Edinburgh bus and tram

Greens have won free bus transport for under-18s as part of the Scottish Budget process. It’s a big win, but the story behind it shows some really important things about how we make the case for environmental and broader policy change. Because free public transport wasn’t always a Green policy. 

I wrote the first motion that proposed changing our party policy, based on a discussion with Gary Dunion, (whose idea I think it really was) Maggie Chapman and others -though Dan Hutchison wrote the motion that finally passed in 2018. 

In 2005 Edinburgh Council proposed a Congestion Charge, following the successful London scheme. The Labour-Lib Dem administration at Holyrood refused to grant permission for this unless it could win the support of Edinburgh residents in a referendum. Greens threw themselves into campaigning for the congestion charge, and perhaps more importantly for the investment that would flow into public transport from the congestion charge. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, we got hammered in the referendum. Three-quarters of residents voted against the congestion charge and with it the investment in public transport. We were left with an increasingly congested city, and no way to manage that congestion. 

So a number of us spent some time thinking about how we could transform the debate about transport. We were determined to tackle the car culture that blights so many of our cities. We recognised that the problem was partly economic. Once you’ve bought a car driving a car is much cheaper than doing the same journey by public transport. So if you need a car, it is cheaper to drive it. It’s also often more convenient. And once more people travel by car, congestion increases, lengthening bus journeys – a vicious circle that in many US cities has almost obliterated public transport. 

We decided that we needed a way out of that vicious circle. But that we could also make the case for a different form of economics. An economy where common assets are run in the common interest. 

The economic model underpinning (and often undermining) our society works by driving market relationships into more and more aspects of our lives. This is why we have moved to a tuition fee model for higher education, it’s why governments keep suggesting charging for more NHS services, and it is the logic behind carbon trading schemes. And I believe that it is at the heart of the crisis of democracy. 

We can have a neoliberal system that privileges the rights of the wealthy to pollute, receive health and education and to use transport. Or we can have democracy. 

We realised that free public transport was a way to show how this sort of commons economy could work. It changes the economics of transport so that driving a car is no longer the cheapest choice. It builds the case for a commons approach – where the things that are necessary for life are commonly owned, controlled and provided on the basis of need. Where a congestion charge brings driving into the market, free public transport removes transport from the market. 

And we know that free, universal public services are those that attract most public support and investment. Because public services for the poor quickly become poor public services. 

The lessons from this go well beyond transport. Labour announced the nationalisation and free provision of broadband in their 2019 UK General Election Campaign. I thought this was an opportunity to build support for the universal, free provision of a service that is increasingly becoming a fundamental service. But it was understood as a ‘giveaway’ – a bribe to the electorate. 

A stronger approach would have been to make the case that you need broadband to look for a job, to pay your bills, to receive some healthcare at home and to be a part of society, so it should be provided universally, free for all. The efficiencies would massively outweigh the costs, and it would create a communications commons that would allow everyone equal access. 

Our economy is based on the idea that goods are scarce and the only way to limit demand is to price them through the market. But in the case of collective provision like public transport or things like broadband, which aren’t limited in the way the market is designed to price, this breaks down. Financialising these markets creates real unintended effects, such as reduced access to services or air pollution and congestion. These harm everyone in society indirectly, and do real damage to some, often the very poorest. 

A commons approach is vital because it is the only way that we can solve the world’s problems. Most importantly the climate emergency. The argument that everything we need to survive should be provided in a free and universal service is one that is easy to make, and places rights, not money, at the heart of the argument. 

If we’re to build the case for the commons we need real examples of it working. We have some, like the NHS. We need more. Because the more commons based services there are, the more solidarity we will see in society, and the easier it will be to solve the really big problems. 

It took us three attempts to get free public transport adopted by the Scottish Green Party at conference. That’s one of the joys of having a democratic party.  It also demonstrates a move in wider thinking away from the market solutions favoured in the 1990s to environmental and social problems, and towards a commons approach. The concerns that were expressed were often about allocation of scarce resources. If we’re to solve the climate crisis, we need to move beyond those arguments, which support only right-wing solutions. 

We need to create a new commons where the things we rely on to live: housing, clean water, heat, transport, clean air and a working democracy are fundamental rights, not things to be allocated first to the rich. 

For us, free public transport was just the first step on this journey. 

Image credit: Peter Trimming – Creative Commons