December 2012, Week 1


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Free Transit and Beyond 

by Stefan Kipfer

The Bullet

Socialist Project * E-Bulletin No. 738 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.

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

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

Starting Points

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

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

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.

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