Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Could Free Public Transport Inspire Sustainable Travel?

All around the world cities are struggling with traffic congestion, and with the associated delays, carbon emissions and air pollution. Behind every traffic jam are thousands of personal decisions about how people are going to travel. The more people choose public transport, the fewer traffic jams and the less pollution there will be. But how do you get people to give up their cars?
A growing number of cities are turning to what looks like an obvious solution: make public transport free. It would entice people onto buses and trams, and it has the added benefit of democratizing public transport and making sure that nobody is excluded. Germany announced a trial run in several cities earlier this year, but dozens of places already have free transport in one form or another. Here's a small selection:
  • Talinn is the one of the best known. The Estonian capital offers free public transport to local residents, paid for in part by the high number of paying visitors and tourists.
  • Geneva does it the other way round, and offers tourists a free public transport card for the length of their stay. This encourages visitors to leave their cars behind.
  • Melbourne has free tram transport in the city centre, a deliberate effort to discourage people from driving into the city. Kuala Lumpur also discourages driving in its downtown business district by laying on free wifi-enabled LPG powered buses.
  • Singapore made bus travel on key commuter routes free before peak time. This encouraged more people to go to work earlier, and reduced pressure on the transport network during the rush hour.
  • As my parents regularly remind me, over 60s get free bus travel in Britain. London offers free bus travel to children and teenagers.
Of course, there's no such thing as 'free' public transport. It's just not paid for through the traditional method of charging riders for a ticket. Most of these free schemes are subsidised by local government, and because of that they're quite precarious. Britain has had several examples of free bus services that have fallen foul of budget cuts and introduced fares - here's one in Huddersfield that used to serve students. Should we be relying on governments, national or local, to be paying for transport?
Before we jump too quickly to say no, it's worth remembering that car drivers don't pay the full cost of their transport choices either. The costs of congestion, pollution, accidents and climate change are all externalised. Governments often pay for roads and maintenance, parking and policing. Everybody's getting a subsidy one way or another. Why not price in more of the full cost of driving, and use it to encourage public transport?
Government doesn't have to be the only way to pay for it either. Hybrid funding models can draw on sponsorship and advertising. Business districts or universities might want to pay for transport that serves their areas. And funds can be tied directly to cars: Baltimore's 'Charm City Circulator' was designed as a low-emissions free bus service paid for by higher parking charges. In Hasselt, Belgium, plans for a bypass were scrapped and the money spent on making buses free instead. They ran free for 16 years before rising costs brought fares back in.
Does it work? Evidence is mixed. Talinn found that the people most likely to use the free bus were not car drivers but pedestrians. The number of bus riders rose, the number of walkers fell - but 10% of drivers did switch to the bus, which made enough of a difference for the scheme to be judged a success. In fact, Estonia is planning to follow Talinn's lead and make a nationwide free transport network. In other places, bus travel soared and there's no question that it worked. But since there are many models for funding and operating free travel, and many different goals - from reduced rush hour traffic to social inclusion to air pollution - there's no one way to assess success.
Since there are so many overlapping social and environmental benefits of free public transport though, I expect we will hear more about it in future.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Law: The Invisible Architecture of the Commons

In 2009, political economist Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in economics for her work demonstrating that "the commons" are not simply unregulated spaces of ruin, but instead places where the law operates invisibly, according to community norms and values in ways that lead to their sustainable use over many generations. What Ostrom's work revealed is that the "invisibility" of law and legal governance in the commons was the result of a bias in favor of private property as the optimal form of governance of scarce resources.
While Ostrom's work revealed that legal relations governing resources invisibly structure the commons, what those legal relations in fact reveal is our social and economic relations about resources: Who makes what? How much of what? And who gets what? 
In the commons, the answers to these questions are embedded in a social logic according to community norms and values. In market societies, the source of these answers are to be found in the non-social economic logic of capitalism. The catalyst for this non-social economic logic, according to social theorists like Karl Polanyi and others, was the separation of people from their means of subsistence through the enclosure of the commons: throwing people off their land, separating them from the basics of life — food, water, and shelter — and charging rent for access. In the feudal commons, access to the means of subsistence was guaranteed by one's inclusion and social status in a community and territory. In the transition to market economies, one's subsistence became a matter of one's ability to pay rent and/or labor for a wage. This new system unleashed a logic of competition for productive land and work, the accumulation of capital to reinvest into labor and time saving technologies, and the expansion of instrumental relations and commodification into every space and sphere of life. 
As Polanyi said: "Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system." Or to put it simply, instead of profit serving the needs of people, people came to serve the needs of profit. Polanyi's optimistic outlook was that through property, welfare and finance regulation — through law — the market could be embedded once again to serve human and social purposes. 
So, from this perspective, law is a tool for lawyers, judges, legislators, and most importantly citizens, to wield against the market, to combat the inequities that it produces in its unfettered wake-both top down and bottom up. And law can be utilized beyond property, welfare, and finance law to other domains. Law can be used towards decommodifying our means of subsistence by guaranteeing access to fundamental resources that are crucial to human life, both top down, by naming things like healthcare, education, and housing (just to name a few) as a right, to which access should be guaranteed, but also from the bottom up, by changing the structure of property and contract entitlements, for instance to allow for simultaneous use of shared resources, and curb unrestricted transfer rights. Law can also be used to reorganize work away from wage labor and towards workers' ownership, by enacting through legislation the recognition of new legal entities like the Cooperative Corporation or the B Corporation that place non-market values at their center, or bottom up through the creation of workers cooperatives (a rapidly growing movement throughout the world). Law can also be used to alter the structure of intellectual property rights in ways that encourage sharing, collaboration, and innovation, top down by policymakers refusing to create certain kinds of property rights in these resources, but also bottom up through legal innovation and resistance through individuals adopting the Creative Commons license or "copyleft" policy over other proprietary forms of copyright. 
In this new series on Shareable, "Law: The invisible architecture of the commons," we will showcase new and emerging legal institutions that offer an alternative system of incentives for encouraging cooperation, sharing, and sustainability. These legal institutions demonstrate how citizens, working together with lawyers and policymakers, can successfully design legal institutions for themselves to decommodify our access to fundamental resources, alter the wage labor relationship through new types of legal entities, and create new ways of stimulating ownership, innovation, and collaboration around knowledge goods.
Header image by Loren Gu via Unsplash