, but a few years ago were completely free.  As Planka's Alfred told me: "We want free public transit. Then someone will say, nothing is free, and we've been in this discussion quite a lot... We explain we want our fares to be paid by taxes. So we say, we want to pay, but we want to pay through our taxes and not through our fares."

cul_de_sac_3246.jpgTraffic calmed street in eastern Sodermalm, Stockholm.
mid_avenue_promenade_near_highschool_3319.jpgGreen parkway in middle of major boulevard in downtown Stockholm.

Another Planka activist, one of two guys named Christian I spoke with, explained: "The basic political problem is that in Sweden we used to have a tax-financed society, much more than we do now. But we have exchanged our tax-financed society for a fee-based system. And that's a problem because when you pay taxes, rich people pay a little more and poor people pay a little less. But when you pay a fee, everyone pays the same, and that's a problem if your goal is to flatten out society, to make it more equal."

I was interested to know if that was actually still the official goal of the Swedish government, to flatten out inequality, and I got a mix of answers. But it shows how different the discourse is in Sweden than in the U.S., that it's even a possibility that the government's goal is to flatten out income inequality through redistributive taxes!

shopping_street_scene_3418.jpgAll Scandinavian cities have major shopping districts centered on a pedestrian-only thoroughfare, and usually a number of cross streets with restricted traffic too.
Planka has become a producer of influential reports on transit issues. When I asked if they had staff with degrees or credentials to give their reports credibility, they laughed: "No! We have strong opinions and we're nerds!" Alfred told me. "We have really pushed the political agenda and now it's quite normal to talk about free public transportation here."

Free public transit is an idea whose time has come. Realistically it's always been here, but the more we have developed into a society under the dictatorship of the Economy, a world wherein everything is supposed to "pay for itself" (alas, if only cars/roads/oil/nuclear/coal were required to do that too!), the more public goods like transit has been forced to raise its fees higher and higher towards its "actual cost." We know these are political decisions, but much is done to mask that fact with blather about runaway costs due to redundant services, overpaid workers without adequate managerial control, etc. The actual misappropriation of social wealth when it comes to transportation choices is staggering. Our ongoing lament about how little is dedicated to creating infrastructure for urban bicycling is but one tiny example of the larger imbalances that are, as usual, treated as somehow natural and inevitable.

We took this up in San Francisco 26 years ago too. In 1983 Dianne Feinstein was Mayor of San Francisco and a public campaign was launched on the heels of the then-most recent fare hike, from 35 cents to 50 cents for a MUNI ride. "No Fare is No Fair" proclaimed the billboards all over town, showing a cartoon of a bus full of angry citizens glowering at a cowering fare evader in their midst (easy and fun to alter by eliminating one or the other "No"). Back in those days a lot of creative fare evasion was going on. We used the new color xerox machines to counterfeit Fast Passes and got away with it for almost two years before the introduction of the magnetic strips (just put it in a foggy plastic sleeve and wave it at the indifferent driver as you got on the bus). One friend carried a shoebox full of transfers wherever he went. As soon as we knew what the day's code was (the transfers were then printed with a color + symbol or number combo, so on a given day it might be a red triangle, or a purple 4, etc.) he would start manufacturing transfers for a bunch of us out of past ones that he'd stockpiled, working his magic with scissors and a gluestick. The good ol' low tech days of yore!...

I wrote a piece in Processed World #9 called "Against Fairness and Fares!" that called for free public transit for all, mostly on the grounds that transportation is work! We mostly ride the bus to get to and from work, and it should be part of our work day, and thus waged, and it should certainly not cost US money to use it! It should be covered out of the profits made by those who depend on it to bring their workers to and fro, in those days, downtown San Francisco's financial and corporate behemoths. In fact there were several efforts to enact a special downtown transit assessment district, but they always fell by the wayside, in no small part due to the intransigent opposition of Feinstein and her supervisorial allies at the time.

Anyway, we know that people won't stop driving unless they are given a compelling incentive to do so, and free public transit would radically increase the switch from fossil fuel burning private autos to other alternatives. It makes sense from many angles: contributing to emission reductions to address climate change; reducing urban air pollution; reducing traffic and increasing the pleasure of urban living; saving money that is currently extracted from individual citizens through the onerous costs of cars/gas, or through ever rising fares. The effort to launch a fare strike in 2005 didn't take off, nor did the brief BART strike lead to an alliance between transit workers and transit riders around a free system, but there's no reason why we can't keep agitating. Our friends in Stockholm have shown the way to a creative approach that we might be able to make use of in our own way in the Bay Area!

woman_on_bike_lane_3202.jpgBike lanes as though they want people to ride bikes!