Estonia Gets a Free Ride

by Jeremy Loudenback

"Within four months of initiating free public transport, the city of Tallinn in Estonia has seen a fall of 15 percent in traffic, including 7,600 fewer cars entering the city, and an increase of 14 percent in public transport use." Jonathan Andrews for Cities Today
“Within four months of initiating free public transport, the city of Tallinn in Estonia has seen a fall of 15 percent in traffic, including 7,600 fewer cars entering the city, and an increase of 14 percent in public transport use.” Jonathan Andrews for Cities Today

Cities are often described as laboratories, places where government officials, urban planners, and businesses can tinker with policies and ideas about urban living. Most often the terms of change are incremental, with new policies tried out on a limited basis. However, in January 2013, the city of Tallinn (and capital of Estonia) declared that all public transit would be free for city residents.

After approving the law by referendum in 2012, all 430,000 residents of the city are now able to use any of the municipally owned tram or bus lines for free, though they must swipe a personal smart card upon entering or exiting the vehicle. On the other hand, tourists and other visitors to Tallinn must pay €1.60 for transit rides. Mayor Edgar Savisaar hopes the benefits of the free-fare public transport model in Tallinn can pay a variety of dividends that aren’t just limited to limiting carbon emissions and providing an income boost to low-income residents, as Sulev Vedler writes in a post at Citiscope.

Savisaar said it would relieve traffic jams and reduce the number of accidents. “And what’s most important,” he explains, “free ride will provide better access to public transport to families in economically difficult situations.

Free-fare public transport has been tried in other places. Smaller European cities like Hasselt, Belgium; Templin, Germany; and; Aubagne, France experimented with providing with giving residents free public transit in the 1990s, though most have not found it sustainable. Singapore is testing a new plan to offer free subway rides at early morning times to lessen the impact of crowded commutes during peak rush-hour times. But no city the size of Tallinn or national capital has yet to attempt free-fare public transport model.

While the policy enjoys overwhelming popularity with city residents, the actual benefits may be less obvious than its proponents anticipate. This month, a team of Swedish researchers offered an evaluation of Tallinn’s public-transit model using a before-after comparison and a public transport demand model analysis. While demand for public transit only saw a marginal increase of 1.2%, at least initially, the researchers indicated that other social benefits might have resulted, such as high rates of usage in areas with low-income and high unemployment.

It’s no surprise that Estonia is at the forefront of a groundbreaking public project. The small Baltic nation has already garnered a tech-savvy reputation for innovation in government and for being the birthplace of Skype. While researchers continue to examine the city’s free-fare public transit model, the mayor and his administration hope the policy will prove to be sustainable as well as pioneering. Tallinn enjoys an already highly subsidized transit system model that may not be easy for all countries to replicate, but the world’s cities will paying close attention to see whether the benefits will make the idea more appealing for the widespread experimentation.