Steps toward free local public transportation
Web conference on April 22, 2021 forming part of the Right to Mobility series
This was the third and final event in the Right to Mobility series, jointly organized by Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung New York City, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung São Paulo, and Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels. You can find more information about the previous events at the following links: Women in the City and Mobility (February 25, 2021): www.youtube.com/watch?v=uK7-a_XhKnA; and Right to Mobility against Racism (March 25, 2021): www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUPYqT2OZXc.
Buses and trains worldwide are struggling with a loss of revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic (Germany, for example, is expected to see a €3.5 billion revenue loss in 2021, and around the globe the number of car users is increasing, as are used car sales figures in some countries (e.g., in the United States)). Climate protection makes it all the more important to avoid scrapping bus or train services or lines, and instead to expand mass transit and reconsider how it is funded. Given the deteriorating social situation and falling real incomes across broad swathes of society, affordable or free local public transportation is key to our services of general interest. After all, the right to mobility can only be achieved through well developed mass transit that is affordable for everyone.
In about 100 cities around the world, it has already been made free of charge to ensure this right to mobility for all. Initiatives in many regions across the globe are fighting for free transportation of this type because mobility is a fundamental right which must not depend on individuals' ability to pay. In the United States, city councilors (such as Michelle Wu in Boston) are calling for free public transit as part of the urgently needed Green New Deal. In Brazil, movements such as Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement) and Tarifa Zero (Zero Fare, or Fare Free Public Transportation (FFPT)) have been pushing for years for mass transit to be made free of charge. In Germany too, initiatives (such as in Nuremberg) have been successful in pressing for a 365-Euro-Ticket (an annual season ticket with which a mass transit user can make unlimited journeys within a particular area for the equivalent of €1 per day) and a 'social ticket' for people on benefits, and there have been long-running campaigns for the introduction of free local public transportation.
We invited academics, politicians, and activists to engage on these issues. Over 100 participants from Brazil, the United States, Canada, Germany, and across Europe joined the conference.
Andreas Günther, Executive Director of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung's New York Office, emphasized in his words of welcome local public transportation's role in combating climate change. While some reductions in emissions had been achieved in other parts of the economy in recent years, greenhouse gas emissions were still rising unchecked in the transportation sector. In light of the billions of euros spent each year on maintaining and expanding infrastructure for cars in the European Union, it was clear that the authorities must pump more public funding into local mass transit. The cooperation between the German trade union ver.di and Fridays for Future in the most recent wage dispute showed that climate protection must go hand in hand with a good public transportation system.
Judith Dellheim, Research Fellow at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, stressed that what was important was the right to socially and environmentally sustainable mobility and therefore the social right to public transportation, including local mass transit, and that this was a basic prerequisite for a life of self-determination led in solidarity with each other and in the context of a healthy environment. She pointed out that the fight for zero fare public transportation was just one element of a politics which, starting with the here and now, aimed to sustainably mitigate and solve social and ecological problems with a view to democratically making society progressively more socially oriented, fairer, more solidarity based, and so more environmentally friendly.
Free local public transportation must therefore be wanted, and the will of social actors must become a real movement that made plans, mobilized human, material, and financial resources, and organized and realized social and economic processes. She said that a (crucial) part of this had to do with issues of financing operating costs and investments. So the first step was to encourage people to get organized and stand up for what they thought could be done. In this context, for example, to start with, those allowed to use mass transit free of charge could gradually be expanded. The first people to benefit from this should always be those in most urgent need of support, such as children, young people, older people, and those hit by poverty and social exclusion.
In Poland, for instance, around 30 municipalities had decided to abolish fares for local public transportation, with a view, first and foremost, to combating poverty. During the COVID-19 pandemic, in some countries more groups had been allowed to use public transit free of charge (at least temporarily), such as healthcare workers in the UK and in Turkey, while the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih was due to scrap fares for all residents on May 1, 2021. In the Indian state of Punjab, women had been able to travel for free since April 1, 2021. In Brussels, anyone under 25 would get to use public transportation for no charge from September 2021. Partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic, blueprints for the expansion of local mass transit were now also being increasingly discussed in cities like Los Angeles and Toronto.
It must be clear, though, that the introduction of a zero fare policy raised performance/capacity issues for local public transportation, which must of course be expanded beforehand and during the rollout of this policy (which must be accompanied by also promoting walking and cycling). However, attention must of course also be paid to the interface with existing ownership structures: the expansions of the infrastructure that were needed before the introduction of zero fare mass transit in Luxembourg were very expensive as the companies involved had previously been privatized. How financing issues could sometimes reach fever pitch was illustrated by the example of Templin in Brandenburg in Germany. This town did have a free fare policy at one time, but the Land Brandenburg (State of Brandenburg) imposed new administrative structures, which meant that there was a change in the transportation company and its public funding body. The State of Brandenburg then also stopped the Templin town authorities levying a local transportation tax that was necessary to bring in the zero fare policy.
Municipalities in France were in a better position in this respect: having more rights, when a zero fare was introduced, they had to make up for lost revenue from ticket sales by covering only 10-20% of total operating costs. They were allowed to levy taxes payable by local companies and which covered approximately 50% of the costs of local public transportation. In the German city of Bremen, there were hopes that a zero fare policy was about to be introduced for local public transportation, with the Social Democrats (SPD) in that city state saying that all residents should be able to use this for free from 2023. This would involve changing the basis for funding, which the authorities there could do. This showed that if the zero fare policy were to become a reality for both local public transportation and for public transportation in general nationwide, changes to the law as well as investments would be needed from the state, and these could only come about by forging appropriate political alliances.
Titus Schüller, a DIE LINKE (The Left) representative on the Nuremberg City Council (Germany), reported on his party's successful campaign for the introduction of an affordable social ticket and the 365-Euro-Ticket in the city of Nuremberg. In the long term, the party was also pushing for the introduction of free local public transportation. The backdrop for these political struggles were the huge fare hikes in Nuremberg since 2010, leading to tensions between, on the one hand, groups championing assistance for the unemployed and, on the other, the city authorities. In 2010, 12,000 signatures backing the introduction of a social ticket had been collected. There had been a further fare increase of 15% in 2013, also sparking widespread and creative protests among city residents. In 2015, yet another fare rise had been planned, but this had been stopped thanks to further widespread protests, as across the piece, the city's population had been of the opinion that fares were too high, and so all political parties had had to accept DIE LINKE's demand for fares to be reduced.
The blueprint had been the city of Vienna with its 365-Euro-Ticket and well developed local public transportation system. While Bavaria's conservative state government had eventually pledged to introduce a 365-Euro-Ticket from 2030, this was far too late, prompting a broad-based alliance (DIE LINKE, trade union organizations, church communities, cinemas, small sport clubs, etc.) to gather signatures to force a referendum. In the end, 21,000 signatures were collected, so exceeding the 12,000 that were required. Ultimately, a referendum had not been needed because DIE LINKE had managed to achieve the introduction of the social ticket (costing only half of the full price and valid around the clock). For the population this was a considerable relief, especially in the midst of a pandemic. Furthermore, the alliance would campaign for the promised introduction of the 365-Euro-Ticket from 2023. In conclusion, the emphasis on this issue from 2010 on and the development of a broad, local alliance had led to some initial key successes.
Marijke Vermander from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, as part of the LiFT research project, is investigating the various zero fare public transportation models in Brazil and how they are being implemented. She explained that in Brazil it was clear, despite gaps in the data, that there were already a number of municipalities implementing the Tarifa Zero (zero fare, or fare free public transportation (FFPT)). Movimento Passe Livre (MPL, or Free Fare Movement) had been established in 2013 and could be said to be the main movement pushing for FFPT in Brazil. However, the first protests for FFPT in Brazil had started back in the late 19th century. These had initially involved workers, with students joining in as from the year 2000. Movimento Passe Livre had initially called for a zero fare for students, before expanding its demands and seeking this for everyone. For many people in Brazil, public transportation was the only way they could, for example, get to work. Mass transit there was often limited and overcrowded.
The funding situation was difficult because there were virtually no public subsidies for local public transportation, meaning that it had to be financed almost entirely from ticket sales. By way of comparison, in Flanders (Belgium) only 15% of local public transportation costs were met by ticket sales. Financing almost entirely through ticket sales resulted in a tricky situation whereby costs per passenger rose when the total number of passengers decreased; or, for example, when a demographic group was given the right to use the system for free.
Marijke cited two examples: the municipality of Monte Carmelo, which had been offering FFPT since 1994, paying for it through tax revenues from local industry. In that case, the city authorities had found that collecting fares was more expensive than providing public transportation for free. The second example, the city of Paulínia, was a particularly striking one in the national context in that it had over 100,000 residents. There had been FFPT only between 1995 and 1997, but even today fares were much lower than in other parts of the country. Overall, Marijke said that unfortunately the gaps in the data meant that it was often unclear when and why municipalities had introduced or abolished FFPT. However, the good news was that the list of cities with FFPT was getting longer every year in Brazil. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the drop in passenger numbers alone, it was clear that the public transportation system would either collapse or have to be put on a new financial footing.
Phineas Baxandall from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (United States) referred to the latest reports he had published on free transit. He described the change in attitudes on this issue, from free fares being considered some kind of utopia just a few years ago to something that nowadays the Acting Mayor of Boston was advocating for. Other mayoral candidates had also discovered the zero fare model for the public transit system and were calling for free transportation to be rolled out. This was easily relatable because there was no charge for using a public elevator or calling the fire service.
His research data showed that the abolition of fares led to increased ridership, as well as reducing travel times thanks to passengers no longer having to buy a ticket from the driver at the front of a bus and instead being able to board elsewhere. There was also a social aspect here in that public transportation in the United States was mainly used by people of color and those on low incomes. This showed that free transit could help in the fight against poverty and exclusion and against climate change. A movement for free transit had emerged in the United States, and fares had already been scrapped in some cities (Kansas City and the Massachusetts cities of Lawrence and Worcester). In the city of Lawrence (which had become famous for the major strike by textile workers in 1912 with its slogan "give us bread and give us roses"), part of the budget had been used to make several bus lines free of charge, increasing ridership by over 40%. Indeed, in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, all buses had been free across the state of Massachusetts, and in New England's second largest city, Worcester, this had turned out to be such a positive experience that free public transit was still in place today. To take the whole discussion about free fares forward, the view of public transportation must be changed away from being like a "candy bar" you got by putting a few coins into a vending machine. Instead, we must reach a point where people see mass transit for what it is: a public good. Then popular support for it would also increase.
A look at the numbers demonstrated this: just the cost of organizing the collection of cash from ticket sales, printing the tickets, etc. was a huge waste of resources, as for every four dollars raised through ticket sales, three dollars were spent simply on collecting the money for fares – and all this did nothing to make public transit faster or safer. However, financing free public transportation would only be possible if the US federal government also contributed funding.
During the subsequent discussion, a representative of the Brazilian Movimento Passe Livre movement said that the struggle for free public transportation was a struggle for social rights for the people. This movement had continued to gain popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, because it was unacceptable that profits were made off the back of the population. The pandemic had made the situation even more difficult, because the mass transit fleet had been reduced by 50%.
A representative of the initiative Einfach Einsteigen (Just Hop On) in Bremen (Germany) referred to the discussion on the financing of free public transportation there and the need to better integrate into the network parts of the city that had traditionally been poorly connected.
A representative from Toronto (Canada) pointed out that on the one hand free public transportation was a utopia, but on the other hand this raised very specific funding questions. For example, it was clear that in many cases the municipality could not bear the costs alone. Paris was a good example of this: employers were forced to co-finance a "social right."
Among other contributions to the discussion, it was indicated that the costs of private motorized traffic (road sealing, poor air quality, loss of space, accidents) far exceeded those of free public transit. Free local public transportation could also help to decrease the number of cars in our cities, which would be a very desirable outcome.
Last but not least, it was suggested that in Germany a 365-Euro-Ticket could be introduced which would be valid not just for a single municipality but across the whole country.
Project manager at Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels
 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/25/climate/buses-trains-ridership-climate-change.html: Sengupta, S. / Abdul, G. / Andreoni M. / Penney, V. (2021). Riders are abandoning buses and trains. The New York Times, March 25.
 "As a municipality, we weren't allowed to levy a surcharge for local public transportation. Ten Deutschmarks a year per citizen would have been enough for us," complained former mayor Ulrich Schoenteich in 2018 (cited in: Brie, M. / Dellheim, J. (eds) (2020). Nulltarif (Zero Fares). Hamburg, VSA, page 57).