Who is the “Public” in Public Transportation?

Ana Hernández Aug 28, 2019

One hot Saturday morning earlier this month I waited, with a few dozen others, on a New York City subway platform for the southbound 6 train. Two police officers, one man and one woman, strode in and confronted a young black woman standing a few yards away.

“Excuse me, do you mind telling me why you ducked under the turnstile?” the male officer demanded. The woman responded quietly that she didn’t have the fare. “Then why did you go under the turnstile?” he asked again. She also repeated herself.

Louder, he demanded, “You know that’s a crime?” She mumbled something noncommittal to acknowledge she heard because, after all, what was there to say? Interspersing statements with his questions, questions for which he no longer sought responses, he barked, “You could get a ticket for that, the fine is $100. Did you know that? I could write you a ticket right now!” 

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I don’t have the money. I told you, I don’t have the money for the fare.”

The officers maneuvered her to a bench against the station wall where she sat, as they towered over her and crowded her in. 

The female cop let the male offer do most of the talking. He continued to assail her. “Let me see your ID.”

“I don’t have an ID.”

“Why aren’t you showing me your ID? Why aren’t you looking for it in your bag?”

“Why would I look for something I don’t have?”

“I asked you for your ID, you should look for it. Why are you being disrespectful? You are being disrespectful, you are disrespecting a police officer!”

“I’m not, I haven’t done anything.”

“You are being disrespectful! I’m talking to you! Why are you being disrespectful?”

I heard one more protest from the young woman, then nothing. 

“Do you want to step outside with us?” the male cop asked. 

“Yes,” she said.

As they shepherded her out, the male officer turned to me. “Have a good day, ma’am,” he said. 

Our public transportation systems are transactional and commodified in nature.

Later that day, headed back north on the same train line, I was at one of those stations with two entrances across the street from each other, in which you choose which side to enter depending on which direction you want to travel. I needed to replenish my fare card, but the three machines where I entered were not accepting credit cards or bills, only coins. I ran back up the stairs, across the street, and down into the other side of the station, but the three machines there had the same message blinking across the displays. 

This side, however, had an attendant in a glass-encased booth. “Where can I get change?” I asked, brusquely. 

“Are you riding this train?” he asked, in return. 

“Yes!” I snapped, veering into rude as I thought to myself, Why else would I be asking? 

“Go through the service entrance behind you,” he said. 

Thinking only of the train I was about to miss — the subway’s busiest stations easily top 100 degrees in the summer and the trains were running just infrequently enough to drench you in sweat during the wait— I was halfway to the entrance before calling out over my shoulder, “I’m going in the other direction!” 

“Go left then right, and through the underpass!” he yelled out from behind glass. 

As I trotted through the service door, I understood, shamefaced, that he not only provided me a free ride but also excellent customer service, and I hadn’t thanked him. 

The young woman from that morning and I both needed the same thing — access to affordable public transportation.

Our public transportation systems, however, are transactional and commodified in nature. They exist largely to address the problems, namely, congestion and pollution, caused by large numbers of people moving around in small geographies. Service is available only for a fee. This is why the systems are built on limiting access to those who can pay, and inability to do so is framed as a problem of the straphanger’s. 

Campaigns such as Safety Beyond Policing point out the absurdities of policies, such as spending millions of dollars for the NYPD to enforce fare evasion laws, funds which could instead provide free public transportation to tens of thousands of low-income residents. Enforcement is known to target people of color, which is why many municipalities have decided to stop. Still, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo continue to invest in more law enforcement to crack down on fare evasion.

What if, instead, public transportation was framed as a means to provide for the right of all people to move around freely, specifically, so that people with modest or low incomes have as much freedom of movement as do those who are rich? The ability to move around freely is a key contributor to the ability to leave poverty, largely because freedom of mobility permits people to search for, find, and retain greater education and work opportunities. A public transportation system based on rights, that provides a viable choice for people to travel when and to and from all the places they want or choose — appointments, work, friends’ homes, schools, grocery stores, and so on — is integral to broader regional and national commitments to people’s rights and freedoms. 

Few, if any, argue that such a transition is easy or cheap. And yet, smaller municipalities in the United States and abroad, including Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, have created sustainable free public transportation systems. Moreover, many ideas exist on how to find the money for these free systems. These include redirecting funds from state and municipal budget items such as roadways and fare policing to increasing taxes on the wealthy and earmarking the revenues to congestion pricing. Complementary strategies to make public transportation more affordable for everybody eliminate means tests, which, paradoxically, require pre-existing employment or some other form of income to be eligible for subsidies.

Our current rationales and policies fortify the underlying belief that not everyone “belongs” on public transportation. In New York City, a common argument for fare enforcement is evasion is not “fair” to users who are able to pay because, apparently, justice for those with means is more important than justice for those without. 

In Chicago, one local professor objected to free public transportation on the basis it might create a “tragedy of the commons,” where individuals acting in immediate self-interest destroy the system, essentially acting against their own and others’ long-term interests. 

“[R]iders would be more likely to abuse the system, amplifying passenger concerns about safety and cleanliness,” DePaul University professor Joe Schwieterman told, as though Chicago’s extant problems with traffic are not already a tragedy, albeit more so for its poorer residents. 

Earlier this year in Atlanta, voters took to the polls, weighing a proposal to expand the city’s public transportation system into nearby Gwinnett County. Bianca Keaton, chair of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party, reportedly sent pro-public transportation text messages to numbers listed for identified Democrats and received a range of responses in opposition, including one that read, “I will vote yes if the trains can be segregated by race. Like when America was great.” Voters rejected the proposal.

The question is less, if at all, whether or not we can afford free public transportation, but why we choose not to do so.

In the meantime, transportation activists across the country continue to develop diverse, creative means to resist the existing fee-for-service systems. #SwipeItForward in New York City encourages riders leaving the subway to swipe their fare cards to provide a free fare to anyone entering (In New York City, it is legal to gift a fare.) Activists also regularly conduct a form of copwatch by sharing evidence of fare enforcement at specific stations via Twitter. Meanwhile, in Sweden, activists created, a membership-based solidarity fund to cover fines levied on any member for fare evasion. The membership fee is considerably less than the cost of a monthly public transportation pass.

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