We believe in public ownership
Public transport belongs to all of us. Our buses, trains, trams, minibuses, taxis, metros, trolleybuses, urban and national railways – they are all OUR public transport. We need these vital services and must have a democratic say over them. A good quality transport system has multiple benefits that go beyond those to transport users. A functioning public transport system is vital for the economy and increases quality of life, as it allows people to access work, education and leisure activities and improves air quality. Public transport is fundamental to public health and social and economic equality, but also integral to a sustainable environment. Integrated public transport systems are vital local and national infrastructure – so decisions should not be left in the hands of private companies. Workers, trade unions and users can join forces in campaigns for better public transport for all.
Public accountability and control of public transport is best served through municipal and national public ownership rather than the neoliberal model of competition and private ownership for profit. Public transport is mainly financed through fares and public funding. With private operators, part of that money is turned into private profit, which is taken out of public transport rather than reinvested in the system. Privatisation may cut costs in the short-term, but it is inefficient and unsustainable. Whether the result is an accident or bankruptcy, the public ultimately pays for these hidden costs and is responsible for remedying private sector failures. Public transport should be a common good geared towards meeting people’s needs, not a commodity to serve private investors’ hunt for profit. There is a growing consensus that privatisation has failed. Surveys of the public show that the majority believe that public transport services should be publicly owned and operated. There is an exciting trend of (re-)municipalisation, with cities taking vital services like water, waste, energy and transport into public ownership.
Policy proposal 1: Ensure that transport is publicly owned and operated
Public ownership and operation of public transport is essential if we want to develop it as a public good under democratic control. Private sector involvement and its pursuit of profit increases passenger fares and reduces workers’ wages and working conditions.
When public transport is owned and operated by national or local governments on behalf of citizens, the system can be planned and developed for the benefit of all. We can run services for society and the economy as a whole, considering the specific needs of women, young people, the elderly and disabled passengers. When public transport is planned and delivered as a universal service, it increases accessibility and creates the integrated service people need, where bus, tram and rail routes are linked and complemented by walking and cycling routes.
However, even if publicly owned public transport is the better option, it does not give any guarantee of high quality services or decent work. Governments pursuing neoliberalism, anti-trade union attitudes and austerity policies contribute strongly to undermining the role of public services. This should also be resisted. If public services are already privatised, trade unions can join forces with passengers and civil society organisations to campaign for the renationalisation or remunicipalisation of public transport. A cost-benefit analysis might reveal that it is cheaper to remunicipalise (renationalise) mid-contract even when facing compensation costs. A good opportunity for the insourcing of public transport is when the contract is up for renewal or if the private operator operates in breach of the contract, goes bankrupt or into administration. However, the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) component within major trade and investment treaties can hinder re-municipalisation efforts and limit the policy space for local governments to reverse privatised service provision.
Policy proposal 2: Improve and massively expand integrated public transport
Two important developments underlie the need to strengthen and expand public transport, namely rapid urbanisation and the climate emergency. These challenges cannot be met successfully without a massive expansion of public transport. This will require a ‘public goods’ approach, including public ownership and democratic control.
Such a strengthening of public transport will also give a big boost to the local economy, by helping people move around and providing decent jobs. With sufficient funding and public ownership, we can create a positive economic impact by providing high quality transport and reducing travel time to help people reach employment. With public ownership and democratic control, workers have a better opportunity to achieve decent work for all, including increasing women’s employment and formalising informal work. Quality public transport encourages people to get out of their cars or stop driving altogether. In order to make public transport attractive, fares should also be kept low, with free public transport a possible option.
However, if a private company runs the bus or light rail service, they are not accountable to us. Our direct influence is limited. Contracts with private companies are often agreed behind closed doors, with very little transparency. Successfully managing and monitoring these contracts with private companies, especially large multinational corporations, can be a challenge to local or national government. Therefore, it can be difficult to make these companies accountable.
Public ownership means we can run public transport as an integrated network. Decision-making around routes is a political decision based on people’s needs rather than private profit. Keeping services in public hands gives government the flexibility to make changes depending on public need – rather than having to pay to update contracts with private companies. Busy commuter routes can cross-subsidise other routes that benefit vulnerable groups. Public subsidies must provide access to transport for the urban poor. Keeping assets and land in public ownership gives us more options and resources for delivering the public transport we will need in the future.
Policy proposal 3: Guarantee democratic accountability in the planning, development and future of public transport
When there is democratic accountability, we have a real say over our public transport and have powerful ways to hold decision makers to account. Workers knowledge and skills, experience and hard work is recognised and utilised. As workers and citizens, men and women, our collective voice is heard on service design and delivery and the future of public transport. Under democratic accountability, workers and trade unions are in a stronger position to use their power to achieve decent work, union rights and improved services. Trade union representatives are included on the board of the transport operator, along with members of the public, user groups and experts. This is the model of public transport that we will fight for.