Next to beautiful beaches, Estonia hides another treasure up her sleeve: free public transport. What started as a political stunt in 2013, worked out to be a nationwide project. As of July 2018, everybody can use regional busses in most counties without paying a fare. Are they living the dream?

All in for free transit

Aiming on votes for the 2012 municipal elections, Tallinn’s mayor Edgar Savisaar held a public opinion poll to see whether his city was up for free public transport. An idea that didn’t quite bedazzle everyone. Firstly, critics said, the mayor stole the concept from the Social Democrats, who already put forward the idea in 2005. Secondly, opponents argued that the estimated transition costs (€ 60 million) would be a waste of public money. Those who could afford it, would still prefer driving a car.

On the other side, 75 % of the voters gave green light to introduce the scheme, making Tallinn the world’s first fare-free transport capital in January 2013. All (and only) legally registered citizens could, after purchasing a green card (€ 2), hop on every means of public transport in the city. Reasons pro were plenty. Low income households saw their mobility increased, allowing them access to jobs. At the same time, the unemployed remained attached to society. Not only poor families with children would now be able to engage in leisure activities, also high income households were aroused to commercial activity in the capital. All in all, the experiment attracted newcomers. And, as more people registered into Tallinn, the city incomes from tax revenues made up for the annual € 20 million loss of free public transport. 

Reorganising public transport

In the process of reorganising the transport system, challenges were dealt with swiftly, according to Head of Public Transportation Kirke Williamson: ‘We had slight problems with drunks in the eastern regions, but they are solved now. Basically because we allowed bus drivers to refuse people who are drunk to enter the bus. I myself  take the bus or train to work and I don’t see much drunk behaviour. The same goes for homeless who, in wintertime, increasingly use the transport system. They usually sit behind in the bus and don’t cause any problems.’

As far as the oppositional fear for overcrowded busses goes, it’s grossly exaggerated: ’The first months we had a long summer with many passengers taking the bus. It hasn’t been as bad as India (i.e. where passengers sit on the roof) but some busses were really crowded. The situation was solved by giving every county the right to order extra busses if it thought them necessary. ’More positive news. Even with a revenue loss of € 14 million per year, newly ordered busses and trams strolled the Tallinn roads. All but adding pressure to raise minimum wage for bus drivers. ’Their salary (€ 945 a month) is quite low compared to that of their colleagues in the rest of Europe and their occupation is losing its attractiveness’.

The neighbouring Swedes, who pay higher bus salaries, nevertheless payed great attention to the Tallinn experiment. The scheme was surveyed by the Royal Institute for Technology in Stockholm. Member of the research team Yusak Susilo concludes that, six years after the kick-off, the benefits of fare-free public transport exceed the costs: ‘In terms of providing better access to jobs for labour forces, the policy did not help people to find or maintain their job. However, it generated more shopping, culture and leisure trips in Tallinn. At the same time, the capital achieved one of its main objectives: surplus to the city by attracting new tax payer registration.’

Points of interest

Alarming though, is that the use of public transport tends to be divided along socio-economic lines: ’The richer group is disappearing from the system, because public transport still has an image and acceptance problem. Complaints about homeless people, crowding, cleanliness and frequency are the ones that make people dissatisfied with the service provided. This is concerning as we want to have the richer part of the society to use public transport, and not vice versa.’

Then again Kirke points out that, although Tallinn sees a demise in the number of passengers, in other regions the scheme pays off: ’In cities such as Tartu, people love public transport and numbers are growing. The elderly, especially, gain by fare-free transport because they are now able to visit the city centre or friends. Also children are active public transport users. With the notable downside that they walk less and aren’t looking around to their bicycle.’

More distressing for Transport authorities is that zero-fare transport so far didn’t provide an answer to congestion: ’Our idea was that if transport is free, people would be encouraged to leave their car at home. But, unfortunately, this hasn’t happened. Actually, the number of cars is going up every year.’ Since Tallinn started the experiment in 2013, the city welcomed more than 20.000 cars: ‘Driving from one side of the city to another is easier done by car. People with high incomes enjoy their freedom and like to prove that they can afford a car.’

Who’s next?

Even when similar attitudes are to be found in other European cities, several of them sent representatives to take a close look at Tallinn’s initiative. Luxemburg already applied a zero-fare transport system, as well as German university city Tübingen (89.000 inhabitants). Next in line, may well be Paris. Its mayor Anne Hidalgo in spring 2018 launched a study to investigate whether making her city transit entirely free would be a viable idea.

But, before making headway, Yusak believes there is still room for improvement in the Estonian capital: ‘So far Tallinn focussed on using the carrot, to make free public transport possible and to provide for better travel mode and infrastructure. In my view, the policy can achieve much greater impact if politicians impose the stick as well.’