They’re the nemesis of public transportation agencies across the world: fare dodgers. But a growing number say they’re not bandits, rather participants in an important social movement.
Case in point: a group in Stockholm, Sweden, that wants fares to be abolished altogether and transport to be 100 percent tax-funded (it’s currently 50 percent tax-funded).
Alex Berthelsen is a longtime member of that organization, called Planka.nu (roughly translated to “Free-Ride.Now”).
“The group started in 2001 after another fare hike,” Berthelsen told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “They’ve just been going up steadily for the last 20 to 30 years. They’ve been raised much, much higher than the CPI, the consumer price index. And so the reasoning for starting the thing was it didn’t really matter what politicians were in power here in Stockholm — no matter if was the red politicians or the blue politicians, the conservatives — everybody just kept raising prices, and we saw that it became more and more expensive to go with the public transport compared to going with a car. And the car industry and the car drivers have a lot of lobby groups and things like that, so we thought the commuters also need to organize themselves and protest with direct action against these fare hikes.”
- New York Times: Fare Dodging Is an Organized Rebellion in Stockholm, and It’s Winning (includes photo of Alex Berthelsen)
- Alex Berthelsen, longtime member of Planka Nu, which promotes tax-financed zero-fare public transport.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. Fare dodgers, they're the nemesis of public transportation agencies around the world, and some are now going to great length, for instance training a small dog to run under the barrier and then jump up to trip a sensor to open it.
And in Stockholm, where a monthly subway transit pass is $120, hundreds of dodgers have joined a group called Planka Nu, and they say they're participating in an important social movement. Alex Berthelsen is a longtime member of the group. He's on the line from the Swedish capital. Alex, welcome.
ALEX BERTHELSEN: Thank you, thanks for having me.
YOUNG: Planka Nu, it means what?
BERTHELSEN: It means free-ride-dot-now.
YOUNG: Free-ride-dot-now, which is your website. And how does the group work? You have to join. How does it work?
BERTHELSEN: Yeah, exactly. So like the main thing we do is that we organize commuters in a fare strike. So if you become a member in our group, which costs 100 Swedish crowns, maybe $15 or something, and then if you get caught by a ticket inspector in the public transport, we pay your fine.
YOUNG: So about how many members are in the group?
BERTHELSEN: It's approximately 500, but it differs depending on season and...
YOUNG: You say fare strike, F-A-R-E. This isn't something that as in a union that somebody calls for. It's more of a rolling, continuous strike. And when you joined this group, it's kind of expected that you will always have this individual strike, you will always try to jump a turnstile or get on a transit for free?
BERTHELSEN: Of course we don't require, we don't know exactly what our members do, but I don't see a reason to be a part of the group if you don't fare-dodge. One of the main things we're doing is this way is that it's, like, transforming it from just an individual fare striking to like a collective political action.
YOUNG: And what is the reasoning? Why?
BERTHELSEN: Well, the group started in 2001 after another fare hike on the prices. So they've just been going up steadily for the last 20 to 30 years. They've been, like, raised much, much higher than the CPI, consumer price index. And so the reasoning for starting the thing was that it didn't really matter what politicians were in power here in Stockholm, like no matter if was the red politicians or the blue politicians, the conservatives, everybody just kept raising prices.
And we saw that it became more and more expensive to go with the public transport compared to going with a car. And like the car industry and the car drivers, they have a lot of lobby groups and things like that. So we thought the commuters also need to organize themselves and protest with direct action against these fare hikes.
YOUNG: Well, you want just not lower fares, you want it to be free. Is it subsidized at all right now, by the way, by taxes because you're calling it...
YOUNG: So it is partially subsidized now?
BERTHELSEN: Yeah, it's about 50-50 here in Stockholm.
YOUNG: And so you want it to be totally subsidized by taxes.
YOUNG: You want it to be free for the rider. What's the reasoning there?
BERTHELSEN: There's a number of reasonings. The main thing is that if you pay with taxes instead of with fees, it becomes progressive, so you pay different depending on how much you earn. So if you earn less, you pay less; if you earn more, you pay more. And then we also want it to be an incentive for people to switch over to a more environmental friendly mode of transport.
So car drivers will see oh, I already pay for the public transport, and now it's free at the point of entry, so why use the car, not switch over to the transit.
YOUNG: Well, and we're hearing that there are some people saying that, you know, that's another point, that people who are driving cars are negatively impacting the environment, whereas those who try to take transit are trying to reduce their impact on the environment. And yet in your mind the people who are taking the transit are being punished by the fare increases.
BERTHELSEN: Yeah, exactly, and so we think to get people out of their cars, you probably need some kind of carrot and stick tactics. So it's good with, like, congestion fees and stuff. But you also need something positive, so for example offering them free public transport.
YOUNG: Well so you're having these personal strikes, ongoing strikes where you are dodging and slipping in to train stations. What do you have there? Do you have the turnstiles?
BERTHELSEN: We have, like, glass barriers, like gates.
YOUNG: And so how do you get in there? You can't jump over it.
BERTHELSEN: You could climb over it if you were a bit acrobat, but you usually just walk after someone. They're open for a very long time after someone has passed through because they had so many problems before that they closed too fast, and people got injured. So nowadays they're open very long times. It's very easy to just...
YOUNG: Well, I'm looking at a picture of you in the New York Times in which you appear to be walking behind a woman who has paid the fare. She opened the gates with her card, and you're behind her. She appears to be giving you a very dirty look.
YOUNG: Is this fair to the people who have paid?
BERTHELSEN: To be honest, the reason why she looked like that was because there was a cameraman standing, like, a meter from her.
YOUNG: Well, that could do it.
BERTHELSEN: Taking like 100 pictures.
YOUNG: Well, you take my point that, you know, this isn't fair to the people who are paying the fares.
BERTHELSEN: I wouldn't say that it's not fair to them. That's not really how it works, you know, because most people who fare strike in the first place, they don't even really have the money to pay for the fares. And also with public transport, like the marginal costs for more trips when you have built and run like a huge public transport system, it's so, so small. So it doesn't really have an impact in that sense.
But still, I mean, we want more people to join the fare strike. Of course that's the main goal, to have more people to join it so to put more economic pressure on the public transport authority. Currently it's about, like, three to five percent of our commuters don't pay.
YOUNG: What if everybody decided that something they didn't like in the government, we'll just go in and take free food or just go and I like that bicycle, and instead of paying for a bike off a bike rack, I'm going to take it. You know, what if everybody decided that things that they felt they shouldn't have to pay for, they just didn't?
BERTHELSEN: I mean, almost all of progressive political change has come through extra-parliamentary actions, where people have organized collectively and put some kind of pressure behind their demands.
YOUNG: Well, so the industry is trying to defeat you. They've gone from turnstiles to these gates, probably thinking up other things. Is there anything that you think that can stop dodging?
BERTHELSEN: Yeah, there is a very simple solution: Make it 100 percent tax-financed because it's very hard not to pay taxes.
YOUNG: In the meantime, have you ever been fined? It's a steep, $180. Some people are saying that Planka Nu is more like an insurance agency for fare dodgers because I think only 30 to 40 percent of your fees are being used to cover the fines, but have you been fined? Have you had to have that $180 fine covered?
BERTHELSEN: Yeah, but it was - I think it was maybe like eight years ago the last time I got a fine. So it was a long time ago.
YOUNG: Well, we're understanding that actually some agents are looking the other way.
BERTHELSEN: Yeah, they're usually - most of them are very nice people. It's - some of them I got in a personal relationship with because they know who I am from the organization, and we usually say hello to each other. And they don't give me trouble; I don't give them trouble.
I mean, you can use - actually according to the rules in Sweden, you can just tell them no, I don't want to show my card, I can get off at the next station. They don't really have any means to hold you.
YOUNG: Well by the way, you well know that there are turnstile jumpers in the U.S., in particular in New York, and there it's something that frightens people. They worry about crime related to people thinking that something's free. Your thoughts on that? It's not seen as a social movement in parts of this country.
BERTHELSEN: No, and I think the main difference probably is that here in Stockholm we are well-organized, and we're making it into like a collective fare strike. So that's probably why people (unintelligible). And regarding the thing with things being free and so, I mean, at least here, we have free schools, more or less free health care. People respect those things very much.
YOUNG: That's Alex Berthelsen. He's a member of the Swedish group Planka Nu, free ride now. They are against transit fares. Alex, thanks so much for speaking with us.
BERTHELSEN: Well, thanks for having me, Robin.
YOUNG: And speaking of petty crime, we have a note. You may be following NPR's terrific series on the justice system. Over the past year, NPR surveyed laws in all 50 states and found an explosion in the use of fees accompanying criminal charges. People who can't afford them go to jail or go on the run. NPR found hundreds of thousands of them living in an underground world, and you can hear that story later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
And then in the coming days on HERE AND NOW, Alice Goffman as a budding ethnographer at UPenn, she moved into that world for six years. Her terrific new book is called "On the Run." She's in the days ahead, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.