May 1st, 2018
For almost two decades a Swedish group of campaigners have defied authority and flipped the passenger-operator power balance by banding together to avoid fares. Their unconventional brand of activism continues to stir feathers and attract stigma – but how does the group justify it?
Around the world, authorities, together with governments and campaign groups, are pushing for increased public transport usage. For their part, people comply, if often out of necessity rather than a personal preference for shared transit.
But in some cities, the price for public commuting is fast becoming prohibitively expensive for low-income citizens. This, together with the argument that more public transport ridership is better for the environment, is why a growing network of supporters are campaigning for free public transport as an intrinsic right of every citizen. Some have taken it one step further, by forming a group of ‘professional fare-dodgers’.
Planka.nu (roughly translated as “free ride now”), was set up in Stockholm in 2001 by activists from the Swedish Anarchosyndicalist Youth Federation, in response to yet another hike in transport costs brought by the Stockholm County Council Assembly, a decision the group saw as unjustified in light of what they felt was a deteriorating network. Two years later, another branch opened in Gothenburg, followed by sister organisations in Helsinki, Östergötland, Skåne and Oslo. Today, only the campaigns in Stockholm and Gothenburg remain active.
At its core, Planka.nu takes the belief that free transport is an
intrinsic right and turns the “individual’s desire to save some money
into a collective struggle for a free public transport”.
“For a long time, people using public transport haven’t represented a
political force,” says Christian Tengblad, member of the Planka.nu
group and campaigner for free public transport. “We just organise people
who don’t want to pay fares.”
The art of free-riding
For more than 15 years, the organisation has provided support and solidarity for those who refuse to pay, or cannot afford the fare of transport in the two Swedish cities. Membership to the group is subscription-based, with the money going into the P-box, a “solidarity fund” which is used to pay for any of its members’ fines when they get caught riding without a ticket.
The financial model has proven successful: the membership fee is the same today as it was in 2001, at just SEK100, unlike the Storstockholms Lokaltrafik (SL) 30-day travel card, which has been subject to multiple price hikes over the years, and now costs SEK860 (the same travel card cost SEK500 when the organisation was first formed). The penalty fare for ticket evasion is SEK1,500. As of January this year, SL announced another 3.3% fare increase.
“Our members are skilled at not getting caught,” Tengblad says. Another thing that helps is that all the members are volunteers.
The organisation’s ideology, practices and motivations are completely out in the open, and its members can often be spotted staging small protests or giving out leaflets outside busy commuter stations. For example, on 1 May, the group will join Taklösa, a local campaign group, which raises awareness about homelessness, to jointly protest some of challenges homeless people face both on and off the transport network.
Their fare-dodging methods are also public knowledge, partly thanks to video guides of how to jump turnstiles, trick glass doors systems into opening, glide behind a paying passenger before the barriers close, and avoid ticket controllers once on the train. There are also Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags (#biljettkontroll) that members spread on social media to monitor controls and alert other fare dodgers. “Our members are skilled at not getting caught.”
Planka.nu’s website also gives advice on how to tell apart different ticket inspectors by their uniforms, as well as encouraging fare dodgers to fully know and stand up for their rights when caught. In many situations, controllers are not allowed to detain anyone caught travelling without a ticket. Instead, the person will be asked to disembark at the next stop, and fined.
The laws concerning fare evasion vary between countries. In Sweden, the practice of fare-dodging is not considered criminal and doesn’t carry a jail sentence, while setting up an organisation such as Planka.nu is lawful, if still frowned-upon.
“We don’t expect people to have the same set up in other places, because this is kind of a special situation, where there is a grey area and the ticket control law doesn’t really allow controllers to arrest people; but sometimes they more or less do anyway,” Tengblad says. “Just how fare dodging isn’t criminal in itself, our organisation isn’t either. If that were to change, maybe we would need to change our practices, but for now it’s not an issue.
“It’s difficult for the majority to sympathize with our methods, but in a way that’s not our goal either,” he says. “What we have achieved, for starters, is keeping the discussion about price and ticket systems alive between the fare hikes. And also, changing the societal view on implementing free public transport, because it has been implemented in a lot of smaller cities in Sweden.”
Is fare evasion an effective form of protest?
Many commuters faced with the prospect of paying more every year for an ever-cramped subway or a perpetually delayed train would surely sympathise with the network’s spirit.
But Sweden could be seen as one of the most surprising places to cradle a passenger uprising: the Scandinavian approach to public transportation has a stellar reputation for high ridership, high frequency and good quality services, as well as strategies and technologies that align with the global agenda of reducing carbon emissions.
Stockholm’s subway and commuter train system is managed by Hong Kong-based MTR Corporation (dubbed “the gold standard for transit management worldwide” by The Atlantic), which also runs lines in Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shenzhen in China, two lines on the London Underground and the entire Melbourne system. SL, owned by the Stockholm County Council, is the organisation running all land-based public transport and is financed 50% through tax, and 50% through ticket sales.
According to a 2017 report commissioned by the Urban Transport Group (UTG), Sweden has the highest share of trips by public transit of any North West European country that collects regular travel data. “The Scandinavians put a high value on making their city regions sustainable, livable and attractive places.”
“In Stockholm in particular, public transport has been a key aspect of urban development, with high densities focused at underground stations,” the report reads.
It goes on to say “fares in relation to incomes are reasonable, particularly for regular travellers,” and that “there are many examples of innovative public transport services and infrastructure in Sweden that are delivered at moderate cost to the public purse.”
“The Scandinavians put a high value on making their city regions sustainable, livable and attractive places in which to live and invest,” Tobyn Hughes, chair of UTG, said. “This has led them to promote active travel and to invest in smart, green and high quality public transport networks.”
Although Tengblad recognises there are good aspects of how Stockholm’s transit is run and managed – passengers enjoy accessible, spacious trains, as well as positive schemes such as a free summer pass for students under 17 – he and fellow members believe that fares are simply too expensive for many citizens.
In their book The Traffic Power Structure, the group writes: “Mobility and class are tightly linked. Not only because mobility depends on economic resources, but also because a society based on the current mobility paradigm – what we call auto mobility – contributes directly to the increase of economic and social injustice.”
A space to put pressure on the authorities
Tengblad accepts that the network’s methods and ideology are somewhat extreme, and fare-dodging certainly doesn’t make for practical everyday commuting. But the group’s existence puts constant pressure on the authorities and government on the one hand, while also creating a necessary space for a more moderate group to form and join the conversation, such as a union for commuters, which Tengblad feels is sorely needed in Stockholm.
“When elections are approaching, opposing parties become interested in the organisation’s stance and arguments, and start exploring options such as removing fares and taking down ticket barriers. But when they are in power, it doesn’t materialise,” he says.
“When it comes to the social stigma associated with fare dodging, in the suburbs, people are always helping each other, opening the gates for each other, it has become a culture of looking out for one another.
“But in other parts of town, the atmosphere is a lot more hostile and that mainly has to do with ‘have you had the experience of skipping the fare for a month because you didn’t have enough money or you needed to prioritise something else? Or did your parents or friends have to?’ If you’ve never been confronted with any of that, you might think it’s a criminal or anti-social behaviour.”