The Transports of Tomorrow: Free and Common

03.07.2011
The logo of Planka Oslo

While riding the tram home from work one day, I realized something: There is no other place in the city that I can sit and stare at the city dwellers; in no other place are our everyday lives joined together like this. 'How unique!' I thought to myself.

Tram number 18 takes us from the wealthy outskirts of Oslo and into the east side of the city center. Descending the hillside on the outside of the city center, the view over the Norwegian capital and of the so-called Bjorvika expansion strikes me as beautiful, aggressive and silent. Bjorvika is the name of the latest financial district in Oslo, located on the seaside, and is an emblematic waterfront development project. For a city in Norway, Oslo is experiencing rapid growth: Conservative estimates tells us that the population, now at about 600,000, will increase by 30 percent in the next 20 years. The same growth is also expected for the interconnected suburban area of Akershus, now at 550,000.

Flagship developments like Bjorvika may signal to the citizens of Oslo for whom the local and national government are developing the city. Back on the tram, I can hardly believe that any of my fellow commuters will work, live, or play in-between the broad car-based avenues and glass walls of this new symbolic center of Oslo. Geographically, Bjorvika is connected to the historically poor area on the east side. As the new development projects lead to evermore exclusive and excluding housing markets in the surrounding area, the manual workers and immigrants of the east are forced—both economically and culturally—into the far more stigmatized suburbs, spending substantially more time in traffic than the people living and working in the city center.

Thus, imagining our cities of tomorrow might be a rather dystopian exercise, characterized by increasing segregation and income polarisation. The development outlined above, however generalized, is nothing specific to the situation of Oslo. The question, 'for whom are the cities developing?' seems to be a crucial one, when one witnesses the cranes and the cement skeletons on an everyday ride through the city. Asking yourself this question while on the tram, bus, or metro seems even more urgent. Mobility is a precondition for a worthy life, whether economically or socially. A non-mobile life is a life where participation in the most basic social activities is denied, something that the elderly and people with disabilities are fighting every day.

Today, the scope of mobility for every city dweller is determined by individual economic resources; moreover, a city built for vehicular mobility is a city that further increases the inequality of its citizens. But for whom is the mobility accustomed to or geared towards? What does the infrastructure of a city tell us about the rights and the rating of its citizens? Keeping in mind the urgency of mobility and the fact that it rests on our constructed environment, the question 'for whom is the city built?' can be seen in a new, glaring light.

Planka Oslo, a new group advocating for free public transportation in Oslo, was formed in January of this year to make way for these issues in the public realm. The model for the Oslo group is the organization Planka.nu, which has been organizing commuters in Sweden for a decade. One part of Planka.nu’s work is through the direct action of organizing a pay strike in the public transport systems of Stockholm and Gothenburg. Participators in this action refuse to pay their fares and instead contribute to a collective fund. This way, all the members collectively pay for the penalty fare. At the same time, Planka.nu is also advocating for free public transports through more conventional means, both as a lobbying group and as a think tank for traffic politics and its relation the society at large. Planka Oslo, as a sister organization, is just another expression of this movement in Scandinavia. Both Planka groups are part of the international network Free Public Transports, whose aim is to connect the work of action groups raising the call for a different way of thinking about the infrastructure, transportation system, and organization of cities.

A crucial point of entry for the Planka Oslo group is the public transport system pay strike. The idea of self-reducing the costs of essential social consumption is nothing new, with the self-reduction of housing rents in Barcelona in 1931 and the Italian movements in the 1970s being well-known examples. This self-reduction is important because the participants in the Planka campaign are forcing their way into the public space, by both refusing the idea of making mobility a commodity and in refusing to contribute to a public transport organization in Oslo that is fundamentally anti-social. In 2001, the local government started restructuring the public enterprise in charge of the public transports in Oslo. Today the public enterprise, called Ruter (meaning both "routes" and "squares"), does not own any buses, trams, or metro cars, and none of the city's bus drivers are employed by the enterprise in charge of the transportation system in which they operate. The bus routes were outsourced and privatized in 2001 and since then severe work conditions, reduction of pension rights, and heavy pressures on salaries have occurred. Today, the bus companies are struggling with recruitment, the bureaucracy continues to increase, and responsibility is in many cases hard to track because of the pulverisation of what used to be one single enterprise. Ruter is only an administrative enterprise buying the services of 11 different sub-enterprises. The competition for the market has resulted in a near monopoly situation for the few transnational corporations operating the bus routes. The workers union, so important and well-known in the Norwegian history for making and shaping the working conditions in a welfare state, is now struggling against a lack of influence.

This chaotic situation and the image of the Ruter company only grows worse, as they continue to increase their restrictions and controls. 76 million euros were spent on a new barrier system that in the end did not work. Today, the barrier machines silently mark their place at the stations, while commuters remain unsure whether they’re in use or not - sometimes they are closed, and sometimes they are wide open. Together with a complex electronic ticket system, the barriers remain a cumbersome construction on the subway stations, disabling the mobility that every commuter—especially those who fall outside the image of the healthy and able-bodied citizen—has a right to.

Thus, sitting on any public transport in Oslo, you find yourself in a considerably political arena. Massive restructuring has occurred without any debate or public notice. The pre-recorded speaker on board of the subway leaves no doubt: "Dear customer. Due to construction on line one (...)" We are not commuters, we are customers in a transport regime where a commonly built infrastructure becomes private profit.

Coming out of the situation outlined above, the Planka Oslo campaign is an invitation to all commuters to become subjects in the traffic in which they are maneuvering every day. In this manner, every one of the participants can contribute in opening up the flow of humans in our city by refusing the barrier built city life. Especially for the low-income groups, but also for commuters in general, this means taking to some extent control over an unfairly managed service that used to be public. In doing so, each commuter also reject the idea of making mobility a commodity. Not only do they oppose things on behalf of themselves—they also act as a group, with firm demands and alternative ideas on how the public transport could be organized, and why its relationship to society as a whole should be more emphasized. "The organization of public transport today tells us not only something about different views on public transport in our society, but also something about different views on our society as a whole,” one of the Planka Oslo activist told us at the launching of the project in January.

Commuters also participate as a part of a civil disobedience campaign, another aspect of the Planka Oslo campaign. To put forward civil disobedience as a means of action in the 21st century is important, because it reminds us of how public protest has shaped the politics of the past. Civil disobedience is also about appreciating the desire to communicate the need for a different politics and a different way of organizing society. In this case it is about realizing a world that we value. This is a way of bringing up social conditions that the participants find wrong - despite the arrangements or laws that claim to justify them. The performative action is important, and some of the climate activist in Copenhagen December 2009 said that civil disobedience, precisely like love, "has to be created through our bodies. If that doesn't happen, we cannot understand what love really is, or what we talk about when we talk about love." In this way the campaign is very much about finding a way to underline the precarious situation that is in front of us regarding our environment and the urban organization of our society, with as much care and respect that our bodies can communicate.

Planka is not only about creating a voice for the commuters and trying to get the politics of free public transports on the agenda. It also helps to get the politics physically and emotionally on to the public transports itself, and thus making the public transports an arena for discussing the values of our society. Being part of the Planka campaign while taking the bus or subway is a protest action, one that is firmly constituted in the every day life of the protester. A major challenge today is not letting the protest be one thing and life in its most common features another. Planka is eager to make this connection. Therein lies the radical potential of connecting ourselves as citizens to the politics of the everyday life.

The different groups of the Free Public Transports network all work in different ways. Planka Oslo has so far been the only pure adoption of the Planka.nu model. As citizens, we finds ourselves outside the spheres where the decisions are being made. But we are also commuters and users of the very transport system that we want to change. That may grant us power, yet as a protest movement our limitations stand clear: We do not have a firm political organization to bring to the table. We are addressing our demands at the Norwegian state by trying to make public transport financed by tax revenues. Planka Oslo might be added to the NGO flora as just another non-threatening interest group, with 'growing awareness' as its only parameter of political influence. Firmly rooted in local activism however, these kinds of initiatives should be an integral part of making the politics of the coming decades. Located within the politically explosive area of essential social consumption, this group is hoping to be a part of a movement that can create some new space on how to consume, travel, and live in the cities of tomorrow. Sitting on the tram, ask yourself that powerful question: 'For whom is the city built?’