Estonia is making public transport free


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Five years ago, the Estonian capital of Tallinn introduced free public transport after officials asked residents to vote on the proposal in a public referendum – 75% said yes.

All people had to do was register as a resident of the city, and pay €2 for a “green card”. However, visitors, including those from other parts of Estonia, and tourists have to pay to use Tallinn’s network of buses, trams, trains and trolley buses.

Even so, the scheme has proved so popular that the Estonian government is planning to roll out free bus travel across the country.

Image: Wikipedia Creative Commons by jkb

From July 1, every county in Estonia can implement free public transport for its residents, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

While counties can opt out of the system, doing so would mean missing out on additional funding from the national budget allocated for county public transport.

To date, not all Estonia’s 15 counties have taken up the offer, though the free-fare zone is set to cover large areas of the country.

Some cities in France and Germany are considering making public transport free to reduce traffic and air pollution, and Wales in the UK is experimenting with free weekend bus travel. But if Estonia’s plan is successful, it will become the world’s first free public transport nation.


Tallinn introduced free public transport for residents in 2013.

Image: visittallinn.ee

Why free transport?

Some argue that public transportation should be free, just like schools, parks and libraries are. And that it’s good for cities because making it easy for people to move around fosters commercial activity.

The city of Tallinn website says that free public transport benefits those on low incomes most, but it also encourages higher income groups to spend money in local restaurants, cafes and shops.

In Tallin, registering as a resident means that the city automatically receives a portion of the national taxes paid by each resident, boosting the municipal coffers.

“There’s no doubt that we not only cover the costs, but also come out with a surplus,” Allan Alaküla, Head of Tallinn European Union Office, told PopUpCity.

“We earned double as much as we have lost since introducing free public transport. We’re happy to see that so many people are motivated to register as residents in Tallinn to make use of free public transport.”

A study showed Tallinn’s offer of free public transport didn’t stop many people from driving.

Image: REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

Does it add up?

Logically, free public transport should also encourage people to leave their cars at home, easing traffic congestion and reducing air pollution.

But a 2016 analysis of the Tallinn scheme found it didn’t really encourage many people to stop driving.

In 2014, a year into the experiment, the use of public transport had increased by 14%. However, car use only declined by 5%.

In fact, it was walkers who hopped on buses, as the number of trips made on foot dropped by a staggering 40%.

And while the share of car use marginally decreased, the average distance travelled by car actually went up.

“In summary, the modal shift from car to public transport was accompanied by an undesired shift from walking to public transport and an increase in car traffic,” the study says.

Public transport use increased dramatically among the old and the young, and those on a very low income, as well as those out of employment and education

However, there is no indication that employment opportunities improved as a result, according to the study.

More affluent users eschewed public transport, “possibly due to image and crowding issues”, suggest the report’s authors.

In addition, they argue that the extra income generated through taxes is unsustainable. “The income generated by the registering will peter out as all current residents register and the flow of new ones slows.”

Ultimately, the report concludes: “The long-term effects of free public transport still remain to be assessed.”

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