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, 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!
  • Jon

    Back in the ’70’s my union, The Amalgamated Transit Union, campaigned for free public transit. Since then the union leadership has capitulated to “market forces” and dropped the demand. Imagine that only thirty years ago a stodgy conservative American union supported a position that is now so marginalized that only a few young radicals would dream of defending it.

    BTW, Chris, you and I were at odds about something you wrote about the president of Local 38. You asked me to read more of your stuff and I have. I’ve learned a few things, thanks. I also think that, with a little uncomfortable bending, old line Bay Area unionists could work with you.

  • founded an English website that has become the center of the free public transport movement with groups in 16 countries. Here is the link.
    If you want to keep up with this movement, search on twitter for #freepubtrans [mostly English] or #planka [mostly Swedish].

  • “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!”

    Eating lunch is also part of my workday. Should I get the food for free? Following your reasoning: 1) we mostly eat lunch at work. 2) therefore, any lunches that anyone eats anywhere should be free.

    Here in the Bay Area, free public transit would be a huge subsidy to sprawl. Someone commuting from Pleasanton to SF now gets a subsidy of about $10 per ride. With free transit, it would go up to $15. Those suburban commuters would get much more than bus riders, and bus riders would get much more than bicyclists.

    The basic issue, as I see it, is:
    – If you provide transportation for free, people will consume more transportation.
    – Americans already consume too much transportation. Per capita VMT has doubled since the 1960s, largely because of sprawl.
    – We should be building walkable cities that reduce the need for transportation. Subsidies for transportation push us in exactly the opposite direction.
    – Therefore, the best policy is to reduce subsidies for transportation. Removing subsidies to the automobile will do far, far more to pull back sprawl than adding larger subsidies for transit.

    Though this Swedish movement considers itself radical, I would say that, in the context of the American consumer economy, there is nothing less radical than demanding to consume more for free (even if what you are demanding is a social good like public transit).

  • Jon
  • I tend to agree with the above comment that encouraging density and people living closer to where they work is the direction we want to go. The current $55 a month for a Muni pass ($60 in January) is not what is keeping people in their cars. People not paying the true costs of burning fossil fuels is, combined with the perceived inconvenience and unpleasantness of the public transit. Trains and buses that are clean, frequent, *safe*, and not stuffed to the gills would do far more to attract riders than making public transit free. I would support, however, extending the youth Muni pass rate of $15/month to age 25 or 26 so that college students and young people just starting out get a break.

  • taomom, I’d take it one step further and introduce a “family-pack”. I feel an argument against families using transit in the states is that there aren’t group tickets available at a discount to individually buying them. Two round trip tickets for each person in a family of four (or five) would make loading up the car and paying parking seem like a better deal.

    But yes, offering more subsidies to transit won’t work nearly as well as taking away the huge subsidies offered vehicle travel.

  • g

    thanks very interesting article, unfortunately the bart police have guns which they tend to mistake for tasers at innopportune times.

  • smushmoth

    Scandinavian Public Transit is very expensive.

    If I recall a metro ticket in Stockholm is 35 Kronor which at the time was 7 Kronor to the Dollar, making the ride cost $5. Denmark is 11 Dk Kroner/Zone, with with a minimum of 2 zones, Last I knew it was 5.5 Dk Kroner to the dollar making their cheapest fare $4, at those prices I would jump fares more often myself.

  • Nick

    You go a few cities to the south of SF and taking BART into downtown runs around $160 a month. A monthly Fast Pass starts to look like a bargain with a little perspective.

    I don’t think we should treat 25 year olds as “youth” either. That is unless we also plan to suspend the driving age to 25. Then I’m all for it.

  • ZA


    I certainly agree that a ‘no fare’ approach would be a lot more effective for transit worker strikes, but I don’t think it can keep a transit system working effectively indefinitely.

    At a minimum, a fare lets system operators try to understand where the demand for their service is, and start to supply resources for that need. There are certainly cleverer technologies for getting that information now, but a token or some currency is the lowest-common-denominator.

    Also, while fares will never cover total system costs, a ‘free rider’ system could only begin to work in a system that’s already been built, not one that is expanding (as even BART and MUNI have). Calgary’s light rail, for example, can maintain free riding downtown (subsidized by downtown businesses), but no where else in their expanding network.

  • Bill Simpich

    Free transit would be an enormous boost for the San Francisco economy. We should advocate passionately for it.

    I’m on BART regularly, and I see a lot of fare jumpers and no cops running around. I’d like to know what other people have seen in this regard. I think large numbers of people have taken this issue into their own hands. The hoisting maneuver takes a certain athleticism, but it’s easily mastered.

    I spoke to a BART employee in downtown Oakland once, who said that the Bay Area population is seen by the workers as much more pleasant and easy to get along with than in other cities – security is generally not seen as a big problem. I’m curious about other people’s thoughts on this as well.

    I was in Zurich a few years ago, and although the mass transit wasn’t free, it was cheap and there were always trains, buses, you name it coming. And you could rent bicycles for free. Zurich is one of the most affluent cities in the world, and I think their transit policies are a big reason why.

  • Here in the Bay Area, free public transit would be a huge subsidy to sprawl.

    not sure what you mean by this. as far as i understand it, commuter railers and BART folks already enjoy bigger subsidies than bus folks, and all of them more than cyclists (arguably). so…what? are you saying that making existing transit systems fare-free will increase sprawl somehow? or help maintain it? or…?

    If you provide transportation for free, people will consume more transportation.

    this might just be a Europe/US language issue, but ‘public transports’ does not mean ‘transportation’ — it means ‘public transit’. we’re not talking about further subsidizing cars, here, we’re talking about making transit slightly more attractive to potential riders by making it free — that’s it. i think this nullifies/makes inapplicable a couple of your other points.

    – Therefore, the best policy is to reduce subsidies for transportation. Removing subsidies to the automobile will do far, far more to pull back sprawl than adding larger subsidies for transit.

    removing subsidies for cars is a tough task, politically, because many (most?) voters are car drivers, but adding subsidies for public transit is probably a bit more plausible, imo.

    in the context of the American consumer economy, there is nothing less radical than demanding to consume more for free

    seems like ‘consumer’ is the new favorite buzzword lately. did someone just publish a book talking about consumerism or something? what is a ‘consumer economy’? it seems like a meaningless buzzphrase to me.

    in any case, ‘free’ is shorthand for ‘fare-free, but paid for by all with taxes’. this was explicitly addressed in the article.

    and not stuffed to the gills would do far more to attract riders than making public transit free

    this is the one caveat i’d have to a free public transit plan — we’d have to have a way to control overcrowding. i think decongestion pricing is worth a shot, but i’m not sure how to handle different directions of travel — some of which are peak, but others, not — except maybe with electronic cards of some type. we’ll see what nyc comes up with for their off-peak pricing. i think at least one or two other US transit systems already do peak/decongestion pricing, but i’m not sure.

    But yes, offering more subsidies to transit won’t work nearly as well as taking away the huge subsidies offered vehicle travel.

    this may or may not be true — i say we give it a try and find out. some of the ‘free public transport’ campaigns around the world seem to have had astonishing success.

    No Fare Is Fair! — i like the sound of that. ūüôā

  • SFResident

    Removing subsidies for cars without putting in place an equivalent subsidy for public transportation will be a terrible burden on the poor and working classes. Housing prices in the areas that are walkable to jobs (Urban SF, the silicon valley) already price-out too much of the population. Forcing these folk to spend even more of their declining and increasingly tenuous incomes on their transportation budget constitutes poor social policy.

    The best way to reduce sprawl is to combine free or very inexpensive public transit with well planned high-density mixed-income housing located near job centers. And I’m not talking about BART to Livermore here, I’m talking about systems like MUNI, VTA, and AC.

  • SFResident

    @Peter Smith – DC does peak/off peak pricing on their subway. Seems to work pretty well.

  • If Stockholm is like most European metro areas, then its public transit systems have been put under PPP privatization scheme; i.e. government pays for the infrastructure, and private operator gets to earn profit from running the system (with much higher fares). Thus, it is understandable that fare evasion would be rational response by the, um, “anti-capitalist” types in Europe — but here in the States, we have no such financial arrangement. Our public transit systems are owned and operated by public agencies, so fare evasion is stealing not from a private corporation, but the taxpayers.

  • Here is a link to an article that appeared in Sustainable Industries a couple years ago: It’s pretty relevant to the discussion here.

  • zsolt

    In my old stomping grounds, Vienna, Austria, public transit is not very cheap, however it gets cheaper if you buy longer-term passes. If you bought a one day pass every day, it would be expensive, but if you buy a yearly pass, it’s pretty cheap, on the order of maybe $500. I would love if there would be yearly, all-you-can-eat passes for transit around here.

    Students used to ride transit for free and after that ended (students still paid a discounted fare), the student organization introduced an insurance similar to what the article describes.

  • Tobias

    Single-tickets in Stockholm are insanely expensive – ending up at 6 or 7 dollars for a relatively short fare, but purchasing a rebate coupon or monthly card makes the costs more bearable ($2.50 a fare or day).

    And therein lies part of the problem, why should the citizens be bound to, or tempted to use one specific mode of transportation? I can normally bike all around the city but do not want to do so in minus degrees due to the high probability of skiddy roads and thereby an accident.

    I don’t believe in full tax financing: i think this would lead to blatant overuse of the public transport system. Whatever company runs the PT systems must focus on (1) basic services (thereby cutting costs) and (2) a pay-as-you-go model.

  • “i think this would lead to blatant overuse of the public transport system.”

    Oh no!
    “Bah, those pesky kids, riding for fun!” =)

    Well, if someone enjoys riding the subway, then hey, go for it I say.. for some reason, I have a hard time imagining someone finding it fun to ride during peak hours.

  • Nice post!
    /proud member of that anarcho-syndicalist youth organization ūüėČ

  • rzu

    A start might be to offer free MUNI rides on the car-free portion of Market, much like in Seattle’s “Ride Free Area” downtown.

  • While free transit might be hard for some to swallow, there is no excuse for the lack of imagination in the Bay Area (maybe the entire USA) when it comes to transit passes. I totally agree with the family pass and the “student til 25” pass. In fact those two ideas are in place in both Germany and Italy, where I just spent 3 months studying transportation policy. Each transit agency has its own variations, but I was very impressed with the thought that went into the variety of transit passes: daily-weekly-monthly-annual-group-singles-non peak, etcetera. Some are even transferable to others and some can only be used by one person. I will do a more thorough documentation of the German cities and a comparison to bay area transit agency passes soon, but in the meantime, the many types of passes available in Torino and Milano are described on my blog at

    Then there is the whole concept of FARE COORDINATION, which is another key ingredient to making transit affordable, and that they have down pat in Italy and Germany: one ticket one fare, usable in the entire metro area, regardless of transit operator, (and they have many!!) I have this info as a powerpoint, not on my blog yet).

  • MMD

    Regarding free transit encouraging sprawl, I think somewhere you need to draw the line between what is a “subway” or “metro” i.e. urban public transit and what is, let’s say, “beyond”.

    In other words what is a “metro” and what is “commuter rail” and “intercity rail”. Do the advocates for free metro also advocate for free inter city rail? Where do you draw the line?

    In the Bay area, imho, free MUNI Metro could not be construed as encouraging sprawl, whereas free BART could definitely be construed as encouraging urban sprawl.

    (BTW, in the Bay Area, we have no metro metro, just commuter rail (BART,CALTRAIN and ACE) and light rail (Muni Metro and VTA LRT)

  • boogaloobaby

    Off-topic: Everyone is dressed in black! No colour anywhere!

  • Andy Chow

    The whole free transit discussion is so misguided. We’ve a few free transit spare the air days two years ago and it wasn’t every cost effective.

    First we do not have the luxury to provide free transit at the expense of reduced service. We’ve already and will have transit cuts because of reduced tax revenues. If we were to raise taxes for transit, we should restore these cuts. We have more transit in 2000 than we will have in 2010.

    Of course free transit will create security issues. Muni is pretty bad with gangsters-like folks boarding through the back door, not paying the fare, and start bothering people. BART ended all-day free rides for spare the air days after the first year just because the same gangsters could ride all the way to the suburbs and steal/vandalize cars.

    Idea of free transit assumes that the price is the only barrier to transit use. I don’t agree. Most people in this area (especially those who own cars) aren’t that poor. What it kept them away from transit is the lack of transit and poor quality transit. Free transit doesn’t nothing to address both. Would someone give up their cars because they can ride free on the 14-Mission, but have to put up with slow travel time and gangsters on the back of the bus bothering others?

    Instead of broad free fares, improving transit payment will help increase transit use by reducing the upfront cost barrier. Things like day pass, Translink will go a long way. Downtown fareless zone can encourage people to park in one place and use transit to go to different areas to shop, and reduce cost for those who ride regional transit into downtown but need feeder transit to areas aren’t directly served by regional transit.

    Institutions can also buy eco passes. That way “free transit” could be done locally without severe impact on the rest of the transit system, and allow those institutions to address transportation problems locally. Those institutions could pay the transit agencies rather than spending the same if not more money on additional parking facilities.


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