From the July 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard
Should travel on London’s trains and buses be free? Not so long ago this would have been, and was, dismissed as absurd. But now the GLC — which since 1970 has been in charge of London Transport — is looking at the idea. So is the London Labour Party, and economists, transport planners, passenger action groups, Tories, Liberals and even businessmen are amongst its supporters.
Many claims are made for free transport: It will leave most people better off financially. It will help solve the traffic problem. If train and bus fares were abolished, its advocates say, more people would leave their cars at home or at parking places away from the centre and use instead the trains and buses. This would relieve traffic congestion and allow a better bus service, which would encourage still more people to use public transport. The number of cars on the road would fall, reducing pollution and the need to build roads through residential areas.
WHO IS GOING TO PAY?
Maybe, but where is the money to come from? “Free” transport is only free to the passenger at the time he travels. The cost of running the transport system has to be paid for even if no fares are taken. One way, since London Transport is now under the GLC, would be to finance “free” transport from the rates. But since most passengers will also be ratepayers might not people lose as higher rates what they gained as free travel?
The advocates of free transport have an answer to this. They say that transporting people to and from work and the shops is unprofitable and has to be subsidised anyway and that fares-free public transport financed from rates or taxes could be the cheapest way of doing this if you take into account the present cost of the pollution, congestion and road-building caused by public transport’s great rival, the motor car. They also produce figures to show that the family man working in the centre of London would tend to gain from fares-free transport on the rates.
LOWER WAGES AND SALARIES
But even if the saving from fares is greater than the increase in rates this does not necessarily mean that people would be better off financially. Fares are an important item in the cost of living and it is the cost of living which largely determines the level of wages and salaries. Whatever reduces the cost of living will tend also to reduce wages. This would apply equally if fares were abolished.
This is obvious in the case of civil servants and others who are paid a special “London Allowance” to cover the higher cost of housing and travelling in London. Free London transport would narrow the difference between the cost of living in London and the rest of the country and would lead employers to seek to reduce this extra payment.
Thousands of booking clerks and ticket collectors would be made redundant, swelling the number of jobseekers and helping to keep wages down.
A WAGE SUBSIDY FOR EMPLOYERS
Those who claim that free transport would save people “considerable” sums of money are assuming that free services are an addition to wages. The opposite is nearer the truth: they are a hidden deduction from wages from which employers benefit the most.
If employers are to get a good day’s work they must pay their workers adequately. The wage packet or salary cheque must allow the workers enough to pay for the food, clothing, housing, travel and the other things they must have to keep themselves fit to work. If travel to and from work were free employers would no longer have to include in the wage packet any sum to cover travelling expenses. What to the workers would be a “free” service would to their employers be a wage subsidy.
Free transport under capitalism has little to offer wage and salary earners, but it would benefit some sections of the business world. If travel were free throughout the London area it would be no more expensive to shop in the centre than to shop locally, so the big West End stores would gain. If the cost fell on the rates then landlords and property-owners would be subsidising the big employers. Car manufacturers and road construction firms, too, would lose from a reform that discouraged the use of the motor car.
Within the context of capitalism any campaign for free transport would become a struggle between these various vested interests. If free transport ever comes it will be to serve such interests and not for the benefit of the wage and salary earners who use public transport. Nor is there any reason to expect the quality of the service to improve if fares were abolished, precisely because most passengers are workers.
FREE ACCESS FOR ALL
There is nothing wrong with free transport as an idea. Far from it. Fares do restrict people’s freedom to travel; fare-collecting and ticket-issuing is a waste of manpower and machinery; transport in Socialist society will be run as a free service for people to use as and when they want to. But a distinction must be drawn between free transport as a reform within capitalism and free transport as part of Socialist society where all goods and services will be free.
Free transport under capitalism would be a deduction from wages and a subsidy for employers. Before people can benefit from it, the whole wages system must be abolished. The means of production must cease to be the class property of a privileged few and become the common property of the whole community. This, too, would create the framework within which the problem of the motor car and its pollution and destruction can be rationally tackled.
Once the means of production are the common heritage of all and are under democratic control, then the profit motive and the price system can be abolished. Wealth can be produced solely for people to use. People can have free access not only to travel facilities but to all the other things they need to live and enjoy life. Goods will not be priced, but will be available for all to take freely according to their needs.