In 2013, Tallinn became the first capital in the world to introduce free bus, tram and train services. Traffic has since decreased and the city is enjoying a population boom. From 1 July, county bus routes will also be free throughout Estonia. André Anwar reports from Stockholm.
The German government is proposing free local public transport in a bid to improve urban air quality. This is nothing new for Estonia’s capital city Tallinn, even if it might not be as wealthy as German cities. In 2013, it became the first capital in the world to introduce free public transport for all its residents.
Response to economic crisis
It was a popular move when the then left-liberal mayor Edgar Savissar held a referendum in 2012 on the subject of free public transport: 75.5 per cent voted in favour, even though it would cost some extra €12 million per year.
The plan also had its fair share of vocal and prominent critics. “The streets are full of potholes and there’s no money for kindergartens,” Valdo Randpere from the centre-right opposition party said at that time.
At that time, around one-third of public transport costs were paid for out of ticket revenues – until 2013, when the city went forward with its free public transport services.
“We introduced this primarily as a social measure. Estonia was hit hard by the 2008 economic crisis. Years later and many still didn’t have the money to travel on what was already back then a heavily subsidised local transport system,” said Allan Alaküla, who worked on the project.
Boost to local economy
The measure was also meant to boost the local economy as free public transport would also bring many more Estonians from surrounding neighbourhoods into the city centre in their leisure time to go shopping or enjoy attractions like museums, restaurants or bars.
“The free service also helps night owls heading home after a night out hold onto their driver’s licence,” jokes Alaküla.
The flat coastal town of Tallinn had never had problems with poor air quality. “The environment was just another aspect,” said Alaküla.
10% less cars on the streets
The free service made itself felt straightaway. Car traffic in the city centre initially dropped by around 15 per cent before settling to around 10 per cent.
“The city centre is now so open that some people have rediscovered the car again,” said Alaküla.
And 10 per cent isn’t anything to scoff at given that Estonians have far more cars today than they did in 2013. Around 10 per cent more residents now use public transport, helped by the fact that the free service was accompanied by an expansion of the bus lanes.
More residents, more tax revenues
The city has been able to recoup the costs associated with free public transport thanks to an accompanying population boom.
The reason: as the free ticket is only valid for people who pay taxes in Tallinn, many Estonians in the capital’s surroundings have registered as residents, such as with relatives who live in the city. Tallinn’s population has grown from 416,000 to 450,000.
“Much of this influx has to do with the free ticket,” said Alaküla.
With an average increase in tax revenues of around €20 million per year, Tallinn has more than compensated for the loss of income from transport tickets.
There’s one catch: the 80-cent single-trip tickets have now doubled for tourists and other transit users who do not live in Tallinn.
Free transport across the country
Thanks to Tallinn’s initiative, calls for expanding free public transport have become so loud that the national government will now offer as of 1 July the free service on county bus routes operated by state-subsidized bus companies.
“This will be for transport in regions. But people will still have to purchase tickets in towns and villages as these are the responsibility of the municipalities and not the central government,” explained Alaküla.
“Although Germany is generally far more well-off than Estonia, the 2014 Eurobarometer shows that higher prices for local transport there are one of the biggest problems for city dwellers,” added Alaküla, when recommending that the Tallinn model be imitated elsewhere.