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Can You Take the Bus for Free?

by Lubomir Mitev //

Union of Baltic Cities Energy, Environment and Transport Committees met in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. The host city implemented a program that made public transport free for citizens at the beginning of 2013 and everyone was interested to hear a progress report as well as exchange information on sustainable public transport practices in the region.

Free Public Transport in TallinnIMG_5077-rs-600x400

Many people are shocked that Tallinn residents do not pay for public transportation. When they register as living in the city, they receive a card that allows them to use buses, trams and trolley-buses for free. This has brought several social and economic benefits the unemployed and low-income residents are guaranteed a mode of transportation which in turn also increases labor mobility. Additionally, the expenses a household previously spent on tickets have now been made available for other goods and services, therefore stimulating the economy. Also related are the environmental benefits of a lower number of cars resulting in less air and noise pollution and less fuel consumption. But what everyone wants to know is whether they can replicate this in their own city.

In the case of the Estonian capital, there were several factors that facilitated the implementation of a free public transport program. A survey conducted in 2011 and 2012 showed that cost was the biggest obstacle for Estonians to take the bus, while in many other countries (Sweden, for example) it is the quality of the service which tops the list. In terms of money, Tallinn’s public transport budget is completely under the control of the municipality and is not nationally subsidized, which allows a high degree of freedom in policy-making. In fact, ticketing the city’s 425,000 residents was not the biggest contributor to the transport budget from a total cost of 53 million in 2012, only 17 million came from ticket sales. Taking into account that non-Tallinners accounted for approximately 5 million, the cost of free public transport in Tallinn is therefore roughly 12 million. Also in 2012, the two public transport companies in Tallinn merged which led to significant savings on operational costs.

Politically, there was substantial opposition inside the Tallinn City Council which has since disappeared. Allan Alakula, head of the Tallinn European Union office in Brussels, described the policy as being opposed by many, but after its implementation people realized that many of the effects they were afraid of did not materialize. This has facilitated the successful implementation of a much-disputed political initiative.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the program was also the least unexpected one as people flocked to register as citizens of Tallinn. Of course, this gave them the right to ride the bus for free, but it also obliged them to pay municipal income tax. Deputy Mayor Taavi Aas stated that every 1,000 residents bring in roughly 1 million in taxes and since January 2012 an additional 9,105 people had registered as living in Tallinn. This provided unexpected revenue for the municipality, which is now being used to increase the quality of public transportation, for example by adding new buses, 10 of which were presented at the city’s central square on 12 April.

The consequences of making public transportation free extend beyond a simple bus ride. The immediate effects are that cars in the city have decreased by 14% and 21% of people use the bus more frequently than before. In a city where people love their cars, every second citizen has one, this is considered a great achievement. But can it be replicated?

Tallinn is often considered an irrelevant example because of its scale. However, two other cities in Europe offer free public transport as well Aubagne, France and Hasselt, Belgium. With Tallinn’s initiation of this program, it has brought the issue to the European agenda and shown that it is possible to provide good service for free. This issue has been taken seriously elsewhere as well since October 2012, the 14 million citizens of Chengdu, China, also enjoy free public transportation in exchange for severe restrictions on cars. This program was implemented to ease congestion between the city’s second and third ring-roads and will continue until the end of June 2013.

Sustainability has now become an integral part of urban planning. While the environmental case for the abandonment of cars is always strong, the economic and social aspects of offering free public transport can vary in different demographic regions and may not be for every city. The example of Tallinn goes to show that it is possible to overcome both political and economic hurdles in order to implement a sustainable policy. One of the most important lessons learned from the meeting was that planning alone does not do the job – it takes strong political leadership and a willingness to take risks in implementation. The other members of the Union of Baltic Cities should consider this example and plan to replicate Tallinn’s success story.

Correspondence made for Revolve Magazine

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