Zero tariff

Image: Andre Moura
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By MAURO ZILBOVICIUS*

Because it attacks inequalities between citizens in relation to what the State provides, the Zero Tariff is the subject of much controversy

 The Zero Tariff was proposed, for the first time, in the municipal government of São Paulo in 1990, by the then mayor Luiza Erundina. The Zero Tariff is a public policy for universal urban mobility. It necessarily provokes a healthy discussion about its financing.

As it clearly attacks inequalities between citizens in relation to what the State provides, a central point of any and all political discussions, it is the subject of much controversy. It is rational, technically, economically viable and makes it clear, in its formulation, that all public policies require democratic decisions about, after all, who pays and who benefits from them.

And this applies especially to those that must provide the full exercise of the constitutional rights of citizenship. One of them is quality public transport for everyone (“the right of the citizen, the duty of the State” is what is written on every bus in São Paulo and in the Constitution of Brazil, thanks to the amendment approved and proposed by Luiza Erundina).

The Zero Tariff is absolutely rational. Life in cities (and even in rural regions) requires mobility, as well as education, electricity, sanitation, public safety, health and, of course, internet access.

There is an absolutely pertinent question: who pays? How to obtain funds for the system contracted at cost, with minimally acceptable service levels: travel time, vehicle frequency, waiting time at the stop, maximum acceptable capacity, during peak and valley times, at night, on Sunday, etc.?

As it touches the center of urban coexistence and, at the same time, the politics of the city and the State, since 1990 the Zero Tariff has aroused passions. But as it makes political and technical sense, it is no surprise that its implementation is growing throughout Brazil and around the world (as in the very recent case of Montepellier, in France, for example).

In urban public transport, the fare, as a measure of the cost of the service and, at the same time, of the price charged to the user, is a fiction that has serious consequences for the quality of the service, its accessibility and others. It is, at the same time, remuneration for the service and a regulator of demand.

The higher the tariff, the greater the funding capacity, investment and profitability of the activity, but… the lower the accessibility for a large part of the population, which makes it an efficient social control device. In common sense, however, the fare is understood as a “cost per passenger”. But, treated like this, it is a fallacy, because passengers do not cause costs. The sizing to obtain quality indicators is what causes costs. This “fare” keeps passengers away and, strictly speaking, tends to infinity, because the number of passengers tends to zero the more the “fare” increases.

First basic problem with the so-called “cost per passenger”: a constitutional right that requires payment to be exercised is not in fact a right. Second: public passenger transport systems are only viable on some lines, for some people with the income to pay this cost. Let's suppose that a fare of R$15 per passenger could support a quality, clean system, with very acceptable indicators. How many passengers could pay this amount?

The tariff is always arbitrary, defining capacity to invest and operate and, at the same time, excluding part of the demand. In Brazil, the story of the mismatch between the fare “fair to fund the system” and the fare “fair for the passenger” is the story of the decline of services (note that this is not restricted to public transport).

How was this handled? Various solutions for profitable and unprofitable lines, routes that serve not to transport with quality, but to “fish” for passengers and fill buses (more revenue, with practically the same cost), clearing house, single fare, state-owned company (CMTC ) created to absorb losses, etc.

There is no fare that guarantees quality, corridors, BRTs, buses with green energy, and is supported solely by passengers. And it's not just in Brazil that low income and high investment and operating costs don't get along well. Neither in São Paulo, nor… in Paris, where, since the end of the Second World War, the public transport system has been financed in three ways: one third coming from the fare paid, but another two thirds from the French treasury and the tax paid by commerce and other economic activities in Paris. It is recognized that: (a) the tariff is unable to cover costs; (b) the benefits of the systems go far beyond the passenger users.

In Brazil, the tariff, as it is fictitious, arbitrary, useless for financing services and impeding the exercise of rights, can and should be abolished. But, as they say, “there is no free lunch”. No lunch, no vaccines, no public education, no USP. Everything costs, someone pays. But because these and other services are essential for society, those who consume them are not solely responsible for paying for them. Society, with an unequally fair tax burden, basically depending on income and wealth, “banks” these services. Zero Tariff is the same thing.

Public policies are obviously expensive, especially when it comes to providing excellent services. And any deficiencies in the SUS or public education are not due to the free services, but to the undersizing of investments and funding to operate at minimally acceptable quality levels. Education is expensive, the SUS is expensive, vaccines are expensive. Everything costs. What is needed is management so that maximum benefit is offered at minimum cost. Yes, this applies to all State activity.

The vaccine is a benefit to society, not just to the individual who receives the vaccine. That's why the vaccine costs, but the whole of society pays. It makes sense for health, for public education, for public safety. Why wouldn't it make sense for urban mobility? Even more so because the Zero Tariff promotes the distribution of income not spent on mobility, which will be saved or consumed like never before, generating… taxes and flow in the economy.

There are several arguments against the universalization of transport and, therefore, urban mobility for everyone, not just for those who have the income to own a car, who use it as and when they want, wherever they want, just paying a property tax and, in some roads, tolls. Only limited by the law, the traffic code, which is often disrespected, as well as the criminal law itself. People kill and die freely in traffic, basically at the Zero Tariff.

In 1990, I was part of the team led by engineer Lucio Gregori, who proposed the Zero Tariff project during the Erundina government. Since then, discussions have been held, but criticisms based on disparate arguments have, over time, been abandoned. However, some persist, because it is a truly political discussion:

Children will travel non-stop, marginalized people, old people, retirees, punks, a real mess: experience in Brazil and abroad shows that this is nothing more than prejudice. With discipline and urbanity (like on the subway) there are no retirees strolling around without stopping (and, if there were, would it be bad?).

Free is, by definition, bad: Is USP bad?

People will use it for short trips that could be done on foot: and if someone can travel three or five blocks on Avenida Paulista without paying, what's the problem? Capacity? What about the crowding of the roads by cars, by people traveling three or five blocks to go to the bakery? These can, but others cannot? Yes, it is necessary to size the fleet, intervals, remembering, above all, that buses that circulate with 20, 30 or 40 people cause exactly the same cost (except for minimum amounts of additional fuel to take off a larger mass).

There will be “useless” trips: what is useful travel? Who has the right to classify trips by usefulness? Is going to the park, visiting family, “useless”?

Everyone should have income to pay for everything: This is a peculiar conception of the State and public service, which ultimately commodifies health, security and education. In fact, society must choose what should be a fundamental right and what is provision for payment. But this is the same as defining what is right or consumption. Someone even rhetorically asked “why don’t they ask for free tickets to Disney?”

Service providers will not worry about picking up passengers: Yes, they will, because they will be monitored, by GPS, by Bluetooth, by satellite. Statistics and data science make it possible to verify the service, flows, capacity and stops at points. Where is the difficulty?

Those who don't use it will pay: that's right! Anyone who drives a car pays, just like me, an elderly person, pays for vaccinations and basic education for children and teenagers, or shouldn't it be like that?

People will use it more just because it's available: maybe some, marginally. But no one breathes anymore because the air is available. People use transport because they need to, because they have the right to access leisure and pleasure, in addition to work. They go in search of something, not for the “rare pleasure” of traveling by bus.

Isn't the Zero Fare an incentive for public transport? No, it doesn't do this feat alone. Alongside the Zero Tariff, it is necessary to significantly increase other “tariffs” or costs, for example, the use of the road system (which is free today, not to be confused with IPVA) to release carbon into the atmosphere. And yes, well-operated corridors, with smart traffic lights to give way to buses, can compete with cars. The Zero Tariff, even more so. Corridors and lines articulated with bicycle systems for the last or first mile – preferably not operated by banks.

The Zero Tariff is a public policy for times of exclusion and income concentration. It is the first policy of others that will certainly come, to guarantee minimum living conditions for a society in which value is increasingly concentrated and which, which is essential to recognize: it does not need part of the available workforce, be it low , medium or very high qualification. The illusion that everyone would earn enough to buy a car, the Fordist maxim, remained in the 20th century. Other forms of Zero Tariff are coming to allow a dignified life in society.

*Mauro Zilbovicius is a senior professor in the Department of Production Engineering at USP. Author, among other books, of Models for production, production of models (annablume). [https://amzn.to/3JDTsn7]


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