THE CfFPT DEBATES THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC TRANSPORT IN BRITAIN!
Roy Wilkes starts off the debate with his article:
Free Public Transport - an idea whose time has come
There's one pledge that none of the establishment parties were prepared to make during the recent election campaign: to take public transport back into public ownership and run it as a genuine public service, free at the point of use. Indeed, the very notion seems so far off the political radar as to appear totally unrealistic.
So why then are transport activists up and down the country planning to launch a national campaign for free public transport this Autumn? Dai Davies, former MP for Blaenau Gwent, argues that such radical action is needed if we are to "face up to the staggering challenges we face from climate change." (1)
It is true that transport contributes 27% of carbon emissions in the UK, with most of that coming from cars. But perhaps electric cars offer a way forward? Establishment politicians, who cannot envisage a world without cars, certainly see things that way. During the election campaign, Gordon Brown promised to subsidise electric cars to the tune of £5000 each and to introduce 100 000 charging points by 2015. This, he argued, would lead to half a million electric cars on our roads by 2020. (2)
Are Electric Cars the Answer?
But are electric cars really the answer? They wouldn't solve the chronic and worsening problem of road congestion, that's for sure. Nor would they do much to reduce the 3000 or so road deaths per year, or to alleviate the serious social alienation which arises from an urban environment almost entirely dominated by and geared towards the needs of the private car.
Furthermore, to produce electric car batteries in anything like the numbers needed would create serious problems of pollution and resource depletion. As William Tahill, research director at Meridian International explains: "Analysis shows that a world dependent on lithium for its vehicles would soon face even tighter resource constraints than we face today with oil." (3)
Fortunately, there is a much simpler solution to this problem. We just need to replace the entire energy-inefficient and socially and ecologically destructive system of mass car production with a rationally planned and fully integrated system of mass public transit. With such a system, it should be possible for anyone to travel at least as quickly as they can now on our crumbling and congested roads; journeys would be far more comfortable and less stressful, and of course far less ecologically destructive.
How do we move to where we want to be?
But how do we move from where we are now to where we want to be? The private automobile dominates the social and economic environment so completely that it will take a truly radical alternative to displace it. A zero fare policy is necessary not only to give drivers the biggest possible incentive to abandon their cars, but more importantly to encourage people to see public transport in a different way, as a genuine public service rather than as a commodity for sale.
It is of course a pre-requisite of such a policy that public transport must first be brought back into public ownership. Indeed, it is only by abandoning deregulation and privatization (in other words the anarchy of the market) that we can begin to rationally plan, integrate and expand public transport to the levels needed.
And once we have removed the need for private cars (and lets face it, most of us do currently depend on our cars because public transport is so inefficient and expensive,) then it will be only a small step further to create car free zones, which could be progressively expanded until the problem of the private car has withered away altogether.
How realistic is free public transport?
But how realistic is this policy? In the early 1990s Hasselt in Belgium was one of the most congested cities in Europe. Instead of opting for congestion charging, which is the solution preferred by New Labour, the Hasselt city council (which already owned the bus network) introduced an entirely zero fare bus policy in 1996. Bus passenger numbers have since increased by over 1300% (4); road congestion has almost completely disappeared; and space has thereby been created for an expansion of cycleways and pedestrianisation. What Hasselt achieved on a small scale would be even more effective if replicated across an entire country (or indeed continent.)
No one expects to achieve free public transport overnight. And in the post-election cutting frenzy we will face an uphill struggle even to defend the free bus pass for the over-60s. But if we are going to find long term solutions to the ecological and economic crises of capital, then we need to start now to sow the ideological seeds of a post-neoliberal future. And this popular and easily understood proposal to de-commodify our transport system is as good a starting point as any.
The inaugural national conference of the Campaign for Free Public Transport will take place at the Britannia Hotel, New Street, Birmingham on Saturday 16th October 2010. If you would like to add your name to the list of conference sponsors, or if you wish to be kept informed of developments in this campaign, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Guardian, 26 April 2010
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