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Freeriders see progress in fight for fee-free public transit in Sweden

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A freerider jumping over one of the old barriers, later replaced with glass partitions. File: Planka.nu
08:35 CET+01:00
Stockholm's freeriders say a move to make public transport free in Estonia's capital has paved the way for a proper debate in Sweden, where they say train operators and politicians remain stuck in ideological gridlock.
 
It has been a year since the Estonians removed fees for public transport in Tallinn, and the move failed to spark anarchy on the city's buses and trains. The fear of ill-defined chaos, Stockholm freerider movement spokesman Christian Tengblad argues, is one reason not everyone wants a fee-free transport network in Stockholm. But he feels the debate has started to change.
 
"Because Tallinn is a neighbouring capital, it's become easier to talk about it," Tengblad tells The Local. He has been involved in the movement in Stockholm since it started in 2001, when left-leaning youth decided to create an insurance system for commuters who did not want to pay to ride the tube, commuter trains, or buses. For a 100-kronor ($15) fee per month, Planka.nu will step in and pay the 1,200-kronor fine that freeriders (plankare) face when they are caught. The "P-kassa", a derivative of the Swedish word for unemployment insurance or A-kassa, repays about 25 of its members a month.
 
Stopping the freeriders has been paramount to Stockholm County public transit operator SL for years, as evidenced by the investment in high glass barriers introduced at stations a few years ago. 
 
"People that didn't behave like the machines wanted them to, for example older people walking slowly, were in danger of what we called the 'squeeze barriers'," Tengblad recalls. 
 
 
The freeriders were far from the only people complaining about the swift and fitful glass partitions. In 2011, a dog called Diezel got stuck in one of the turnstiles. It took three people wielding tube cards to free him. By the following year, commuters testified to suffering bruised arms, expressing fears the new glass doors would cause bodily harm, prompting SL to talk to the doors' manufacturers
 
SL have since modified the glass barriers, which, Tengblad notes with an air of boyish schaudenfraude, means anyone can get through. 
 
"So not as many people are getting hurt any longer, but they don't work as barriers, so they've spent huge amounts of money on something that doesn't work," he says. 
 
While many Stockholmers united in fear of the glass barriers, not everyone enjoys having a freerider nip through in their wake. Linda, 34, was called an "old bitch" by a woman not much younger than her when she stopped the would-be freerider from following her. Other travellers seem to take a perverse pleasure in trapping the freeriders by slowing down once they are past the glass.
 
August, 21, once said to his ideologically driven older brother that it perhaps was not the most polite thing to do to glue your body to the back of an unsuspecting fellow commuter. The comment was not well received.
 
Yet Planka.nu emphasizes that freeriders should follow certain etiquette rules. Nor, Tengblad points out, does everyone dislike them. A few years ago, a bunch of non-freeriders who nonetheless support the movement made pins that stated "Freeride with me" - an easy invite to stick onto the back of your coat. 
 
 
While freeriders find both friends and foes on the ground, the ideological battle, says Tengblad, is instead fought at a higher level. He thinks fee-free public transport makes sense - it is simply far too expensive for many and the system can be financed through taxes. He argues that the Planka movement is much more practical and much less ideological than the ideas that have driven much of Sweden's transit system planning for the past six decades. 
 
 

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He's talking, of course, of the car. 
 
"The car has been somewhat of a nationalist symbol," Tengblad says. "With Volvo and Saab it's been difficult to separate Sweden from its auto industry, and in that context it is difficult to question the car." 
 
Yet he sees progress across the country. The small town of Avesta in central Sweden has introduced free buses, for example, while politicians in Karlskoga in the south have analyzed the town's snow-removal patterns to modernize it after the modern-day needs of residents who may not necessarily be behind the wheel of a car.
 
In the capital, however, change has been more gradual. A decision on Södermalm island to clear one of the six car lanes on Götgatan and instead add a bicycle lane heralds positive change, Tengblad argues.
 
"They basically sat down and counted the number of cars and the number of bicycles during rush hour," Tengblad says. "Just a few years ago, if they'd shut down a car lane, people would have screamed bloody murder about 'car haters'."
 

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