Every city that has public transportation struggles with fare jumpers — people who sneak onto the subway or the bus without buying a ticket. In Sweden, fare-dodging is a brazen movement in which the group’s members don’t try to hide what they’re doing.
On a weekday morning, students in backpacks and winter coats stream out of the university subway station in Stockholm. Some people have set up a booth here with a hot pink logo of a man jumping a turnstile, and a sign that says Planka.nu. In Swedish, that roughly means “dodge the fare now.”
“We’re distributing some leaflets about free public transportation,” says Christian Tengblad, one of the group’s founders. They’re also offering free coffee and cookies.
In this case, “free transportation” is a loose term. The leaflets describe how to avoid paying a fare for Stockholm’s subway system, where full-fare users typically pay about $35 for a one-week pass.
At 33, with his infant son asleep in the baby carriage next to him, Tengblad does not exactly look the part of a rebel. He explains that his group basically has set up an insurance system.
“We have a fund, that’s like the membership of Planka,” Tengblad says. “People pay 100 krona each month [around $12], then if they receive any fines, the fund finances this.”
The fine for fare-dodging is around $120, he says.
This group has enough income from its members to pay everyone’s fines with money left over, though Tengblad says nobody makes any real income from the project.
It’s not a new idea — groups have been encouraging fare evasion and offering insurance for paying fines in a few French cities for the past several years — but the Stockholm group may be among the most public.
Planka started in 2001 as a protest movement. Now it’s evolved into something that sounds almost like a think tank.
The members of this group believe that public transportation should be paid for by taxes, with free tickets. The idea may not be so far-fetched. Nearby Tallinn, Estonia, recently went that route, and a handful of other cities in Europe and the U.S. have experimented with the same thing.
These fare jumpers complain that subway tickets in Stockholm cost 75 percent more than they did a decade ago. But after 14 years of campaigning, the activists don’t seem to have swayed Stockholm’s decision-makers.
“I would consider them thieves,” says Kristoffer Tamsons, Stockholm’s commissioner for public transportation. He says free riders cost the system about $30 million a year.
“Most people in Stockholm agree that you should pay for yourself, and that you should contribute to society,” he says. “And if you’re not contributing, then you have no right to use our public services.”
Back at the University subway station, many subway riders express sympathy with the movement’s ideas. Even some people you wouldn’t expect, like a subway driver who wouldn’t give his name because he could get fired for speaking to reporters.
“Yes, it’s too expensive,” says the driver. And he has praise for the fare dodgers, saying, “They are actually doing something, not just talking. I gotta respect that.”
A lot of people leaving the station say that while they might respect the movement, they’re not about to join. Annika Ylamaki and her friend Fanny Vallen go to school here.
“Of course, because we’re students we think it should be free, because we don’t have much money,” Vallen says. But she would never consider joining.
“I think I’m kind of a nice person, so I couldn’t do that,” Ylamaki says.
“Yeah, that’s illegal to do something like that, and we don’t want any troubles,” says Vallen, nodding.
Lately, membership in the group has dropped from a high of around 600 people. Tengblad says that’s not because people are afraid of joining, but simply because some people don’t mind the risk. In his experience, subway attendants rarely issue fines anymore, so the monthly insurance payments no longer make sense to some fare jumpers, who are leaving the group while still dodging the fare.
Finally, it’s time for a demonstration. Sometimes Planka members just slip through the gates behind someone entering a station, but Tengblad and his friends are carrying coffee, cookies, a kiosk and a baby carriage.
They walk into the station with their gear, and Tengblad takes off his coat. He waves it on the far side of the gate to trick the system into thinking someone is exiting. The gates swing open, and the group passes through.
No jumping, no shouting. Nobody even seems to notice as the fare dodgers blend into the crowd and disappear.