Why Swedes want free subway rides?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Alexander Bertilsson of Stockholm is willing to take a stand against subway fares. He's part of a growing movement of fare dodgers in Scandinavia as reported in today's Wall Street Journal. The movement is called Planka Nu. That means "free ride now." The movement's goal is to eliminate subway fares. The so-called Plankers say that would encourage people to ditch their cars and the reduction in traffic would also reduce pollution. Mr. Bertilsson is a Planker and proud of it. Now, Mr. Bertilsson, you and other Plankers jump the turnstiles. Explain to us how you rationalize that.

Alexander Bertilsson: It's because the public transport company here in Stockholm, they just continue to raise the prices compared to, for example, the gasoline tax or something like that, even though it doesn't get better at all. So what we want to do is we want to lower the prices and fill the financing gap with progressive income tax instead; everybody has to be able to ride the public transport.

Werman: Right, and I'm sure there are lots of people like you who feel that way, but explain your activism. How do you do this?

Bertilsson: People have been free riding for as long as there have been fares in the Stockholm subway, so it's not something new. The [inaudible 1:02] when we started the organization back in 2001 was to first of all, we made an insurance fund, like a solidarity fund, so everybody can become a member in our solidarity fund. And for 100 Swedish kroner per month, instead of 700 Swedish kroner for the subway pass, if they get caught by a ticket inspector we pay their fine. And the second part is that by joining together we can actually become a political force and make political demands for free public transport.

Werman: Right, so if you do the math it turns out to more like $15 a month of insurance instead of $110 a month for the subway tickets. How much is the fine though if you get caught jumping?

Bertilsson: It's 1,200 Swedish kroner.

Werman: Right, so almost $200.

Bertilsson: Yeah.

Werman: So presumably there is this strong spirit of solidarity among Plankers who pay into this fund. Are you in favor of paying more taxes in order to allow the subway to be free? I mean, how does this idea square with a lot of Swedish people who are not part of the Planka Nu?

Bertilsson: Well, in general, I can say that people in Sweden have a very positive attitude towards paying high taxes as long as they go to keeping a good, and high quality, and free welfare system, so it's not like the idea at all is strange to common citizens.

Werman: But some Swedes who don't use the subway at all will end up forking over their money in taxes for a service they don't use. You could be alienating a lot of people.

Bertilsson: You can say that in one way, but also we have free roads. We have free highways. A lot of the things that car users use are for free. And also, even though they won't be using the subway directly, they are actually benefitting from other car users going into the public transport system, and thus, reducing congestion.

Werman: How is the subway company responding to this and what do authorities have to say about yours scheme? I mean, turnstile jumping is illegal there isn't it?

Bertilsson: No, it's not really illegal. I mean they've been trying to shut us down, but the fine that you get if you get caught by ticket inspector is actually more like a surcharge. There's like just a super expensive ticket. It's not really illegal. I mean, if it would've been illegal they would've shut us down and we would've been gone for 10 years.

Werman: Alexander, how close are you and the Plankers to changing policy in Sweden on mass transit fares?

Bertilsson: I mean it's a very tough question to ask, but I can definitely say that we have changed the whole debate during this last 10 years. Now it's actually something that a lot of people now have to at least take a stance on. So, we're definitely moving the debate in the right direction.

Werman: Alexander Bertilsson, a free subway ride activist in Stockholm. Thanks very much for your time.

Bertilsson: Thank you.

[music "Free Ride"]