Mass transportation is intimately tied not only to the physical form of cities, but to the deeper social structures of imperial capitalism. A campaign for free public transit can be an important part of a broader fight to restructure society along ecosocialist lines.
by Stefan Kipfer
Stefan Kipfer teaches at the Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University. This article previously appeared as “Free transit and beyond” in The Bullet. Our thanks to Stefan for permission to publish it in Climate & Capitalism.
Epochal crises allow us to see clearly the irrationalities of capitalism, notably its systematic inability to develop to the fullest human capacities and provide the basis for sustainable and respectful relationships to the rest of nature. The current world economic crisis has thrown to the dustbin of history the aspirations and capacities of millions of human beings – those laid off, driven off the land or relegated to permanent precariousness. At the same time, the crisis has intensified the exploitation of those still connected to gainful employment and driven up, at least temporarily, the ecologically destructive extraction of ‘resources,’ particularly in the global South and the peripheral areas of the global North.
The contradictory character of imperial capitalism can also be seen by focusing on mobility and transportation. The aggressively neoliberal and authoritarian responses ruling classes have pursued to respond to the crisis have reinforced the degree to which many are confined, in a contradictory way to a combination of forced mobility and immobility. Globally, layoffs, land grabs, agricultural restructuring, and mining exploration have pushed more people onto a path of forced migration to other cities, regions and countries. In turn, grinding poverty and ever-more punitive migration policies in the global North drastically limit the capacity of many to move to places where the grass appears to be greener.
During all of this, global transportation systems continue to be restructured to maximize the capacity of goods, resources and the ‘winners’ of global capitalism to move around the world behind the securitized perimeters of airports, pipelines and shipping ports.
Gentrified central city areas and gated communities
This interplay of mobility and enforced (im-)mobility is also at play in the major urban regions today. Most blatantly in cities of North America, Britain, South Africa, India, China and Brazil, the upward redistribution machine that is imperial capitalism has meant that elites and upper segments of the middle classes increasingly live in protected financial districts, gentrified central city areas, office parks and gated communities. They are connected to each other by means of transportation that allow them to bypass the ‘squalor’ of shantytowns or segregated districts: highway overpasses, regional commuter trains and rapid inter-city links.
In turn, the working-class and insecure elements of the middle class are divided. Those who are forced to work longer hours or depend on several jobs have to spend more and more time commuting. Those permanently excluded from employment, subject to systemic discrimination or too poorly paid to afford accessible housing, child care or transit find themselves relegated to life in segregated neighbourhoods. What some take for granted (the capacity to move about freely and based on choice) is an unaffordable luxury for those who are forced to commute against their will or those who cannot reach the places they need to survive.
In this light, campaigns for free public transit (such as the one undertaken by the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly) are promising. In the short term, making transit free would provide relief to some commuters even as it would improve the mobility of all those who are least mobile or most transit-dependent now: the young and the old, women, people with disabilities, people of colour and the most precarious fractions of the working-class. Even if implemented gradually (beginning with children, students, the elderly, low-income and unemployed workers; or during off-peak hours and weekends), free transit would also lead to an increase in public transit use among existing and some new users, thus making transportation patterns more favourable to public transit. Finally, free transit arguments bolster the public sector. They are difficult to reconcile with neoliberal policies: free transit is less attractive for public-private partnerships (P3s) and cannot be properly implemented by decimating the public sector or further commodifying public services.
In principle, free transit advocacy can also be an element in a broader vision to reorganize urban life and restructure the social order along red (working class-based, working toward socialism) and green (environmental) lines. This requires working through a host of open questions that go far beyond lowering the cost of fares. These include:
- How can a free and expanded transit system be financed?
- Can free transit be part and parcel of a green jobs strategy against austerity?
- Is free transit a potential weapon against global climate injustice?
- How can transit workers and transit users become allies to push for free transit?
- What additional measures might be necessary for free transit to have a deep and lasting impact on our car-dominated transportation system?
- How do we think of free transit not simply as a more effective, just and sustainable form of mobility, but an element in a way of life where mobility is not imposed but subject to democratic decision-making?
- Can we expand public transit without promoting real estate speculation or making transit-connected neighbourhoods off limits to many?
- And finally, can we organize free transit networks as generous public spaces that do not exclude and discriminate on the basis of race, class, gender or sexuality?
Before we get to these issues, a few more observations about transportation in its broader context are necessary.
Transportation is never just about transportation. Historically, transportation has always been much more than a technology of moving goods and people from point A to point B. In the modern world, it has been central in the development of imperial capitalism and the transformation of social relations. The sail ships of the 17th and 18th century, the steamships of the 19th century and the cargo planes and container ships in the late 20th century were essential means of ‘shrinking the globe’ to minimize the circulation time of capital while entrenching a deeply unequal and racialized international division of labour. The slave ships, the railways and the car represented key points of experimenting with new labour processes and energy sources while providing the strategic sectors in the first three industrial revolutions. Today, production and circulation are based on existing transportation technologies that are intensified and selectively globalized. Auto-centred transportation has been transformed into “hyperautomobility” (Martin) in the global North while taking off in select parts of the global South. As the case of computerized container shipping indicates, transportation technologies have also been integrated with electronic means of communication.
Mass transportation has also been central to the process through which the world has become urbanized over the last two centuries. It has helped build networks between cities and hinterlands while shaping spatial relations in metropolitan areas. In the 19th century, the rise of the modern metropolis was unthinkable without the global network of steam ships and railways that sustained the transfer of surplus under imperialism. Equally important was mass transportation (streetcars and suburban trains, then subways). Mass transit made it possible for social relations to be stretched between work and residence, facilitating (not causing) the segregation of social groups along lines of race and class, and sustaining the sexual division of labour. In the 20th century, car transportation allowed planners to treat cities as machines of consumption, production and circulation to sustain post-war capitalism. It laid the foundation for the suburbanization of urban life in Euro-America while building the basis for urban sprawl, which we now recognize as a crucial element of global climate injustice – the imperial aspect of planetary ecological degradation.
Restructuring transportation is thus never just a matter of adjusting the technologies of transportation. Up to a point, this is now widely acknowledged by most progressive urban planners and politicians. Advocates of “smart growth,” “new urbanism,” “new regionalism” or “transit-centred development,” many of whom sit on city councils, populate planning offices or write on urban affairs in cities like Toronto, recognize that to promote more effective and ecologically sustainable forms of transportation requires linking public transit to a form of city building that promotes higher population densities and a greater ‘mix’ of urban activities (jobs, apartments, public spaces).
But mass transportation is intimately tied not only to the physical form of cities, towns and suburbs. It is profoundly shaped by the deeper social structures of imperial capitalism. Making transit free and transforming it in the process is impossible without transforming the social relations amongst humans and with nature that are embedded in transportation as we know it.
How ‘public’ is public transit? In our age of privatization, it is easy to forget that public transit was built on the ruins of private transportation networks. Between the late 19th and the middle of the 20th century, it became clear that “the market” was incapable of organizing effective forms of mass transportation. As a result, transportation was organized publicly: private rail, subway and trolley lines were taken over and transformed into transit agencies and railway corporations. Labour and popular movements often played an important role in this process, as was the case in Toronto where the labour council began advocating for a municipal streetcar system decades before the TTC was created in 1921. However, in the capitalist world, this sectoral socialization of transportation did not lead to a wider decommodification of land and labour. Public transit did not always serve primarily public purposes.
Public transit was an important part in the construction of the ‘red’ [in this case, Social Democratic] cities of the inter- and postwar period – Vienna, Frankfurt, Zurich, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Stockholm – where public land ownership, public services and social housing were pillars of early modernist planning. In contrast to the early Soviet experiments, these efforts did not of course challenge private property per se and the world of exploitation in the workplace. Indeed, in capitalist contexts, public transportation has typically represented a collective infrastructure to sustain expanded and primary accumulation. Most egregiously in the colonies – and white settler colonies like Canada – public transit companies and railway corporations helped dispossess indigenous peoples, plunder ‘resources,’ further real-estate speculation and promote boosterist urban development. One reason for the eventual creation of the TTC (in 1921) was that private streetcar companies were unwilling to expand their routes sufficiently to support private real estate development.
Since the middle of 20th century, public transit in the advanced capitalist world was increasingly relegated to secondary status. Despite big comparative differences between, say, New York City and Houston, or Naples and Vienna, nowhere did public transportation manage to stem the tide of mass ‘automobilization’ and cargo trucking from the 1920s (in the U.S.) to the 1960s (Western Europe). Indeed, it was not uncommon for Socialist and Communist parties to support car-led development as a ‘working-class proposition.’
Since the oil crisis of the 1970s, only some resurgent transit initiatives were designed to counter automobility. Long-range suburban commuter transit, which is typically supported by business-centred growth coalitions, often facilitate automobilized sprawl. Similarly, the European case shows that high-speed train systems (now typically semi-privatized initiatives) can come at the expense of the density of inter-regional rail transportation.
Demanding free transit can represent a refreshing argument against the reprivatization of transit – and the profoundly unfree character of our car- and road-dominated society. But given that various forms of public transit have functioned in less-than-public and progressive ways, arguing for free transit today is also insufficient. Free transit advocates are thus forced to think not only about how to pay for existing transportation routes but also about what kind of transportation system we want. While public transit is always preferable to privatized transportation (car-led or otherwise), only some forms of public transit are amenable to red-green – socialist, sustainable, internationalist – ways of reorganizing urban life and the social order.
“The automobile is the paradoxical example of a luxury object that has been devalued by its own spread. But this practical devaluation has not yet been followed by an ideological devaluation. The myth of the pleasure and benefit of the car persists, though if mass transportation were widespread, its superiority would be striking.” (André Gorz, 70)
Shifting to transit
Free transit will likely lead to an increase in transit ridership among existing and some new users. This increase will not be enough to bring about a radical shift away from cars toward transit, however. For such a shift, two initial steps are necessary: a) expanding transit capacities and b) actively restricting automobile transportation. Increasing transit ridership will require increasing transit service on existing systems. And for free transit to have a wider effect, it will require an expansion and intensification of transit where most people cannot currently switch to transit (most newer suburbs and pockets in postwar suburbs) and where commuting flows escape existing transit routes (between suburbs and exurbs).
In addition, research has demonstrated that transit expansion does not suffice to seriously shrink hyperautomobility in ‘advanced’ capitalism. Next to some steps discussed further below, measures to restrict car traffic will be necessary. Among these: phasing out car-related subsidies; severely restricting parking; stopping greenfield road expansion; giving transit, cyclists and pedestrians systematic priorities on existing roads; make planning approvals for all development contingent upon transit access; and levy employer taxes for transit use.
A red-green approach will have to be careful to propose restrictions on car traffic without imposing regressive taxation, adding to gentrification pressures or penalizing all those car-dependent working-class fractions for whom switching to alternate modes of transportation is not an immediate option today.
Financing free transit
Financing free transit will be difficult within existing budget envelopes. In the here and now, free transit will increase public expenditures to substitute ridership revenues with tax subsidies and increase system capacities to accommodate new ridership. In the Toronto region, where local transit is still mostly financed by municipalities, years after the Mike Harris government downloaded it onto them, this will be difficult to accomplish with existing city budgets only. In the case of the TTC, which relies approximately 70 per cent on fares to cover its operating expenditures, free transit would cost many hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The demand for free transit thus would have to be linked to a restructuring of transportation and public finance. This could include a combination of new revenue sources (gas taxes, carbon taxes, tolls, congestion taxes, luxury taxes), a significant reduction in car-related expenditures by transportation departments, and reorientation of federal and provincial transportation policies.
To finance free and expanded transit will require a challenge to the many ways in which the state represents a multi-pronged subsidy machine for privatized transportation and land development. The car and road-centred bias of the state apparatus is linked to a range of social interests rooted in the construction, development, finance, media and car industries. Financing free transit will thus have to shift the costs of transportation onto those private interests, as well as car drivers.
“From a macro-economic and social efficiency point of view, public transportation is far less expensive than the existing privatized system. In this way, financing free and expanded transit represents a fiscal benefit rather than a cost.”
In Canada and Ontario, where the state apparatus’ deep hostility to public transit has been reinforced with cutbacks and downloading at federal and provincial levels, arguments for such a shift can be developed, however. First, the overall budgetary cost of transit budget expansion can be measured against the typically much higher cost of underwriting car-dominated transportation (road and infrastructure budgets and tax policies which subsidize them). Second, from a macro-economic and social efficiency point of view, public transportation is far less expensive than the existing privatized system. In this way, financing free and expanded transit represents a fiscal benefit rather than a cost. On average, this is also true for households. For most, switching to transit, if available, would provide a big relief from the burden of car-related expenditures.
Global climate justice
Public mass transportation produces five to 10 per cent of the greenhouse gases emitted by automobile transportation. The latter is responsible for about a quarter of global carbon emissions. In addition, public transit consumes a fraction of the land used by individualized car transportation (roads and parking space consume a third or more of the land in North American urban regions). Not even counting other negative effects of automobilization (congestion, pollution, accidents, road kill, cancer, asthma, obesity, and so on), shifting to transit will markedly reduce the social costs of economic and urban development. It would also make a substantial contribution toward global climate justice.
The complex of forces sustaining car-led metropolitan expansion (from the oil industry to real-estate development) represents a primary driving force of global climate injustice (or what some have called ecological imperialism: the way in which imperial divisions of labour distribute the cost of environmental degradation unequally). This is particularly the case for European, Japanese, and, above all, North American cities, which are the most environmentally destructive on the planet and which have played a disproportionate role narrowing the options open to people in the global South. Of course, restructuring the transportation system is not a substitute for a social and political challenge to empire. However, once combined with transit expansion and reduced mobility needs, free transit could help lay the socio-ecological foundation necessary to restructure the global division of labour.
Green jobs and ecological-economic reconstruction
The current global slump represents an opportunity to propose a strategy of ecological and economic reconstruction, to borrow a term from the 1986 programme of the then left-wing German Greens. Transit is an ideal component of such a strategy. The investment in transit necessary to shift to a free transit system constitutes a major opportunity to promote socially and ecologically effective development (instead of bailing out banks, socializing private debt and instituting austerity regimes). Indeed, transit investment could reconstruct the public sector as the strategic linchpin linking the development of urban infrastructure to the creation of green jobs and an industrial strategy centred on retrofitting ailing manufacturing plants and developing compact, non-profit housing on land assembled by governments, land trusts or cooperatives.
Of course, such a strategy has to confront the power bloc which has historically sustained the current model of privatized and automobilized growth: developers, banks, the construction industry, auto companies, the media, municipal and provincial transportation departments, among others. This is no small challenge, particularly in urban regions like Toronto, where industrial retrofitting to build trams, buses and trains face the still considerable weight of the car industry. Ruling-class voices for a more ‘rational’ regional transit system, who have had to face the historic transit weakness of the Canadian state as well, now see transit as a way to expand the role of the private sector in transportation. In contrast, a left green economic development strategy centred on labour, communities and the public sector can build on the arguments made often by workers and environmentalists fighting against plant closures (including those promoted in the early 1990s by Toronto’s own Green Work Alliance). It can also build on proposals, recently made again in the United States, to redesign mass-produced suburbs along public and communal lines to save these ecologically destructive, socially isolating and debt-ridden districts from foreclosure and bankruptcy.
In the 20th century, the transit systems that declined least due to automobilization were those that managed to retain strong links between local, regional and national scales of public transportation and rail-based shipping. In turn, mass rail transit is weakest where national rail systems were destroyed and where metropolitan transit systems pit long-range commuter railways against local transit (most egregiously in North America). The narrow debate between streetcar/LRT and subway proponents in Toronto is a good example of how transit advocates have been forced to engage in ‘either/or’ arguments because of the state’s systematic transit hostility. In this context, free transit advocates best argue for a virtuous cycle between neighbourhood and commuter transit that strengthens transit at all scales.
Today, multi-polar urban regions feature inter-suburban and intra-suburban commuting flows that are difficult to capture with existing transit systems. Also, long-range regional transportation (the GO Transit system, for example) typically does not reduce short-distance car trips. Sometimes, it actually underwrites automobilized sprawl and undercuts transit densities where they now exist. In this context, reintegrating the remnants of Canada’s national system – the railway corridors – into a fine-grained web of local and regional transit is crucial to strengthen local and regional transit. Equally important to seriously reduce short-distance car trips are links between commuter transit and local pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. Using an approach which provides for different levels of scale and different modes of transportation, transit justice can be conceived also in geographical terms. U.S. American advocates of ‘regional equity,’ for example, insist that investment in regional transit do not crowd out transit improvements for existing transit users in central cities and older suburbs. These arguments are highly pertinent in Toronto, where the province and regional transit agency Metrolinx are pushing to absorb the only integrated transit system in the region – that of the Toronto Transit Commission – into their plans for transit in the sprawling Toronto region.
Mobility and time
Free transit strategies may negotiate between two possibly contradictory goals: (1) replacing existing car-led effects of forced immobility (which make it difficult or impossible for people to go where they want or need to) with a public and just alternative form of mass transportation; and (2) transforming how we understand mobility today. The first goal tries to supplant or complement existing private systems without necessarily questioning the goal of transportation borrowed from the modern capitalist city: to maximize the capacity to move people to meet the imperatives of production and reproduction.
The second argument follows red-green logics. It sees transit as an element in a form of urban life that minimizes the need for mobility and maximizes people’s capacities to live, work and make political decisions with or without travel. In a vision for a post-capitalist world, a combination of the first goal – ‘the right to mobility’ – with the second – the ‘right to stay put’ – may converge in a ‘right to choose democratically among different mobilities.’
Such a combination of perspectives may be needed to counter the current realities of forced immobility. To realize this goal will require not only a capacity to plan the spatial relationship between employment, community and residential space, making it possible for workers and inhabitants to get where they need or want to go without spending hours to get there. It will also require a transformation of time and a reorganization of daily working schedules.
Today, the daily grind leaves less and less breathing room not only because of the time spent on the road or in transit; daily routines are also driven by the twin tyrannies of capitalist work-time and patriarchal social reproduction (where women often have to juggle household tasks and a number of precarious jobs). Today, some work longer and longer hours (either at the job or at home) while others are structurally underemployed. In this situation, ending both forced immobility and forced mobility requires a reduction and redistribution of working time, a reorganization of the gender division of labour, and a simultaneous reduction of precarious working arrangements based on unwanted part-time, contract and temporary work. In this way, free transit and freely chosen transit mobility can be part of a vision for “slow city” that is based on much less stressful working lives and shorter but well-remunerated and fairly distributed working hours.
Compact city building
‘Transit-oriented development’ (TOD) has become the new mantra promoted by planners and urban progressives. The notion rightly insists that a shift toward more ecologically sustainable transportation needs to go hand in hand with residential intensification and the promotion of walkable, street-oriented, mixed-use built environments. To foster transit against sprawl thus means reorienting city building to produce the transit densities necessary for mass transit. In this model, ‘intensification’ and ‘development’ appear socially neutral. In effect, however, they are often code words for urban design approaches driven by privatized real-estate development. In Toronto, the North American ‘capital’ of residential high-rise development, ‘intensification’ typically means ‘condo tower’ (or ‘stacked dollar bills,’ as we could also call them).
Privatized intensification creates a contradiction: dependent on increasing land rents, intensification threatens less profitable land uses – lower-rent apartments, cheap shops, functional industrial spaces – with the likelihood of displacement or redevelopment. By pushing working-class jobs and residences to the outer suburbs or beyond, it thus recreates the very centrifugal pressures that keep transit-hostile sprawl alive. At the same time, the ‘intensification-as-condo’ development model is structurally unable to link working-class residents to their jobs in order to reduce commuting. In contrast, a socialist approach to building compact, land-saving and energy-efficient urban environments needs to return to a founding assumption that was common even among reformist planners a century ago: public land ownership and social housing are essential to develop forms of regional planning that can create compact urban forms without centrifugal side effects. Free transit can thus lead to arguments for the socialization of land and a new era of social housing.
The public sector and democratic administration
Insofar as it proposes to decommodify transportation, free transit is necessarily an argument in defense of the public sector: the private sector is unlikely to be interested in bidding for ‘free-transit partnerships.’ In the short term, however, transit companies (and, in some case also transit unions) are likely to see free transit as a threat to the financial basis of their operations (or livelihoods). Indeed, such organizational resistance may be read by some as another example of the rigidity of public sector bureaucracies, an argument that continues to be exploited with great effect to support marketization, privatization and public-private partnerships. Politically, it will thus be essential to build alliances between organized transit users, progressive transit advocates and transit workers.
As experiences in Toronto, Los Angeles and New York City have shown, building such alliances is as politically difficult as it is in other cases where public services and jobs are threatened. Still, it is easy to see how public transit workers could be among the prime beneficiaries of free transit. The transit expansion required by an effective free system would boost the number and prestige of transit workers. Eliminating the fare would free transit worker from the stressful task of policing fare collection while eliminating another source of tension between workers and riders: the resentment of having to pay ever higher fares for stagnating service. In fact, establishing a community of interest could prefigure arguments for a new, more genuinely public form of public sector, one that is co-determined by workers and the users of public services, not state managers and the ruling class. Free transit advocacy can link up to arguments for a new, democratized state.
Formally, public transit networks are among the most important public spaces in our privately dominated cities. However, socially segmented and regulated transit use has meant that public transit has always been less-than-public in practice. Indeed, public transit has become even less public over the last generation, and not only because of cutbacks and rising fares, as in Toronto. Across Euro-America, new segments of mass transit – long-range commuter networks, rapid airport links, high-speed trains – have been developed to cater to the ‘winners’ of the new capitalism. Well-known examples include the new Los Angeles subway and the even newer Delhi Metro Rail, both of which serve to link growing bubbles of middle- and upper-class residential and employment zones. Frequently, these new transit initiatives have been developed through public-private partnerships and come at the expense of the less profitable components of public transportation (local buses, crowded suburban trains used by toilers, inter-regional trains).
Also, in order to serve the professional middle class, cities have ‘cleaned up’ existing transit systems. They have pushed away panhandlers, informal street vendors, and unemployed youth with heavy security, ‘bum-proof’ equipment, surveillance cameras, automated ticket machines and driver-less trains. Sometimes justified by racist media campaigns about urban crime, these initiatives have contributed heavily to the securitization of public space. In the Toronto area, the VIVA buses in York Region, a P3 on the most profitable routes in the York Region Transit system, were promoted as shinier, more secure and comfortable alternative to the ‘shabbier’ buses that run on the secondary routes and retain the YRT label. In this case, rampant class bias against transit provided the subtext for a (slightly different) form of transit! Arguments for free transit are a refreshing counterpoint to sanitized transit. Free transit promises genuine public space – accessible, intense, and sometimes messy. Whenever one runs into impromptu banter among riders and drivers on a bus or a subway, one can see glimpses of such genuine public space.
Like urban planning generally, transportation has often been a “technique of separation” (Guy Debord). This is most systematically true for car transportation – but not only. The role of public transportation in facilitating social segregation is one reason why public transit has been unevenly public in everyday use. Global transit history is full of examples: suburban trains serving class and race-segregated residential suburbs, trolleys and trains bypassing neighbourhoods of workers and people of colour, or railtracks being used to separate social groups from each other. Today transit policing can make transit inhospitable for youth of colour and the homeless while threatening to turn transit workers into the long arm of the punitive state.
Yet, public transit has also brought people together en route, in train stations and at bus stops. In various parts of the world, transit served as an unintended communication network for organizing drives, protests and uprisings. Remember, for example, the crucial role Rosa Parks or the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters played in the history of North American anti-racist and civil rights movements.
Today, some continue to see transit as a tool for desegregation: opening up elite, White residential ghettos (‘inclusionary zoning’) or making distant employment zones accessible to transit-dependent workers in segregated neighbourhoods (‘reverse commuting’ is practiced in a marginal way on the TTC routes that reach into York region). Laudable in principle, desegregation-by-transit can also have a negative side, however. In Paris, new transit links to underserved suburbs often help plans to demolish, redesign or gentrify racialized housing estates, which have long served as bases of rebellion, solidarity and anti-racist organizing. In Toronto, the now partly resurrected Transit Cityinitiative may improve transit access in the most segregated – and racially demonized – parts of the inner suburbs. However, it may also serve to bring ‘intensification’ – potentially gentrifying development – to the arterial roads upon which it will be built. While a ‘natural’ way of reducing the segregating role of transit, free transit will be free in name only if it is used to forcibly desegregate stigmatized neighbourhoods through gentrification.
Living differently: transit and urban life
Transit-based urban futures without forced mobility requires more than shifting the political economy of transportation. To win out against the real, if contradictory pleasures of our car culture, transit has to offer an exciting way of experiencing urban life. The beast so central to capitalism as we know it, “homo automotivis” (Mugyenyi and Engler), will only die out with a renewed transit culture: being together with others in anonymity and encountering fellow inhabitants not simply through kinship and self-selected sub-cultures but through the unexpected encounters of urban living. Fostering such an exuberant – curious, open, and generous – public culture of being “in solitude without isolation” (Augé) will require that many of us relearn the capacity to live outside privatized, atomized and sanitized environments. This is not impossible.
A recent survey by the Pembina Institute reveals that most GTA residents would happily trade their cars and bungalows for walking, transit and denser living arrangements if they could afford it. After decades of worsening congestion and ‘world-class’ commuting delays, Torontonians seem to have become more intolerant of car-led sprawl and more receptive to more open and public forms of urban life. This makes it possible to think of a transit culture beyond the central city spaces where transit is already a fact of life for the majority of inhabitants. If not from personal experience, we know promising elements of living in large cities from movies, literature, and music: the syncopated rhythms of street life and mass transit, the promise of independence from domestic life, the excitement of bustling crowds, the bouts of unexpected camaraderie among strangers.
Free transit in Toronto: The right to the city?
How does a free transit campaign ‘fit’ into Toronto politics?
In the late 1960s, French Marxist Henri Lefebvre coined the term ‘right to the city.’ He did so to rethink revolutionary theory in explicitly urban terms. For him, contours of the ‘right to the city’ could be seen in the Paris Commune of 1871 and the May events in 1968. The ‘right to the city’ is thus much more than a mere legal right to particular public services (housing, recreation…) or specific physical spaces (downtown…). The term captures how revolutionary demands to the social surplus as a whole are expressed by a multiplicity of movements which transform urban life by challenging boundaries of segregation and converging in their respective mobilization (mass protests, strikes, barricades…).
In Toronto, a whiff of the right to the city could be smelled during the Days of Action in October 1996. Then, a political transit strike against the Harris government connected a variety of strike actions and helped shut down the central city for a day. A sectoral transit campaign is a more modest and focused undertaking. But if understood in its wider implications, a demand for free transit can anticipate various elements of the ‘right to the city’: a demand to the surplus produced by society (which is necessary to reorganize public finance and economic development), a new form of city building (based on use-values and democracy, not profit and private property), and genuinely public spaces (that can bring together instead of segregating people of colour and segmenting the working-class).
In today’s Toronto, a free transit campaign can be contrasted to the two dominant positions on transit, both of which are opposites of the right to the city. The first one of these is – Mayor Rob Ford’s – keeps to a long tradition of car boosters which only accept transit if it does not interfere with road traffic. His attempt to depict street-car users and cyclists as obstacles for car drivers is a typical right-wing populist attempt to build a reactionary social base. This position has the advantage of capitalizing on the anti-transit bias of the Canadian state and the marginal status transit plays in the everyday life of many Torontonians, particularly suburban and exurban residents. The second perspective sees ‘transit-centred’ development as a way to rationalize and ‘green’ capitalist Toronto; it is championed by progressivist and centrist politicians, some planners and transportation specialists, urban professionals and gentrifiers, disillusioned suburban drivers, the Toronto Board of Trade and select fractions of development capital.
Both positions emerge from the inevitable contradictions of automobilization: congestion, pollution, forced mobility, spiralling commuting times, ecologically wasteful, land-devouring and debt-ridden infrastructure. Neither of the two camps can address the sources of these contradictions, however. The former is too blinkered to realize that the best way to choke ‘free’ car traffic is the car itself. The second sees the merits of transit to accelerate the circulation of goods and people. As a result, some disagreement over transportation priorities has emerged within ruling circles in Toronto and Ontario. However, this pro-transit position does not challenge car society. It accepts the deeper conditions that reproduce auto-dependency in the region: land-rent driven and private property-oriented urban development and a hollowed out public sector which depends on such development to raise property taxes. Indeed, through Metrolinx, this position now using regional transit as a Trojan horse to absorb the TTC and privatize what is left of the state’s public transit planning capacity. Like the radical pro-car position, it is silent on the social relations of domination and exploitation that are woven into existing transportation practices.
Arguments for free transit may lead to a third, red-green, eco-socialist perspective on transportation. Right now, the argument for free transit naturally complements the efforts of other transit and transportation activists (including pedestrian and cycling advocates) who see the links between the social and ecological benefits of public transit and understand that privatized transportation (auto-based or otherwise) cannot deliver these benefits. Within existing transit-advocacy and transit union circles, the call for free transit may yet help stop an emerging consensus among neoliberals and transit progressives in Toronto for public-private partnerships.
Short-term initiatives and long-term perspectives
The advantage of a free transit campaign lies in its initial simplicity and concreteness. It may also open up perspectives for a different kind of city, one that harbours the possibility of a life beyond imperial capitalism. The links between a free transit campaign and the ‘right to the city’ lie here, in the connection between short-term and long-term strategies for social and ecological transformation. Short-term initiatives and long-term perspectives may be bridged, for example, by ecosocialist desires to counter the social and ecological ravages of capitalism with struggles for a “new civilization” (Löwy): modes of life governed by genuine democracy, global solidarity, generous conviviality, environmental responsibility, and deep egalitarianism along lines of class, race and gender.
To develop a longer-term vision will require working through dilemmas and open questions with activists and organizers, workers, riders and inhabitants. For a red-green perspective on transit to be part of a broader dynamic for the right to the city, it cannot be fleshed out in the abstract. It has to be the result of an open-ended process of dialogue and movement building.
For this purpose, we will be able to learn a great deal from others elsewhere. Among these are not only the cities and regions that are usually mentioned by those arguing for comprehensive transit reform strategies: the Curitibas, Amsterdams, Bogotàs and Stockholms of the world. It is equally important to learn from the contradictory experiences with integrated urban and economic planning in the defunct or dying state-socialist world (from East Berlin to Havana) and gather the most important lessons from informal transit practices (cycling, rickshaws) across the global South, which can supplement free transit initiatives with a minimum of infrastructure. And most importantly, it will be essential to learn from radical transit movements the world over, from transit strikers in Mumbai to bus rider unionists in Los Angeles.
Thanks to members of the GTWA transit committee as well as Karen Wirsig, Thorben Wieditz, Parastou Saberi, Kanishka Goonewardena, and Ian MacDonald for critique and insight.
Published with the author’s permission. Also published as “Free transit and beyond” in The Bullet, December 3, 2012.
1. Recently, the new Socialist government in France has decided to proceed with a 20-30 billion Euro project to build a 200 km-long ring-shaped subway with 75 stations around central Paris. Seen by some as a Keynesian supplement to austerity, the project is designed to promote the competitiveness of Paris’ suburban export clusters, facilitate private real estate development, and support ongoing efforts to deconstruct and redevelop housing estates. However, it would not be inconceivable to reorient the project into a socio-ecological direction: intensifying transit between working-class suburbs, link transit to non-profit housing on public land, and retrofit the Paris-region car plants which are awaiting shutdowns.
2. Recent examples include: Scarborough Transit Action, Rexdale Youth TTC Challenge, TTC Riders, Sistering’s Fair Fare Coalition, Clean Train Coalition, and DAMN 2025.
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