The Free Fare Movement comes to Rio

On 6th February, Rio's military police clashed with thousands of protestors calling for free movement in the city. What caused the fare-hike and why is the state so violently defending it?

Tucker Landesman
11 February 2014

During the peak of rush-hour traffic on February 6th, roughly two thousand residents marched on the streets of downtown Rio de Janeiro towards the central train station that connects the city with the surrounding metropolitan area. They marched against a R$0.25 bus fare hike (10 US cents/6 UK pence) that would put the price at R$3.00 (US $1.25/UK £0.76). And they marched for tarifa zero, which would finance public transport through taxes, allowing passengers free access buses, metros, trains and ferries. The protest ended in violent chaos in which police tear gassed protestors, bystanders, and commuters stuck in snarling traffic while protestors set fire to trash heaps and hurled rocks. One journalist died from injuries sustained while covering the protest.


Protestors occupy turnstiles at Central train station; declare “Catraca Popular”. Photo by author.

The protest was led by members of the Free Fare Movement (or the Brazilian acronym MPL for Movimento Passe Livre). The MPL is an activist-group of radical urbanists, influenced by the writings of Henri Lefebvre, fighting for the right to the city by means of free public transport. I briefly described the origins and ideology of the MPL, and their role in instigating the Brazilian “June Uprisings” of 2013, in a post on FAVELissues.

The private bus companies contracted by the municipal government to operate the public bus system in Rio de Janeiro, along with Mayor Eduardo Paes and other politicians who support the fare hike, argue that the increase is necessary in order to cover rising operating costs and new investments. Ironically the last fare hike was justified in order to cover the cost of installing air conditioning units to relieve passengers of heat indexes that reach 50degrees Celsius, yet two years later less than 20% of the buses operating in the city carry these units, and fewer still in buses that primarily serve working class and poor regions. The Mayor and the bus companies remind the public that fares haven't gone up in two years precisely because of the June protests. Indeed, four of those companies are suing the municipality for nearly R$200 million (US $83 million) in “lost revenue” as a result of the suspension of last year’s fare hike, a sum greater than their combined 2012 profits and equal to the cost of roughly 72 million journeys.

The problem with their argument is manifold. For one, it seems that politicians in Rio de Janeiro accept that prices in a non-competitive, state-facilitated oligopoly should increase because…well just because; as if it was a natural process with no need for evaluation, reflection, or justification. According to the federal Applied Economic Research Institute (IPEA), bus fares have risen at a rate of 65% above inflation. A cursory audit of the private bus companies revealed that together they made over R$70 million (nearly US $30 million) in profits during 2012. I call the audit cursory because it was conducted without free access to the companies’ financial records (which is a violation of their contracts) and the companies had plenty of time to alter their balance sheets before handing over what they did make public.

For another, Eduardo Paes stated to the press in December of 2013 (less than 8 weeks before the protest), that any adjustment to bus fare would depend on the findings of an independent administrative court within the municipal legislative branch (known in Portuguese as the Tribunal de Contas), which was tasked with analyzing the situation and determining what increase of fare would be…fair. Turns out the private bus companies don’t like it when independent fiscal institutions have access to their financial records, and they delayed or refused to hand over all the documents requested by the technocrats. In turn, the Tribunal analyzed what information was available to them and reported that there was no justification for a fare increase and that in reality the fairest thing to do is to decrease the price by 25 cents.

Furthermore, and most important to the organizers of these protests and discussions about the right to the city and urban mobilities, public transport must be recognized as a public good, similar to education, public health, and security. MPL points out that transportation is integral to daily life in any urban environment, and that the poor and working classes are almost exclusively dependent on public transport to move between work, leisure (if and when they can afford leisure activities) and home. Without public transport, the city does not function. And in order to reap the benefits of living in a city, one must have access to transportation. In this context, urban mobility, an individual’s capacity to traverse urban space, is declared fundamental to the right to the city, and must be guaranteed to all citizens irrespective of socioeconomic status.


A protestor stands with sign that says “My right to come and go costs R$7.15.” Photo by Rodolfo Menezes.

Water-downed remnants of this ideology are actually present in the political rhetoric of Rio de Janeiro politicians and appointees. In discussing the cable-car transport systems, the elevators, and tram rails built to move residents up and down the steep hills of (a few of) the city’s favelas, the Governor, Secretary of Transport, and Secretary of Security all spoke reverently about the right to “come and go” with dignity, that traveling in and out of the favela freely and with dignity is a fundamental right to be guaranteed by the State. But the rhetoric seems to stop at the edge of the favelas. Those same citizens whose freedom of mobility the State is committed to protect leave their neighborhoods and pay exorbitant prices relative to their incomes to travel to work, school or the beach. For example, to travel from Ipanema to the Complexo do Alemão, one would need to board a bus to Central Brasil (the site of yesterday’s protest), hop a train to Bonsucesso, and from there take the new Gondola or more likely a private van or motorcycle taxi. That is a total of three different fares (there are little-to-no concessions when changing modes of public transport in Rio de Janeiro). Google estimates that the journey would take a minimum of two hours during rush hour. One woman who works as a domestic worker in Copacabana told me she takes three busses (totaling more than two hours and R$15 each way during traffic) between work and her home in the Western periphery of the city. The cost of her commute is more than her hourly wage. Imagine if you had to work over an hour just to pay for your commute to and from work.


Flyer promoting the protest depicts protestor jumping the turnstile.

Back to the protest. One of the main events at any MPL protest is called a Catraca Popular in which passengers are encouraged to “pule uma catraca” or jump over a turnstile (also known as a faregate or bafflegate) in protest of paying high prices for widely acknowledged terrible service. At last week’s protest, which took place without disturbance, this was an inspiring moment. This small act of civil disobedience is largely symbolic (saving the single train fare home is unlikely to affect the finances of an individual and loosing the profits associated with a few dozen (or even a few hundred) passengers will not affect the profit margins of SuperVia (the private operator of the trains). Beyond the symbolism, I call it an inspiring moment because the facial expressions of the passengers who approach the Catraca Popular often appear at first cautious at the tumult; then curious about what is going on; hesitant to break the rules but then joyful in doing so. Many of them took out their phones to take pictures or videos of the protest before ducking under the turnstiles. This suggests that the Catraca Popular effectively encourages working citizens to think critically about their commute, and perhaps to recognize the political in the mundane urbanity of the everyday.


A commuter participates in the “catraca popular” and jumps the turnstile after encouragement from the protestors. Photo by MPL.

Unfortunately yesterday the state and SuperVia made clear from the beginning that they did not want a repeat of last week’s peaceful civil disobedience. Upon first trying to enter the train station, Military Police attempted to bar access. After allowing protestors through, employees of SuperVia were instructed to block the turnstiles with metal barricades. This single act sparked violence. When protestors attempted to remove these barriers to allow passengers through—as occurred peacefully last week—I witnessed SuperVia security guards physically assault advancing protestors (some protestors responded in-kind). The Military Police then used the disturbance as excuse to move in, separate the masses in divide-and-conquer strategy and began firing flash grenades and tear gas.

Up until the point that SuperVia brought out the barricades the protest was peaceful, without a single act of aggression. Last week, a smaller crowed conducted the very same protest without incident. Why, then, did SuperVia Trains, a private company, attempt to police a public protest? Why did their employees engage in acts of physical violence against citizens? Why were they willing to risk the security of everyone in the train station rather than let a few dozen passengers ride for free? These are questions that I ask of SuperVia. But I won’t hold my breath for a response.

Fleeing the truncheons of the police and the intoxicating tear gas, protestors, vendors, and passengers trying to get home scattered. Some protestors managed to destroy a few turnstiles on their way out. Outside, some protestors set fire to trash heaps and broke the windows of unoccupied public buses. All-in-all 20 people were arrested, dozens suffered minor injuries and two people sustained major injures. One of those is Santiago Andrade, a cameraman and journalist who was hit in the back of the head by what police and the major newspaper O Globo claim was a homemade bomb lobbed by a protestor. A Globo TV journalist who was a few meters from Andrade, reported on live TV that it was a police flash grenade, but the media conglomerate has since exercised copyright authority and removed all video evidence of that narrative. They have since devoted extraordinary resources to a new narrative, one that concludes the fired projectile came from a black bloc protestor. One man has been arrested in connection to the incident and police are investigating the death as a homicide.

These acts of “vandalism” and violence are the only events that made the morning newspaper O Globo. The story did not mention the groups that organized the protest or the slogans they chanted. They didn’t quote a single participant or cite the literature that is available on the Facebook Event Page. So with that I’d like to end with a thought-provoking quote by Emmeline Pankhurst, a British activist and suffragette. This quote comes from her biography My Own Story:

Ever since militancy took on the form of destruction of property the public generally, both at home and abroad, has expressed curiosity as to the logical connection between acts such as breaking windows, firing pillar boxes, et cetera, and the vote. Only a complete lack of historical knowledge excuses that curiosity. For every advance of men's political freedom has been marked with violence and the destruction of property. Usually the advance has been marked by war, which is called glorious. Sometimes it has been marked by riotings, which are deemed less glorious but are at least effective.

A version of this essay was previously published on, a collaborative blog about urban informalities.

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