Theresa Enright’s “Commotion” examines political unrest directed at transit systems

head shot of Theresa Enright

Professor Theresa Enright

UTTRI associated faculty Theresa Enright, Associate Professor of Political Science, researches urban politics and governance, transportation, mobility, and social movements. Her recent essay “Commotion” exploring political unrest directed at transit systems was published in Society and Space on October 8, 2020 and is posted below with kind permission of the author and publisher.

Enright spoke about “Commotion” with Jeff Dorchen on “This is Hell,” a weekly longform political interview program broadcast across Chicago on WNUR, on October 15, 2020.  Listen to Enright’s interview, entitled “A Transit in Common” on SoundCloud here.


Commotion

By Theresa Enright

In the past year, transit systems across the Americas have been sites of intense political unrest. In New York City, riders have staged mass fare evasions and rallies for police abolition refusing the increasing cost of commuting and the related racist securitization of transit space. In Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal, urbanists have intensified calls for free transit, seeking red-green solutions to capitalist and environmental crises. In Washington D.C. and in Vancouver, transit workers have launched collective actions opposing the privatization and outsourcing of transit operations and demanding fair pay as well as more democratic control of network management, governance and use. And in Santiago, residents’ protests over the cost of a metro fare cascaded into nation-wide demonstrations over Chile’s constitution and model of neoliberal development.

The cause for commotion in each instance is contextual, but the political claims and choreographies are remarkably similar. Taken together, these events signal coordinated efforts to oppose the inadequacies of existing “public” transit in providing universal, accessible, sustainable, and democratic, urban mobility. These conflicts over public transit, which preceded the tumult of the global pandemic and revitalized Movement for Black Lives, continue to resonate in the current state of crises.

I argue that these mobilizations—and we could include other examples from London to Paris to Hong Kong—reveal transit systems as institutions engineered for social control, but also as essential sites of collective action and resistance. Struggles over transportation signal infrastructure in general as an important lever of social change and they suggest that mobilizing for mobility in particular is essential to effecting equality, freedom, democracy, and in many cases, the simple continuation of life itself. Transit struggles express and embody broad urban conflicts over production and reproduction, and they galvanize contention around questions of circulation, labor, climate, and social exclusion. The essay’s title, “Commotion,” signals not only how transit systems host intense agitation, but also names a target and stake for these actions: the common motion of bodies and dynamic forms of being together within the city.

In this essay, I consider the significance of this commotion. Reading and affirming the work of transit activists, I discuss some ongoing activities of what we might call “commoning,” that are currently overhauling public transit and that offer a guide for how we might rebuild infrastructure against the status quo. Through their work of criticism and creative counter-conduct, transit activists are refusing public transit as it currently exists, constructing new configurations of shared mobility and shared life.

The Mobility Commons

The notion of the commons or, as some authors put it, the common, is at the center of debates concerned with how societies manage shared natural and human resources. While definitions vary, the idea of the commons historically invokes a relationship that is neither public nor private (Linebaugh, 2008). It is conceived in contrast to the violent and exclusionary ordering of state sovereignty, and the exploitative arrangements of capitalist property and markets (Gidwani and Baviskar 2011; Hardt and Negri, 2009). As a theoretical discourse and an activist cry, the commons suggests extra-state institutions of co-management and decision, and anti-capitalist structures for generating, using, and accessing wealth. Moreover, the commons is founded on the feminist values of collective solidarity, reciprocity, and care (Federici, 2010; Gibson-Graham, Cameron, and Healy, 2013).

Unlike some forms of infrastructure (e.g. housing or energy) which readily lend themselves to commons thinking, however, it is difficult to imagine transportation services produced and provided through grassroots self-governing institutions. Not only is mobility not a pre-existing natural resource to be conserved, but due to the scale of urban transit, its fundamental embeddedness in other urban systems, and the complex financial, legal, and technical expertise through which its comprised, it is generally accepted, even by those on the left that transit is best organized by the state. “[M]ultitudes, it would seem,” writes Donald Kingsbury (2018: 162), “can’t build metros.”

Yet transit commons do exist, and mutual aid and ‘informal’ systems of mobility frequently sustain urban dwellers in both the global North and South. Building on these realities, Anna Nikoleva et al. (2019), have recently suggested “the mobile commons” as a principle to guide just mobility transitions and processes of global decarbonization. With an emphasis on the infrastructures of political action, Mimi Sheller (2018: 161) also provocatively asks: “What if the commons were not just about the sharing of a territory, a space, a resource, or a product…What if we conceived of mobility itself as a commons and the commons as mobile?”

The work of Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval provides a further inspiration to activate the mobility commons.  In their recently translated text, Common: On revolution in the 21st Century, they define the common as “a regime of practices, struggles, institutions, and research all dedicated to realizing a non-capitalist future” (Dardot and Laval, 2019: 5) The common here is the dynamic relationship between a thing (e.g. a resource, a place, a value) and its communities of management. It is a material element of social praxis, and a principle of action. In other words, commoning names the shared activities of responsibility, communication, regulation, experimentation, and decision on the basis of which communities are constructing collective goods, defending them, and extending them.

This formulation is particularly useful for parsing out the distinct political grammars of the commons and the public—an essential task when it comes to transit and mobility. Whereas the public refers to state-owned property managed in the collective interest of a predetermined citizenry, the common is a non-property relation of use and engagement through which diverse subjects are constituted. And whereas the public provides a secure and stable legal context in which markets can operate, the common enacts structures of production and distribution that are excessive of and antithetical to capitalist accumulation.

Despite the allure of “the public” in public transit provision, there is a radical chasm between public transit and what we might consider common transit. Tied to the state, transit across the Americas is part of a colonial apparatus, built on Indigenous lands stolen through genocide; it is pursued as a means for capital expansion, as seen in the construction of Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic Village; it serves an exclusive ‘we,’ bolstering exclusionary citizenship regimes; and it is potentially weaponized as an arm of the police in the name of security and order, for example, during Black Lives Matter demonstrations. These are not anomalous features but arise from the inherent limits of the nation-state form and its public services (Hardt and Negri, 2009). While necessary for cities everywhere, public transit is not universal and benevolent; it also disempowers individuals, dispossesses communities and disables bodies. This is evident in a long and well established history of class, racial and gender hierarchies embedded within and enabled by purportedly public structures of transportation (see, for example, Attoh, 2019; Bullard, Johnson, and Torres, 2004; Soja, 2010). These trends do not reveal a spectacle of the public, a privatized public, or an austerity public in retreat (although these too are true), but rather they give lie to the idea that the public ever truly belonged to or serviced everyone. The defense of existing public transit (like public services more generally) may be an exigent arena to reject neoliberal mores, but this cannot be the end of social justice struggles. Instead, we must radically reimagine what transit can be and what it can do.

It may be necessary to work to restore public options, while also rejecting these incumbent structures, to move beyond them. While public transit systems are undoubtedly vital for urban survival, and are essential elements for responding to the global climate emergency, they cannot remain ossified in conventional hierarchies of power. Commoning public transit, then, need not entail the creation of completely new and autonomous systems of mobility, but at minimum, would entail revealing its inadequacies, opening access, emphasizing use rights, and democratizing decision. More expansively, commoning public transit could leverage broader social and spatial relations that reflect active participation, redistribution, recognition, and care.

Commoning Transit

We can observe such designs for common transit already at work across a range of contemporary political movements. Here I highlight just a few of the many active and ongoing communities and organizations engaged in this praxis, whether or not it is named as such. To draw out the social processes of commoning, I focus on three main activities: agitation, appropriation, and amplification. This is proposed not as an exhaustive accounting, but rather a heuristic for understanding the transformations in use, ownership, control and participation that are occurring below, within, and against existing public transit systems.

Agitation

Agitation is a technique to confront injustice in the provisioning urban flows and to assert new claims over territory and movement. On the one hand, agitation aims to disrupt the status quo in ways that are highly visible so that business as usual—which for many is unbearable—cannot continue. On the other hand, agitation goes beyond disruption and is an active mode of instituting change to make the day to day more livable and to repurpose architectures of power in pursuit of what Deborah Cowen (2019: 12) calls “infrastructure otherwise”.

The #SwipeItForward campaign in New York City is emblematic of this creative counter-conduct. Emerging in the wake of increased police surveillance on the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the criminalization of fare evasion, Swipe it Forward encourages those who have unlimited monthly transit passes to swipe in those who may be need of a ride. At a basic level, the campaign’s motto “If you see someone help someone” encourages daily acts of mutual support from those who have access to the system, to those who otherwise would not be able to ride. But the campaign is also more radical, seeking to interrupt the operations of a patently racist system and to secure the dignity of Black and Brown transit riders. Swipe it Forward is not simply a curtesy from one New Yorker to another; it is a mechanism to save Black and Brown populations from being subject to discriminatory, and sometimes lethal, penal measures. Targetted large-scale swipe campaigns prioritize the needs of those who have been subject to economic and police violence.

Indeed, rather than a transit campaign, the founders—a coalition of racial justice, abolitionist, and migrant rights organizers—are explicit that Swipe it Forward is “an act of self-defense” against predatory policing in the transit system. In contrast to groups such as the Straphangers, the goal is not to defend public transit as such. Rather the group aims to “End broken windows policing” which disproportionately targets Black and Brown and low-income riders. Swipe it Forward activists crucially identify public transit as a (broken) life-support system. In this sense the campaign draws from and engages with Black Lives Matter—for whom transit networks have been a particularly iconic symbol and key rallying point because of way these networks have historically concretized racist disadvantage and violence. While transit per se has not been the focus of the sustained Black Lives Matters protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the abolitionist momentum of 2019’s wave of transit actions has undoubtedly contributed to the 2020 uprisings.

Affirming their right to be able to move freely regardless of race, status, or income, Swipe it Forward and affiliates utilize transit infrastructure as a means to refuse the deeply engrained racism of daily urban life. Disrupting the smooth operation of transit then is a way to defend communities and it is also an affirmative practice of creativity, instituting what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney (2013) refer to the fugitive and prophetic undercommons, existing within beyond and beneath structures of power.

Appropriate

For many transit activists today, one key step in transforming transit into a support for urban life is to overhaul its governance structures and operational logics. What if transit were a democratic infrastructure, defined not by an abstract technocracy, but through the intervention, deliberation and decision-making of residents, riders, and workers?

One expression of this principle of self-management is in organized labor opposing privatization, or calling for enhanced protective health and safety measures in light of Covid-19. Beyond workers as such, new forms of control and ownership of mobility are also emerging from communities seeking to revolutionize planning and design processes. Whereas riders—or customers as they are more commonly known—are typically cast as the passive recipients for whom transit planning is undertaken, movements such as The Untokening reframe diverse urban residents—especially marginalized people—as equal and capable participants in decision making about mobility.

A nation-wide multiracial collective in the US, the Untokening formed in 2016 to advocate for transit and mobility justice. While reducing the cost of transit and improving accessibility for low-income communities encompasses part of the mandate of un-tokening, the broader program of the organization is to counter the tokenism of conventional planning and management. “For too long” they claim, “dominant narratives in mobility advocacy have drawn from the experiences of the most privileged” (http://www.untokening.org/). They reject both the longstanding principle guiding transit planning that the “ideal” transit user is a middle-upper class, white, able-bodied male rush-hour commuter and the premise that infrastructure planning must be a legalistic, expert-driven, and bureaucratically inflexible system where the state is assumed to a guarantor of interest.

Against the elitism and white supremacy of transport planning, the Untokening centers the lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and marginalized individuals and communities. Not only does the group empower individual riders and transport professionals within advocacy, planning, and policy spaces, but they actively resist the tepid and depoliticized consensus-based discourses of so-called transport experts. In enacting new co-creation practices, organizational norms and rationalities of decision, then, they are overhauling not only the institutions, but the hegemonic epistemology of transit planning and provision. Fundamentally, these activities are instituted through building solidarity and cross-community trust. “Untokening” writes Lynda Lopez (2019) “as process is also [about] building a community of care and support in our collective works towards #mobilityjustice.” This task of democratizing and decolonizing transport planning has only gained intensity and exposure in recent months. The Untokening thus gives a glimpse into forms of belonging that might underwrite the common, starting with an affirmation of diverse bodies, people, identities, and experiences, and advancing shared needs through forging collective consciousness, social bonds, habits, values, and institutions which enable greater capacity to define and direct movement.

“From Chile to Toronto…Power to the fare evaders” poster advocating for free transit, November 25, 2019. Source: Simran Dhunna on Twitter.

Amplification

Infrastructure, writes Lauren Berlant (2016: 393) is “necessary for any form of sociality to extend itself.” Amplification refers to the way that transit enables in ways and at scales greater than its component parts and to how particular struggles over transit are connected to more general structures of social change. Free Transit Toronto is one example of a group performing this work of amplification, reimagining transit beyond the lens of instrumental commuting and toward a horizon of mobility as freedom and disalienation.

Fare-free transit campaigns around the world have pursued no- to low-cost transit for a wide variety of reasons (with ridership increases and cost-savings among the most frequent). Free Transit Toronto, however, explicitly seeks to reduce fares on transit as a platform for the creation of a freer urban society. Free Transit Toronto sees the universal provision of transit choices as an important economic, social, and environmental goal, providing urban dwellers with robust access to city jobs, neighborhoods, services, and amenities while reducing private automobile use. The slogan “no fare is fair” claims transit as a service that should be equally available to all inhabitants regardless of race, socio-economic status, ability, or residential or employment location.

Free Transit Toronto joins many other transit coalitions (e.g. TTCRiders and Scarborough Transit Action) in campaigns to address urgent and far-reaching problems of Toronto’s public transit network. While advocating for equity-based policy solutions (e.g. a reduction in fares, the extension of transit lines to underserviced areas) these are not the ends of the agenda. Rather, free transit “opens the door to a broader transformation of urban life and the current social system (Free Transit Toronto 2020). Rather than redistributing the benefits of the existing transit system to a wider public, the platform thus explicitly seeks to use the campaign for free transit as a catalyst in a broader red-green program to change transit so as to change society at large (see also, Kipfer 2012). These goals are even more urgent under pandemic conditions, where service cuts and a lack of funding commitments have put the whole network under threat.

The decommodification of transit and urban mobility are necessary steps toward the socialization of urban life. Free transit thus imagines the creation robust mass transit offerings, the coordination of transit and social housing; a green new deal, and the democratization of infrastructure and community planning. Though Free Transit Toronto use language of the public, not the common, the state is positioned to foster relations that enhance communal livelihoods, ensure ecological health, and engender individual and collective freedom. Public transit is not the end, it is what Dominic Boyer (2019) calls an infrastructure of “enablement.”

Co-motion

Agitation, appropriation, and amplification identify three kinds of activities through which transit infrastructures are being unsettled and remade. The mobilizations mentioned here—just a small snapshot of the commoning work being performed in cities worldwide—claim public transit as an important right. Yet they seek transit solutions that exceed the forms of equity, redistribution, and inclusion that currently dominate public transit discourses. They also claim institutions beyond the liberal capitalist state to direct and govern mobility. They seek not “access” to transit networks in a narrow sense, but the substantive capacity to manage the logistical apparatuses and organizational spaces that comprise contemporary cities. They thus demonstrate how even progressive tenets of social and spatial justice need to be thought in more systematic, dynamic, and interconnected—that is infrastructural ways.

Today’s struggles over transit are not accidental or transitory revolts. They identify key elements of infrastructural systems that condition collective existence at scales from the neighborhood to the planetary. Commoning as a framework highlights multiple practices for sharing mobility ‘from below’ that do not require an outright rejection of existing public options, yet do not acquiesce that these public options are sufficient. If the current wave of public infrastructural breakdowns and deficits—starkly illuminated by both COVID-19 and antiracist uprisings—has become the occasion for remaking the built environment and forms of politics, then commoning offers a third way for these infrastructures beyond the horizons of ruin or resilience.

Following a commons trajectory thus holds much potential for animating an infrastructural disposition that is more participatory, careful, equitable, and sustainable. The commotion observed in transit networks around the world marks a significant moment of socio-technical transition at a social, ecological and economic tipping point. As a threshold of potential, this commotion is also a statement of hope (Massumi, 2015: 79). It concerns how forms of politics and cities are being sustained, how lifeworlds are being made, and it names what we might do and build together, moving in common.

References

Attoh KA (2019) Rights in Transit: Public Transportation and the Right to the City in California’s East Bay. University of Georgia Press.

Boyer D (2019) Energopolitics. Raleigh: Duke University Press.

Bullard R, Johnson, G, and Torres, A, (Eds.) (2004) Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity. Cambridge: South End Press.

Cowen D (2019) Following the infrastructures of empire: Notes on cities, settler colonialism, and method. Urban Geography, pp.1-18. https://doi.org/10.1080/02723638.2019.1677990

Federici S (2010) Feminism and the politics of the commons in an era of primitive accumulation. In Team Colors Collective (ed.) Uses of a whirlwind: Movement, movements, and contemporary radical currents in the United States. AK Press, Chico (CA), pp. 283–293.

Free Transit Toronto (2020) http://www.freetransittoronto.org/

Gibson-Graham JK, Cameron, J,  and Healy, S (2013) Take back the economy: An ethical guide for transforming our communities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gidwani V, and Baviskar, A (2011) Urban commons. Economic and Political Weekly, 46(50): 42-43.

Hardt M and Negri, A (2009) Commonwealth. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Harney S. and Moten, F (2013) The undercommons: Fugitive planning and black study.

Kingsbury, D.V., 2018. Only the People Can Save the People: Constituent Power, Revolution, and Counterrevolution in Venezuela: Constituent Power, Revolution, and Counterrevolution in Venezuela. Suny Press.

Kipfer S (2012) “Free Transit and Beyond.” The Bullet: Socialist Interventions, 12: 1–18.

Linebaugh P (2008) The Magna Carta manifesto: Liberties and commons for all. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Lopez L (2019) Decolonizing our work: Why Untokening is so powerful for BIPOC transportation advocates. Streetsblog Chicago. October 14. Available here.

Massumi B (2015) The Power at the End of the Economy. Raleigh: Duke University Press.

Nikolaeva A, Adey, P, Cresswell, T., Lee, JY, Nóvoa, A, and Temenos, C (2019) Commoning mobility: Towards a new politics of mobility transitions. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 44(2): 346-360.

Sheller M (2018) Mobility justice: The politics of movement in an age of extremes. New York: Verso Books.

Soja EW (2010) Seeking Spatial Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Link to the essay at Society and Space magazine


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