Cooking the Books: Fareless Transport

Under the headline ‘German cities to trial free public transport to cut pollution,’ the Guardian (14 February) reported on a letter from German ministers to the EU Environment Commissioner. Their idea was to encourage people to use public transport rather than carbon-burning individual cars (and avoid Germany being fined for not meeting EU antipollution targets).

Free transport will be a feature of socialist society as part of general production to directly meet people’s needs. So, there would not just be free transport, but also free health care, education, communications, restaurants and laundries. There would be no charge to enter museums, parks, libraries, theatres and other places of entertainment and recreation. Houses and flats would be rent-free, with heating, lighting, water, telephone and broadband supplied free of charge.

Free public transport on its own within capitalism is a different matter as under capitalism everything has to be paid for. As the system’s defenders put it, there is no such thing as a free lunch. In the case of public transport, the body operating it has to spend money to provide the service, on buying and maintaining the buses, trams or trains, on maintaining the tracks, on fuel and electricity and general running costs, as well as on the wages and salaries of its employees. If there is no money coming in from fares, somebody has to provide the money to pay for all this. The transport authority has to be subsidised, from central or local government which will have raised the money from taxes and borrowing.

One capitalist justification for such a subsidy is that it would save money that would otherwise have to be spent on something else. The Guardian mentions that, according to the EU, ‘life-threatening pollution’ affects 130 cities in Europe ‘costing €20bn euros (US$24.7bn) in health spending per year in the bloc.’ Another reason might be to avoid employers in city centres having to pay higher wages because of the high cost of workers getting to work; in effect, a subsidy to these employers.

Free transport has in fact been introduced in some cities, and has worked to refute the silly objection that opponents of socialism have predicted will happen when anything is made freely available.

When in 1970 the GLC was considering whether or not to introduce free transport in London one Conservative councillor predicted that everybody would rush to take free rides and a contributor to the Local Government Chronicle (15 August) opined: ‘individual charges are a form of “rationing by the purse”, but they are rationing. If there were no individual payments and thus no rationing, buses and trains and so on would surely get even more overcrowded than they are today; powerful and unscrupulous would-be passengers would get places in the vehicles, but what about old people, children, and the disabled? They need transport most of all, but they would be likely sufferers in a free-for-all.’

This has not happened in the places where free transport has been introduced. In a follow-up article on the German proposal, the news website, the Huffington Post (22 February) reported on two cities which already have unlimited public transport free at the point of access・. In Tubingen, in Germany, where residents pay a tax of €15 (about £13) a month towards the cost. In Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, there is also fareless public transport. In neither case has free transport led to a free-for-all as the physically strong push aside pensioners to grab a seat, nor to people ‘joy riding’ or ‘free loading’ just because it’s free. People only use the free transport to get from A to B when they need to for one reason or another. As they can be expected to do in socialism too.

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