The growing movement for free public transit

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Image: Vanstrat/Wikimedia

Cole Rockarts is a labour and community organizer, and a member of Free Transit Edmonton. Scott Neigh interviews them about the importance of public transit and about the growing effort to make it public, accessible, high quality and free.

It wasn't too long ago, at least in the Canadian context, that the idea of free public transit did not get treated at all seriously -- despite the fact that there were plenty of cities around the world that already offered fare-free transit, and many more that offered some subset of their services for free. Then, a few people in a few places started to organize around it. There was still a broad mainstream commonsense that it was impractical, but it became clearer at least to more radical transit advocates that there was a serious case to be made for getting rid of fares, and that it had the potential to resonate quite broadly among transit riders.

The free transit agenda also got a boost from shifts in broader politics within the climate movement. In recent years, more and more climate organizing has been demanding not only a transition away from fossil fuels but a just transition -- one that recognizes that it is impossible to address the ways our current system harms the climate without also addressing the many ways that it harms people. In Canada, these politics gained broad visibility under the banner of the Leap Manifesto, and more recently have been central to calls for a Green New Deal and for a Just Recovery from the pandemic.

The demand for free, accessible, high quality public transit fits perfectly into a just transition agenda. It would reduce fossil fuel emissions, because a system that is better and cheaper for riders leads to increased ridership and gets cars off the road. It would create good jobs, because more buses and trains means more transit operators. It would end the need for fare enforcement, which like many other policing measures tends to lead to the oversurveillance and taregeting of particularly Black, Indigenous and other marginalized people. And according to the group at the centre of today's episode, research has shown that a higher quality and more accessible system results in transit riders having "greater access to employment, increased social inclusion, improved education levels, quality of life, and improved health."

About two years ago, some of the members of Climate Justice Edmonton decided that a campaign for free transit in the city would be a great, concrete way to put climate justice politics into action on the ground. They started having meetings and creating the necessary infrastructure for Free Transit Edmonton. They got the support of the union that represents transit operators in the city. They did a few initial, low-investment public actions, like challenging members of city council to ride the bus for a week. (While most declined, it gave the group an opportunity to engage with council about transit and also drew some positive media coverage.)

Once they had laid the groundwork, they started doing more grassroots public outreach. And then, unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Their original plan was to do a series of townhall meetings in different neighbourhoods in Edmonton, to have lots of public conversations that would both result in a broader vision for what free transit might look like and also draw people into the organizing. They planned to combine that with lots of door-knocking and street-level canvassing. Of course none of that has been possible during the pandemic.

They have done a few other things instead, most notably putting a lot of energy into social media work. As a public-health measure, Edmonton made its transit system free from the end of March to the middle of June. While temporary, this proved that it can be done, if the political will is there. So Free Transit Edmonton has been running a social media campaign called Fare Free Forever, with lots of memes and infographics, and lots of personal narratives from Edmonton transit tiders. They have also developed a downloadable Fare Free Forever toolkit for people wanting to set up a similar campaign in their own city.

Though it remains uncertain how the public health circumstances will evolve over the coming months, and they are still figuring out the details of how this will work, more recently the members of the group have been looking to transition back towards more in-person organizing and building their base among riders.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out their website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join their weekly email update list. Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer and activist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Vanstrat/Wikimedia

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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