By Katt McCann
This article was originally published in the September issue of Socialism Today! Subscribe here.
In June of this year, gas prices went up to an average of nearly five dollars a gallon for residents of major cities nationwide, causing many workers to abandon their cars and look towards their local public transit. However, the crumbling public transit infrastructure in the United States means there is little alternative to high gas prices and overcrowded roads.
Fares for public transit continue to rise while the quality of travel erodes, with the capitalists putting the cost of repairs and maintenance on the shoulders of working-class commuters. When public transportation fares are raised, ridership decreases as working-class people are pushed towards trying to find other ways to travel. This decrease in ridership is then used to justify further fare increases or cuts in service to make up lost revenue, resulting in the defunding of public transportation to the detriment of working people as a whole. While both capitalist parties will bend over backward to find ways to cut taxes on the rich and fund expensive wars abroad, public transport usually joins healthcare and education as things that are purposefully underfunded or privatized to make profits at the expense of working people.
During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, some cities, such as Detroit, MI, Lawrence, MA, and Worcester, MA, were forced to enact fare-free programs. Unionized bus drivers won this victory while fighting to protect their health and safety on the job. In Worcester, ATU Local 22 organized a successful picket demanding rear door boarding and a freeze on fare collection in the Worcester Regional Transit Authority network. After just one protest by the union, the WRTA conceded and granted fare-free transit for 30 days. Due to the ongoing pandemic and the potential for further action from ATU Local 22, the WRTA has extended fare-free services through 2022. Still, there is no guarantee that they won’t end it as soon as they believe they can. ISG has been involved in the WRTA fare-free coalition in Worcester, raising the need to create a mass movement of riders, bus drivers, and other working-class people in Worcester that can put pressure on the city to fully fund and expand public transportation.
Fare-free public transportation has not only been tested but has been shown to increase ridership. Kansas City, MO, was the first major city in the US to enact a city-wide fare-free public transit system in 2019. As a result, commuters have reported having a far easier time traveling, and bus drivers have reported fewer incidents of violence. Even with the pandemic, Kansas City’s free transit bounced back by 80% by October 2020, compared to the 40% nationwide increase. In Worcester, ridership has also reached 63% of its pre-pandemic value. Worcester and Kansas City show that fare-free is a significant first step but not enough on its own. We need public transportation to be fully funded and expanded to service more regions of the country, especially rural areas.
Like the efforts of unionized transit workers in Worcester, MA, fare-free transit and infrastructure overhauls can be won by the workers who operate and construct it. Union workers in mass transit willing to protest, strike, and reach out to other unions and working people could help lead the way to real, accessible mass transit in the U.S. Strikes to demand huge increases in government funding and better pay and working conditions, instead of cuts in public infrastructure and tax write-offs for the rich will be crucial in the fight for high quality, fare-free public transit. Workers can build a mass movement for fully funded and high-quality public transportation, which can be part of a larger movement for universal healthcare, free college education, and other reforms working people need!