On 1 January 2013, Tallinn, Estonia became the first European capital to extend free public transport to all of its residents. The results so far have been encouraging. The Tallinn authorities believe that, if done right, free public transport schemes can encourage a shift from cars to buses and trams, can cut congestion and traffic emissions, and can boost economic development.
The introduction of free public transport in Tallinn follows on from a number of schemes in other countries, usually in smaller towns. One of the trailblazers was the Belgian town of Hasselt, which in 1997 made all buses within the city limits free. The scheme was successful in persuading people to use public transport - passenger numbers rose from about 1000 per day in 1997 to 12,600 ten years later. But the cost of the service increasingly burdened the budget, and Hasselt has said that the scheme will stop at the end of 2013.
For Tallinn, the motivation was a careful consideration of the budgetary implications, balanced against social, environmental and fiscal benefits. Allan Alaküla, head of the Tallinn EU Office, says that the city's annual public transport budget was €53 million, but ticket revenues amounted to only €17 million, €5 million of which was contributed by non-city residents.
By introducing free transport for Tallinners, the city thus stood to incur an additional cost of €12 million. This was judged to be a reasonable price to pay when considered against the benefits of the scheme.
A key issue was mobility for all, Alaküla says. Pensioners and youths already benefited from free public transport in Tallinn, but the city wanted to make it easier for people to travel in search of work, and for low-paid workers, who might choose not to take a job that they have to travel to if the cost of transport means it is financially not worthwhile. Early impressions are that economic development generally has been boosted. “We really provide an incentive for stimulation of the local economy. We observed already that people tend to spend more if their mobility is free. They go out more in the evenings and weekends,” according to Alaküla.
Cleaner city air
Free public transport was expected to produce environmental benefits because of a modal shift away from cars, leading to less congestion and pollution. The expected reduction in carbon dioxide emissions is 45,000 tons annually. Noise abatement is a further benefit. Tallinn already has some electric public transport vehicles - trolley buses and trams - and has worked to improve its system of bus lanes so that public transport moves more smoothly and emissions from static traffic are minimised.
It is too early to fully quantify the environmental benefits, but during the first quarter of 2013, traffic congestion in the centre of Tallinn was down 15% compared to the end of 2012. Since the start of the scheme, public transport use has increased by 12.6%, car use throughout the Tallinn area has been reduced by 9%, and there have also been slight declines in walking and cycling, indicating that people will use free public transport whereas previously they might have been deterred by ticket prices.
There have also been fiscal benefits. Alaküla says that since it became known that free public transport would be introduced, about 10,000 people have registered as Tallinn residents. There are estimated to be an additional 30,000 unregistered residents in the city. The free transport scheme could encourage registration. Every additional 1000 residents brings the city about €1 million in additional annual tax revenues, Alaküla says.
A solid foundation
Residency is important because the system works by distributing contactless travel cards to Tallinners. The use of free public transport continues to be monitored and enforced, and non-residents, for now, must continue to pay transport fares.
Tallinn's system covers about 426,000 people and 480 public transport vehicles, making it the largest in Europe. Alaküla offers a number of recommendations to public authorities that might be considering similar schemes.
The first is to ensure legitimacy. Free public transport in Tallinn was only introduced after a referendum in which 75.5% of Tallinners voted for the scheme, and 24.5% voted against. The result meant that there was a strong public mandate for free public transport, which enabled the city to invest in the scheme, including the introduction of the contactless travel card system so that data can be collected. The evident popularity of the scheme, and the referendum result, also mean that it will be difficult for free public transport to be removed for political reasons, unless there is a similar level of public backing.
Alaküla says that a number of Tallinn politicians were sceptical, believing the idea would be expensive or unworkable. However, since the introduction of the scheme, there has been a “political shift.” Alaküla adds that there is now “no party promising to abolish the free ride for Tallinners.” Because of the greater mobility brought about by the scheme, there is the sense that Tallinn has benefited in terms of its competitiveness. “It is what the municipality is all about: fighting for people,” Alaküla says.
The second issue for municipal authorities to consider, he adds, is the degree of public subsidy that it already provides to public transport. If the subsidy is greater than half of the overall cost, “then you have good arguments” to introduce free public transport. In cities such as London, for example, “there is almost no subsidy,” and making public transport free would have a huge budgetary implication, Alaküla notes. For Hasselt in Belgium, the ultimate stumbling block was the cost.
Tallinn is presently considering how it can expand its scheme, through agreements with neighbouring municipalities, or even through extension to the national level. “We are working on it,” Alaküla says.
Tallinn is also looking east. It has established contacts with the Chinese city of Chengdu (14 million inhabitants), which is experimenting with free public transport, combined with limitations on driving in the city centre. The two cities have established a dialogue on the issue, and representatives from Chengdu will be present at a “Capital of free public transport” summer school that Tallinn will host on 22-24 August 2013. Among the speakers will by EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas.