2 June 2019

Free Buses For Everyone

by Aaron Bastani

Margaret Thatcher is reputed to have once said, “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.”

Even if apocryphal, those words have sustained in the popular imagination for a reason – they captured the zeitgeist of Thatcher’s premiership: divisive and brutal, but also conjoined to a popular sense that success really did mean going it alone. Growing up in Bournemouth such thinking was certainly part of an everyday common sense, a set of mental presumptions about the world which included buses being primarily for schoolchildren, students and pensioners. In a 20th century town principally designed around the suburb, a young adult learning to drive was as natural a progression in life as leaving school, getting a job and having children.

That idea, of the automobile as emblematic of personal freedom, is an old one. The basis for mid-century urban modernity, you still see it reflected in car advertisements where a handsome individual or family elegantly sit inside a luxury vehicle, the comfortable  interior juxtaposed against the perilous urban jungle or unforgiving landscape. The symbolism is obvious: not only is the car a means by which to expand the autonomy of the individual, but a totem of humanity’s collective mastery over the environment.

It is this conception of nature, and the presumed domination over it, which clouds much discussion around climate change, preventing it from percolating into the language of the everyday: kitchen tables, work places, the family Christmas lunch. We know there is a correlation between living in a poor country and being concerned by global warming. So while the likes of Extinction Rebellion might be making the news, and the success of Green parties in this month’s European elections reflects a psychological shift, it’s simply a fact that wealthier countries care less about the planet’s increasingly chaotic systems. On closer inspection that makes sense: it is more rational to feel your species controls its surroundings when you are working in an air-conditioned Texas call centre than on a fishing boat in Senegal. In the 21st century even the illusion of our mastery is unevenly distributed.

It’s been debated for decades how the car engenders negative social relations. These include the aforementioned (and misguided) view of our relationship to nature; a sense of ‘freedom’ based on atomisation and the absence of social connection; and the notion that an individual’s worth can be measured by symbols of consumption. What is more the projected image of driving as an experience – from the sublime Alpine scene to the identikit ‘European’ city bereft of actual traffic – is entirely at odds with the lived experience of driving, replete as it is with traffic jams, speed cameras and failing the MOT. Karl Marx had a name for when we don’t experience social phenomena and relations as they really are: ideology. 

But if the car was the primary symbol of autonomy for the second half of the 20th century, what is its contemporary equivalent? Believe it or not, it’s the mobile phone.

A 2015 poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre found more than half of Americans ‘couldn’t live without their phone’, while 70 percent associate their device with the word “freedom” more than “leash”, and 72 percent think their phone is “connecting” rather than “distracting”. Just like the car, the mobile internet connects us over space – its by-now mundane ascent often disconnecting us from time altogether. This reproduces the logic of post-modernity where, as Frederic Jameson put it, we see the “predominance of space over time” as we inhabit a world where there is nothing but the ‘realtime’ present. This isn’t a historical point – things will still happen like climate collapse and rising income inequality  – but the human psyche is increasingly situated within a frenetic and yet exhausted now. If silent reading was the new mode of human action which emerged from the printing press revolution, as Elizabeth Eisenstein claims, the analogue for today’s touchscreens is seamless scrolling and swiping.

Of course like any innovation, it’s not all bad – and it’s important to remember that how we choose to deploy technologies, as both societies and individuals, is political. Nobody could deny that the car had, and retains, positive aspects. And so too with phones and the mobile internet with survey data showing that the technology does indeed bring an expanded sense of freedom: whether it’s with children entering young adulthood, or parents who want the ability to contact them, or spatially isolated pensioners who want to stay connected to friends and loved ones in a meaningful way. 

But more even than conferring the ability to communicate, the personal phone increasingly functions as the world’s most ubiquitous computing device, providing access to a panoply of services – from banking and project management to planning journeys by car, bike, bus or rail. 

Indeed the principal device I rely on for transport isn’t a car – or even my bike – but my phone, specifically Google Maps, CityMapper, Trainline and the payment system ApplePay. Without it my autonomy would be significantly limited, my ability to plan and coordinate journeys within and between places close to impossible. This matters, because virtually everyone already has the infrastructure for integrated transport solutions which are yet to arrive. What is more, we aren’t just receiving data but also creating a socially valuable trail of it. If there is an emancipatory aspect to my phone, where it saves me time and effort, and augments my experiences of the non-digital world, this is it. In counter-point to Twitter or Facebook, its default is to re-open physical space as a place for the extension of the self.

Which brings us to buses. The idea of having a single device to plan, coordinate and pay for public transport two decades ago would have seemed absurd. The pinnacle of my experience with the Sony Ericsson I treasured in 2003 remained, despite the 0.1 megapixel camera, text messaging. Meanwhile I would buy a weekly bus pas (paper, this was pre-Oyster) and listen to my iPod when travelling. The likes of Youtube and Facebook, let alone WhatsApp and Instagram, were yet to exist. If the film ‘The Social Network’ is to be believed, Mark Zuckerburg was just another highly talented arsehole.

But while the technology in our pockets has changed, our means of transport have stayed the same. Right now the breakneck improvements of the digital revolution mean greater convenience, and often pointless distractions, rather than a paradigm shift in how we travel. Importantly even this remains particularly concentrated in metropolitan areas, especially London. While bus use has increased by 52 per cent in London over the last 25 years, it has fallen by 40 per cent in other British cities – all while the process has become more convenient and ‘frictionless’ from a technical perspective. 

The focus of Britain’s Labour Party on local bus services is routinely derided by a media elite primarily based in the country’s capital. Yet their chagrin is a million miles away from the lived experience of people paying more money for deteriorating services. This particularly impacts those who live in rural areas, those who are, for whatever reason, socially isolated, and the poor.

But what if public transport was to change as profoundly over the next twenty years as payment systems and accessing real time information had over the last twenty? While self-driving cars, and even autonomous drones, might be alluring, for now they are the speculative visions of the elite – shaped by their material interests and assumptions about the world. Elon Musk recently revealed what his latest venture, the Boring Company, has built in California. A paved tunnel for cars. The London underground, built with vastly inferior technologies more than 150 years ago, was a far more effective solution to urban sprawl, despite the razzmatazz that accompanies the South African billionaire. Today in the British capital more than ten times as many people use underground rail every day as in Los Angeles, the location of Musk’s tunnel and a city globally synonymous with traffic jams.

Despite the high resolution videos that Musk tweets, the future of transit in the era of digital technologies – not to mention renewable energy – is bus services. Cheap, regular, semi-automated buses that produce no greenhouse gas emissions.

What is more, because of the trend I label ‘extreme supply’ in Fully Automated Luxury Communism, the inputs to making and running bus services – from the construction of the chassis to the energy that powers them – will fall every year for the rest of your life. The consultancy Deloitte estimates that by the early 2020s electric vehicles will hit price parity with those running on petrol, this being a consequence of the experience curve holding true not only for wind turbine and solar cell technology, but also lithium-ion batteries. Once such a point is reached things will only get worse for the gas-guzzlers of today, because in contrast to them renewables will keep getting cheaper, creating a permanently-deflationary trend in energy. A decade from now the tipping point will have long been passed.

It’s the same with the manufacture of buses, where 3D printing and modular construction will mean they are ever easier to make and repair. The leading edge of the new wave of technologies that allows this to happen can be found in the manufacture of first stage rockets: while NASA’s space shuttle had around 2.5 million parts, and today’s SpaceX machines around 100,000, newer companies like Relativity Space are building their rockets to have a thousand parts or less. Such a level of manufacturing simplicity, combined with the substitution of internal combustion engines for electric batteries and motors, will mean a dramatic fall in the cost of production. This isn’t the stuff of science fiction, it’s already happening. Compared to 3D printing much of RocketLab’s ‘Rutherford’ engine, a double decker bus is rather basic – albeit much larger. Indeed Relativity Space, presently aims to build the entire body of their first stage rocket using the technology.

Then there is driving. While self-driving cars are by no means imminent, as I make clear in FALC they are inevitable. To those who say they will never be safe enough the response is simple: 30,000 people die as a result of road accidents every year in the US. If autonomous vehicles can even halve that, which is a highly conservative forecast, the question of whether we should have them moves from curious quandary to moral imperative.

What this all means is quite clear: the primary inputs into something as mundane and old as bus services – the vehicle, the energy and the labour – are all falling in price and will continue to do so for the rest of this century. In the case of renewable energy this is by a double digit percentage each year. In the age of renewables, energy, as Stewart Brand once famously said of information, wants to be free. 

Virtually free information, or rather data, is also a variable. Big data means that planning for town and city-wide public transport has never been easier. Traditionally, and with some justification, neoliberal economics has claimed there are limits to central planning because no amount of it can ever hope to imitate the resource allocation immanent within the price system. Their argument is that this is why substantial state intervention is always destined to fail. While such a position always had a number of shortcomings – for one it outright ignores the role of the firm as a centralised and hierarchical actor within ‘free markets’ – it also had a point: no central planner can act with perfect information. Favoured by leading Austrian School economists like Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Von Hayek, this was referred to as the ‘socialist calculation debate’.

And yet the predictive power of big data is such that retail outlets can know when a young woman is pregnant before her family does. Such modelling need not necessarily be limited to the world of sci-fi dystopia conjoined to market capitalism. Equally plausible is its application to create forms of public infrastructure whose efficiency was previously impossible. Where buses need to go and when, and with what capacity, would suddenly become predictive and based on the patterns of huge amounts of citizens. Those with special needs, from the elderly to those with disabilities, would be similarly treated with higher automation not meaning they are left unattended but allowed to receive tailor-made and just-in-time services. Again, this is the liberatory side of a technology which, for now, is primarily about selling you junk as you watch videos of cats on YouTube. Why one is happening and the other is not is political – a consequence of technology merely reproducing a system which prioritises commodification, profit and consumer attention.

The question about how workers would be affected by these shifts is an important one – indeed FALC was partly written to help them get ahead of potential layoffs and transformations in a range of industries. Technological change should benefit them and citizens, not the shareholders of outsourced companies who want taxpayer-funded dividends while overseeing declining services and precarious working conditions. Personally I envisage the same labour force being needed in the medium term, only they would be used less intensely over a far greater number of journeys. And why would there be more bus journeys? Because they’d be free. To everyone. All of the time. Here buses would be a free public good, or more precisely a ‘Universal Basic Service’.

Modelling done by UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity, even with a major increase in projected journeys, puts the figure for how to do that at a surprisingly cheap £5 billion for the whole of the UK. Such a calculation was made on the basis of expanding London’s Freedom Pass, presently available exclusively to over-60s, while anticipating increased demand of 260%. Even if rising use transpired to be double that, and one can foresee the policy being very popular, it remains comparatively cheap given the potentially massive implications. That is before, as I have already laid out, public transport becomes the ground zero of extreme supply, where ever-cheaper energy, labour and information converge to create an increasingly abundant public good. It turns out the audacious policy of free buses is actually rather cheap and will only get cheaper. This should benefit citizens and workers, not shore up the profits of companies who will just choose to spend less for an inferior service, which is what will otherwise happen. The idea that privatisation and market competition works with buses – a natural monopoly – is absurd. People will always get on the first available vehicle not their favourite ‘brand’. This is how people actually think and act, and is very much at odds with the account of human nature provided by neoliberal economists like Gary Becker.

Free bus services would help to achieve a number of key objectives, from rapidly lowering greenhouse gas emissions, to accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles, and reducing air pollution which kills tens of thousands in Britain every year. From a socio-economic perspective it would especially benefit those in isolated areas and on low incomes, and would encourage greater social connection outside the home, contributing to the revival of the UK high street and communities across the country.

Given the costs of HS2 have been put at £56 billion (at a minimum) offering bus services as a UBS offers superb value. While Britain undoubtedly requires a low-carbon, high-speed rail network, the left should champion that within major regions (think Bournemouth-Southampton-Portsmouth, or Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds) rather than further compound the over-centralised emphasis of London in the country’s economic and cultural life.

One day soon it is perfectly possible that using a free bus will feel as intuitive as accessing a free email account. Yes, that will require state funding but the price will only decrease over time and the benefits only stack up. Far from inevitable, however, that will require political pressure. Without it, from the labour movement to political parties, technological change only benefits the elite.

Smaller countries like Estonia and Luxembourg are already embarking on free public transport for citizens in 2019 and 2020 respectively. It is only a matter of time, given the tendency of extreme supply, for the same measure to make sense in large cities and countries across the world. For the left in the UK and the United States, free bus services should be one of several ‘moonshots’ in building a more just, abundant and ecologically sustainable society. 

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