Free Transit and Beyond

Published on The Bullet, Socialist Project’s E-Bulletin No. 738, by Stefan Kipfer, December 3, 2012.

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 … //

… 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.

Starting Points: … //

… 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.[2] 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: … //

… (full long text, Notes, Sources).

Links:

UBS near a deal over Libor rigging, on RT, Dec. 3, 2012;

The growing power of corporations
?, on real sociology blog, Dec. 2, 2012;

A Very Brief History of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
, on real sociology blog, Dec. 1, 2012.

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