Posted by: MYPLACE FP7 | August 15, 2012

The slow boat to Barreiro? Unemployment, isolation and the austerity death spiral

MYPLACE team members Tiago Carvalho, Ana Alexandre, David Cairns and Nuno de Almeida Alves, from Centro de Investigação e Estudos de Sociologia, Lisbon, on the effects of austerity measures in Barreiro, a MYPLACE field site in Portugal.

For more information on the MYPLACE project visit the project’s website: HERE

Over the course of the last year, it has been interesting to contemplate and at times observe the potential impact of the Portuguese government’s austerity measures in our two Myplace research locales. While relatively affluent Telheiras seems relatively unaffected by the economic crisis, or at least it is true to say that there is no news of any major austerity impact, the same cannot be said of Barreiro. In fact, stories associated with the cuts are in the news almost every week. For example, during the first year of Myplace, June 2011 to June 2012, the local unemployment rate rose by around 16% in the municipality, and various institutions have been reporting shortages of money. Several school refurbishment projects have also been mothballed, and numerous shops and businesses have closed.

The slow boat to Barreiro?

A further impact relates to transport. Barreiro, as those of you who are already familiar with the area from our previous blog or who indeed have visited will know, remains relatively isolated from the city of Lisbon. There are two main bridges which span the river Tejo, but neither are situated particularly close to the municipality; a third bridge that would connect Lisbon to Barreiro via a TGV connected to a new airport was the main hope for changes to occur, but the project was suspended as part of the austerity cuts. The main link with the city therefore looks set to remain the admittedly quaint but somewhat slow ferry service.

Beyond local impacts, daily life in Portugal is also being affected by various austerity-related measures, particularly in public transport services. While a new, if long overdue, metro link with the airport has now opened, the price of tickets and passes has rocketed in the last year. Ironically, the quality of public transport services, which have always been somewhat erratic particularly at weekends and during the summer months, has deteriorated markedly as costs escalate, with late or cancelled buses an all to regular occurrence; likewise, the overcrowded and infrequent metro carriages. Hopefully, this will not have any impact upon our fieldwork, which is due to begin in earnest next month. Recent reports do however indicate a drop in passenger numbers, which may also related to rising unemployment meaning fewer people travelling to work, which ironically will mean further cuts in services and price rises, as well as the possibility of privatisation of transport services. This is a small but still substantial example of what has been, somewhat melodramatically termed the austerity death spiral: rising prices leading to drop in consumer demand, leading to rising prices and cuts in services, leading to drop in consumer demand, ad infinitum. Does this sound familiar to any of our readers in Greece, Spain or Latvia?

Meanwhile on the boat to Barreiro, things are moving slower than ever. To reduce fuel consumption, and therefore costs, several measures have being taken since last year: the ferries are now travelling slower and more older boats, that are slower and consume less fuel, will begin to be used outside rush hours. And passengers complain about the increased prices and the decaying quality of the service, and try to use it less. And as if this were not enough, the municipal bus company in Barreiro is also facing extinction, thanks to new laws. The mayor is however presently defying the ruling, and says that buses will continue to run in Barreiro, even at a loss.

These are just some of our impressions formed
during the last year about what is happening in one of our research locations,
and there is a sense that these restrictive measures will continue along with
the economic crisis, even further distressing the quality of services and
reducing mobility both within Barreiro and in travel to and from Lisbon. This
may have some implications for our respondents, since access to educational
institutions and places of work will also become more restricted. Leisure
activities may also be endangered, since there are less boats and longer
travelling times. And as if this wasn’t enough cause for complaint, the local
surfers in Barreiro complain that the slower boats don’t make big enough waves,
meaning they too might become extinct.

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