Public Panel Discussion: Free Public Transport / Zero Fare – New Alliances Possible?

Manuela Kropp

Event Report

Friday, 1 December 2023 from 5 pm to 6.30 pm (Brussels, Berlin, Amsterdam)

Speakers: Daniel Santini (Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Sao Paulo, Brazil), Cristiane Costa Goncalves (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, engineer, Brazil), Conor Farrell (Urban Public Transport, European Transport Workers’ Federation), Judith Dellheim (Berliner Energietisch, Germany), Rika Müller-Vahl (#wirfahrenzusammen, Germany)

Facilitation: Manuela Kropp (Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels)

In Germany, the #wirfahrenzusammen alliance was formed a few months ago between Fridays for Future and the trade union ver.di to take to the streets together for better working conditions, better pay and an expansion of public transport. In many German cities, there are already action groups collecting signatures and establishing contacts between public transport workers and climate activists. In Brazil, more than 80 cities already have free public transport, but at the same time it is on the verge of collapse in many other regions – this raises the question of alternative financing and the pressing question of mobility poverty.

The European Transport Workers’ Federation is calling for the expansion of public transport throughout Europe, protection against violence for employees and better working conditions and wages. At the same time, it is becoming apparent that the European member states are not making sufficient use of the money available from the European coronavirus aid fund to expand rail and public transport. And last but not least, there is the question of “forced mobility”: more and more people are having to move away from city centres because they can no longer afford the rents, making them dependent on cars or having to cope with poor public transport services. Many people in Europe and Brazil therefore suffer from mobility poverty.

Daniel Santini from the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Brazil explained in his contribution that zero-fare public transport (tarifa zero) is actually very popular in Brazil and is already being implemented in 87 Brazilian cities (mainly medium-sized and smaller cities). An important reference is the city of Maricá (in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro), which is relatively large with 197,000 inhabitants and has benefited from zero-fare public transport for many years. In 2022, 26 million people in Maricá were transported free of charge on the famous red buses. Now larger cities are also increasingly interested in zero-fare public transport, for example Sao Paulo with 11.4 million inhabitants, which is governed by a conservative mayor. The conservative mayor Ricardo Nunes is considering the introduction of free public transport, as he has discovered this issue as a campaign topic and hopes to score points in the next local elections. His opponent, Guilherme Boulos from the left-wing PSOL party, is well anchored in the movement for the “right to housing” and “free public transport”, so the conservative mayor Nunes feels compelled to put this issue on the agenda.

This is because the left-wing candidate Boulos has been ahead in the polls so far. Daniel Santini also described how drastically the number of passengers travelling on public transport has fallen – in those cities that do not apply zero fares. In Sao Paulo, for example, 3 billion passengers were transported on the bus system in 2013 – almost ten years later (2022), this figure has fallen to just 2 billion passengers. At the same time, the number of registered cars is increasing: in 2013 there were 45 million (two cars per ten inhabitants), in 2023 there will be 61 million cars (five cars per ten inhabitants). The reasons for the increase in motorised private transport and the decrease in public transport passenger numbers lie in the increasingly poor quality of public transport. It is like a vicious circle: as passenger numbers fall, ticket revenues fall, so fares are increased and routes are cut, which in turn leads to a further fall in passenger numbers. Yet mobility is a human right and its realisation is a prerequisite for exercising other basic rights.

The question of how the zero fare is implemented is often presented as a “technical issue” – however, this is not a technical issue, but a political one, i.e. a political decision. Some cities, for example, would provide two to three per cent of their budget for the full financing of public transport or have also brought the system in public ownership and could thus save costs. Of course, the externalised costs of motorised private transport would have to be included in the overall calculation: car-based mobility generates pollution, traffic fatalities and congestion – a situation from which both car users and public transport users suffer. A lot could be gained from zero-fare public transport: social inequality would be reduced, the local economy would be boosted and climate protection would be promoted. Daniel Santini concluded by describing how the demand for zero fares for public transport could also be an opportunity to forge new alliances between labour, the environmental movement and wider civil society – in the spirit of a new social policy that combats poverty and racism.

Cristiane Costa Goncalves, who is a transport planner in the city of Mariana (Minas Gerais, Brazil) and is implementing the zero-fare public transport programme there, explained the successes and challenges. Since 2022, zero fare transport has been implemented in the city of Mariana with 33,000 vehicles for a population of around 60,000, i.e. there is one vehicle for every two inhabitants – the programme has been so well received that 400,000 passengers can be transported per month. Since the introduction of free public transport, demand has tripled – the city council has increased the number of lines, expanded existing lines and modernised the vehicle fleet.

Passenger numbers have risen so sharply because those neighbourhoods and districts in particular have been connected to public transport that were previously not served at all and were literally “left behind”. With the introduction of the zero fare, the city administration now also has access to the relevant data from providers and can assess where the service is particularly well received. Before the introduction of the zero fare, citizens were involved in order to find out exactly what their needs are and where improvements need to be introduced. As part of the implementation process, the city council combined passenger volume data with socio-economic data and found that passenger numbers increased particularly sharply in areas where people are most affected by poverty and dependent on social benefit payments.

A survey was conducted among 3,000 citizens with some very satisfactory results: 92 per cent of respondents are satisfied with public transport at zero fare, 56 per cent have no other option than public transport to ensure their mobility and 31 per cent have other options but still want to use public transport because it is offered at zero fare. This shows that the switch from motorised private transport to public transport is actually taking place, namely through the introduction of free public transport. This effect was particularly strong on bus routes that had previously attracted negative attention due to very high fares. However, it must also be said that 60 per cent of respondents criticise the overcrowded vehicles, 40 per cent believe that improvements need to be made in terms of comfort and 20 per cent believe the same about safety.

In the relationship between the city government and providers, the zero fare has the advantage that the data is now open and the providers are no longer in a position to simply stop operating a line because it is not “profitable” enough. However, zero fares are also not enough to ensure that everyone can realise their right to mobility. One problem, for example, is the method used to calculate the costs of public transport – unfortunately, it is still based on the IPK (Índice de Passageiros por Kilometro) system, i.e. the “passengers per kilometre index”. This index unfortunately leads to the disadvantageous incentive for providers to overfill their vehicles with as many passengers as possible in order to generate higher costs, which they can then claim. This system should be abolished, as it makes public transport less attractive and convenient. There is also a lack of qualified staff who can implement public transport at zero cost in the municipality. And last but not least, public transport services simply need to be expanded in order to keep pace with rising demand, concluded Cristiane Costa Goncalves.

Conor Farrell, policy officer for urban public transport at the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF), emphasised right at the start that the challenges facing public transport workers are similar around the world – whether in Europe, Latin America or India, for example. One of the main problems is the privatisation of metro lines, which is taking place with the help of public-private partnerships. This makes international solidarity between employees all the more important, as expressed here on this panel between Europe and Brazil. The impressive data that Cristiane Costa Goncalves has just explained show that a switch to public transport is definitely possible – as is also reflected in the discussion about the Deutschlandticket (EUR 49 per month for public transport throughout Germany).

The European Transport Workers’ Federation represents one million public transport workers and more than five million transport workers from 38 European countries. At the event organised by ETF last week in Brussels, the current challenges facing public transport were discussed: firstly, the glaring shortage of skilled workers, which is evident in all European countries – from a lack of tram drivers to metro drivers. Many employees will retire by 2030 and the question arises as to how these jobs can be filled. The expansion of public transport with a higher frequency can only succeed if the necessary skilled workers are available. In addition, since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has even been a shortage of skilled workers for existing lines and the existing frequency. Working conditions must therefore be improved, a good salary paid and a satisfactory work-life balance ensured in order to attract enough employees to public transport. The second challenge is the ecological transition (green transition), which is part of the European Green Deal.

The European Commission has set the target that 100 per cent of all newly purchased buses must be zero-emission vehicles by 2030. For 2021, this rate is currently only 15 per cent. Considerable investment is therefore required here. The modal shift from motorised private transport to public transport therefore requires public transport to be affordable, accessible, reliable and provided at frequent intervals. This also requires considerable investment – however, the trade unions are concerned that wages could be cut if public transport is introduced at zero fare, as funding could otherwise not be secured. It is therefore urgently necessary to also discuss the issue of funding. World Sustainable Transport Day was celebrated on 24 November 2023, when an alliance of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), C40, Greenpeace and other NGOs reaffirmed their demands for well-developed public transport in public ownership.

Judith Dellheim from the civil society alliance Berliner Energietisch emphasised in her contribution that a life in dignity is only possible if the right to socially and ecologically sustainable mobility is realised. In many regions of the world, free public transport is already being implemented, for example for poor people or children. This shows that it is possible to introduce zero fares. However, public transport is subsidised everywhere, as the income from ticket sales only ever covers part of the costs.

The example of Brazil shows that it is possible to forge broad and stable alliances in favour of zero-fare public transport. One prerequisite for this is that trade unions, social movements and left-wing parties work together. The example of from Sweden (founded in 2001) shows how such an alliance can even become a kind of “think tank” for zero fares, urban planning and climate protection issues. Together with organisations for the interests of refugees, provides public transport tickets for immigrants and also takes on the payment of fines from ticket inspections. The process of introducing zero fares is also crucial: the examples of Tallinn (Estonia), Dunkirk (France) and some smaller municipalities in the Czech Republic and Slovakia show that zero fares often begin with the expansion of the group of people entitled to them: first for people with disabilities, then young people, pensioners, etc.

Almost all known examples also show that car drivers are only willing to switch to public transport if taxes and parking fees are correspondingly high and public transport also saves time. With regard to the fight against mobility poverty, Judith Dellheim emphasised that this issue can of course also be addressed by the political Far Right: for example, if zero fares are only introduced in urban centres where only wealthy people live, or if zero fares only apply to people who have the right passport and this is then accompanied by racial profiling (see the example of Riga). In view of the upcoming elections to the European Parliament, it is clear that the European pillar of social rights must be strengthened in order to achieve the right to mobility for all.

It must be clear that the European Structural Funds (ERDF and Cohesion Fund) are used for the expansion of public transport and that climate-damaging subsidies are cancelled in order to free up funding for public transport. Legislators at European level must present a comprehensive programme for the expansion of well-funded public transport that is accessible to all – and this programme should then also be put up for discussion in a Europe-wide debate.

Rika Müller-Vahl, coordinator of the civil society alliance #wirfahrenzusammen (Fridays for Future and the trade union ver.di), emphasised that hundreds of activists in Germany are active in over 60 cities to collect signatures for the expansion of public transport. 80,000 employees work in public transport in Germany and their alliance aims to support them in their fight for better working conditions and decent wages.

The aim is to create a broad social basis for this fight. Public transport in Germany has been underfunded for years – so the joint demands of the climate activists from Fridays for Future and the trade union ver.di are to invest more in public transport and ensure good working conditions. The climate movement needs the so-called “labour turn” as a long-term perspective – i.e. the concerns of employees must be reflected in the demands of the climate movement. Of course, it is not always easy to create these alliances and, for example, to address bus drivers as climate activists.

It is important to build mutual trust here. After all, a sceptical attitude towards the climate movement has also increased in recent months – and the example of the heating law in Germany has turned many people against climate protection, as it places a greater financial burden on them. The problem here is that climate protection policy is associated with the fear of social decline. This makes it all the more important to collect signatures for public transport employees – 35,000 signatures were collected in Germany today alone. However, it is not just about the number of signatures, but about the mobilisation effect that this alliance has for climate protection and well-developed public transport.

Manuela Kropp is project manager at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussel.