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Would Free Public Transport Improve a Country's Economy?

Over the past few weeks, protesters in Barcelona have united against yet another public-transport fare increase. But is Barcelona's—and any other city's—public transport system even worth protesting over?

by Juanjo Villalba
Mar 6 2014, 8:30pm

Barcelona Metro photo courtesy of Wiki Commons

Over the past few weeks, protesters in Barcelona have united against yet another public-transport fare increase. Using the slogan "Stop Pujades" (Stop Increases) and supported by a bunch of other organizations—including the Barcelona Metropolitan Transport workers themselves—demonstrators have blocked several metro, bus, and commuter train stops in the hope that authorities will revert to the pre-increase prices.

But is Barcelona's—and any other city's—public transport system even worth protesting over? Is there an alternative, more socially beneficial model we should switch to? Or should we just screw the subways?

To shed some light on the situation, I spoke to writer and sociologist Jorge Moruno, who has written about the issues surrounding the current protests and cofounded a couple of student and activist movements.

Protests against fare increases for Barcelona's public transport

VICE: Hi, Jorge. So do you think we should all boycott the subways?
Jorge Moruno: That involves certain risks that must be taken into consideration. It can be done individually or as a collective, in a more politically organized way. If Rosa Parks hadn’t refused to give up her seat, for example, the civil rights movement would probably not have been unleashed in the way it was. I’m not comparing these situations; I’m just trying to apply the political logic of civil disobedience—what is legal isn't necessarily legitimate. Democracy isn't a petrified animal. It's always on the move.

Yeah. But there's good reason to jump the turnstiles, right?
The disparity between wages, income, and ticket fares is distressing. There are so many people out of work or with low-paying jobs who need to use public transport to commute, meet other people, or go job-hunting. And access to mobility is a basic requirement; otherwise we're risking social exclusion.

There's no legitimacy in not being able to move about the city or in having to spend the little money one has on it. Collective disobedience to condemn the situation contributes to laying the foundations of a future right. Law is not democracy’s lynchpin, but the other way around: democracy is the foundation of law.

So what's the solution? Taking control of public transport away from the authorities?
The use of civil disobedience to ensure collective access to mobility is precisely about making sure transport remains public and unrestricted. "Public" implies everyone can have access to it. There is a paradox here, because we tend—they make us tend—to think that a civic stand is to pay your ticket regardless of your social situation.

Those who never travel in a crammed underground subway car or who cut back on public services and social rights are the same ones who tell us to pay as many fare increases as needed. It doesn't take a revolutionary to consider the right to rebel a popular right. It was even foreseen by John Locke, the father of classical liberalism, and it's stated in the Declaration of Human Rights. It’s just common sense.

So how could this updated mode of transport be financed?
As Lester Freamon said in The Wire: "You have to track the money trail." Although employment is scarce and precarious, money doesn’t evaporate; it just changes hands. The number of millionaires in Spain rose by 5.4 percent between 2011 and 2013. When wages and tax-funded contributions go down, when debt takes up all the wealth, and when there's a demand for privatization, public money ends up in a few private pockets.

A tax reform is necessary so that those who have more pay more taxes. Tax evasion must be done away with, and the process that's leading us into economic underdevelopment must be reversed.

A couple of posters for the Stop Pujades protests (via)

The cost of using public transport keeps rising, but do you think there's any link between the increased fares and the cost of running the services? 
We'll be told that these ticket fare increases won't cover the cost of public transport and that state subsidies are needed. With all the debt involved, perhaps it would be more rational to argue that we don’t need to have the world’s second largest high-speed railway system, while the local network—used by millions of people yearly—has suffered substantial cutbacks. Public transport, like water, health care, energy, or education, can’t be a business. The aim should be to maximize society’s well-being, rather than benefitting themselves. It's a fundamental right that we are paying for with our taxes.

Do you think a free public transport would be beneficial to the economy?
Firstly, we should ask whose economy it would be beneficial to. Economics is politics—its rules aren't natural. The core of the issue isn't about public transport being free, but the ethical and political conviction that people’s needs and well-being must be placed above all else, ensuring their access to public transport. A better-living society with no fear of tomorrow is a healthier, more innovative, smarter one.

Do you know of any examples where free public transport has worked?
In Tallinn, Estonia, public transport has become a free service through the elimination of direct payment and by funding it solely through taxes and state subsidies. Another prime example is Freiburg, Germany—a model that allows accessible and ecologic mobility. They promote the use of public transport, and monthly tickets for all commuters working in the industrial area are entirely or partially financed by their employers.

But mobility isn't just limited to transport. A global change is needed in public and urban policies, in the production model, in democratic culture, and in the tax model. Speaking of public transport means speaking about a whole model of coexistence.

How do you interpret the protests against fare hikes in Barcelona?
They are yet another sign of the general impoverishment of the population, barring them from their rights as citizens. Managing to stop the increase of transport fares or the privatization of public health services—these are all expressions of the same democratic aspiration: the defence of life against the dictatorship of financial servitude. These struggles develop a democratic popular unity against the political project of the rich and powerful, who are trying to enforce the rule of debt and austerity.

Thanks, Jorge.

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