Where Gavin Newsom and Fidel Castro agree

Should public transit be free? A capitalist and communist perspective

A couple of years ago I found myself reading Fidel Castro’s spoken autobiography My Life followed by Gavin Newsom’s Citizenville, and I found a unexpected area of agreement between the two leaders. This isn’t meant to be an answer to the question of whether public transit should be free, but the presentation of two perspectives from people of very different backgrounds and political systems, who seem to have come to a very similar conclusion.

Fidel Castro, whose name I imagine you’re already familiar with, is the communist leader who led the 1959 Cuban Revolution and served as President until stepping aside in 2008. His political views and life experiences are quite different from those of Gavin Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco and current lieutenant governor of California. Some Republicans may have difficulty seeing much of a difference, but Newsom’s affiliation with the Democratic Party still leaves a significant gulf between his ideology and that of Castro.

In his autobiography, which is in fact a brillant series of interviews with Ignacio Ramonet, Castro recalls a discussion with Boris Yeltsin before the collapse of the Soviet Union on the topic of public transit, where Castro advised Yeltsin not to make it free, as Cuba had already done a similar experiment with negative results.

Listen, the trolley bus cost four cents, the metro I think five cents — and that meant that people were going back and forth between this place and that place too much. I explained to Yeltsin what happened to us with respect to that, because at one point he says to me, ‘I think public transport should be free.’ And I told him it should have a reasonable price, if only to cut down on the number of unnecessary trips people make when transport is free, because once, here, in Cuba, a Party secretary in a certain region [...] a compañero of ours, we’d assigned him some busses for the region, and he’d made the decision that those buses would be free.
Transport here was almost free, but instead of walking for ten blocks, seven blocks, people would take the bus — they might not even pay, there wouldn’t be time, or they’d pay to ride half a mile, which multiplied usage unnecessarily. So here comes Yeltsin saying that transport ought to be free, and I had to advise him that they shouldn’t make transport and other similar services free — although of course education and health care would be exceptions — and that they already had too many things almost free because the prices were fixed, which was something that we certainly knew about [in Cuba].

Being a communist, you wouldn’t expect Castro to oppose free public transit, especially not to argue against its implementation in the Soviet Union, but he does back his position up with firsthand experience. If made free, would public transit be used for short, unnecessary trips? Without at least a nominal fee, would people use public transit to avoid walking even short distances?

As you may already expect, Newsom also comes out against free public transit, and while his reasoning is similar to that of Castro, it has an additional argument almost unsurprising coming from an unequal capitalist society.

While I was mayor, I learned that charging people to ride SF Muni — San Francisco’s municipal trains — wasn’t bringing the city any real money. The tickets were just $1.50 each, and the costs of collecting money, buying and maintaining fare boxes, and catching fare cheats rendered negligible whatever profit the city was making. So I told my staff I wanted to make Muni free. Why go to the trouble of collecting fares if they didn’t really bring in any money? Why not just eliminate the hassle?
My staff advised against it, for two reasons. One was that if we made riding the trains free, ridership was estimated to increase by 35 to 40 percent. We’d have to add more trains, costing the city money. That made sense, but it was the second reason — a reason I’d never considered — that really gave me pause. If we made traveling on Muni free, went the argument, people would then treat it like a free system. They’d trash it.
Margaret Cliver, a resident of the Mission District, made this point colorfully in an interview with a reporter: “Gavin Newsom must have taken a leave of his senses to even consider this. MUNI is already overloaded with stinky crazies, loud-mouth-behaved louts, and other zoological forms of low life. The day it becomes entirely free, it will become a Dumpster on wheels, and I, along with the rest of those who currently attempt to use the system, will give up on it entirely.”
If people have no investment in something, they’ll treat it like a throwaway. People need to feel ownership.

Newsom’s evidence against free public transit lines up with that of Castro, in the sense that it would result in increased ridership due to unnecessary trips, but he also goes a step further in asserting that without a fare, people wouldn’t respect the service. I find it interesting that this argument comes up in Newsom’s book, but not in Castro’s. The perspective Newsom presents, from what I could only imagine as a stuck-up member of the middle-class, takes aim at the poor who use the system. That person seems to already have a negative opinion of the Muni service, and detests the idea that more low-class passengers be able to use the service, but should public transit be restricted to the “respectable” middle-class and exclude the underprivileged? Should it not be a means of transportation for everyone?

Castro and Newsom may take fairly similar views, but it’s also important to understand where they sit on the totem pole. They’re probably not users of the public transit system, yet are deciding what counts as justified use. Should it be up to a leader to define how people should use a public system, or for the people to decide how they want to use it? If the number of trips increase when the fare is removed from public transit, it makes sense to believe that many of those additional trips would be taken by the poor, and not having to worry about paying for their primary — and possibly only — means of transportation, could lead to a significant increase in their quality of life.

Whether public transit should be free, have a nominal charge, or a fare high enough to cover the system’s total operating costs falls, in the end, to the public. While it’s intriguing to see the similar views of leaders from both capitalist and communist countries, we shouldn’t forget that they’re in charge of budgets, and by keeping trips low, the system costs less to operate. A removal of the fare on public transit would disproportionately benefit those with little to no money to pay the fare in the first place, but there’s a larger question we must consider: is public transit a service or a right?

Castro obviously sees health and education as rights, and therefore believes they should be free, but doesn’t allow that to extend to transport. It’s up to us to decide if our leaders are right in treating public transit simply as a service, or if it should indeed be a right for all, no matter how many “unnecessary” trips are to be made.

I currently live in Melbourne, where the trams are free in the central business district. Despite that, I almost never use them. I may be an outlier, but removing the fare hasn’t changed my attitude with regards to how I use public transit.

Paris Marx writes about the growing divide within the capitalist system, the movements for alternative forms of economic organization, and ways of living that challenge traditional narratives. He occasionally makes videos on YouTube, and is very active in sharing news and opinions on Twitter.

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