Public transit lies at the intersection of several critical social struggles today. Affordable (or free) public transit is an important mechanism for redistribution, and particularly targets low income women and people of colour. A central component of public policies to address climate change must be mass expenditures on public transit to reduce reliance on private cars and fossil fuels. Mass transit also enables an increase in the density and livability of cities. And public transit that is free and available as a social right is a core demand to decommodify everyday life in opposition to endless consumerism. Transit justice is, then, a crucial aspect of social justice today, and should be a fundamental part of the political programme of progressives and socialists. The struggle for the extension of free and accessible public transit rubs directly against neoliberal policies, and raises the vision of alternate production and provision essential to anti-capitalist politics.
As a challenge to how capitalism and neoliberal policies organize urban life, free public transit advocacy raises essential questions. 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? 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, sexuality or ableism?
It is impossible not to observe the disaster that is public transit provision in Toronto and Canada. Preference has always been given over to the car and roads against mass transit. Canada completely – and uniquely – lacks a national public transit strategy: the federal government throwing money at ad hoc projects, when it does anything at all. The provincial and municipal governments over the last three decades of neoliberalism have failed to invest systematically in public transit and gutted the planning capacities of transportation agencies. The skills to build and maintain leading edge technologies are absent, been lost or radically deteriorated. The resort to public-private partnerships to building new projects have been plagued by massive cost over-runs, incredibly (even stupidly) long building horizons, and squandering of public controls. In the anti-tax mantra that has been adopted by all the political parties, long-term funding is absent (even when mass unemployment and low interest rates).
This context is, of course, what led to the scrapping of long-standing plans for public transit expansion in Toronto to the Mayor David Miller ‘Transit City’ plans to get whatever was possible. This was yet another example of social democratic reformers coming around to neoliberal urbanism. Toronto (to use that example) has been bogged down in an often infantile debate about LRTs versus subways, simply ignoring the need for building decentralized transit hubs where multi-transit modes could converge; completion of a minimal integrated subway network; and consolidating development plans for densification.
The pamphlet published here, as part of the Socialist Interventions series, gathers together a number of essays on the struggle for public transit. It emerges especially out of the urban context of Toronto, and the Free and Accessible Transit Campaign of the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly (GTWA). But the essays speak also to the wider crisis of public transit in North America, and the importance of this demand to an eco-socialist vision of feasible futures.
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