Luxembourg recently became the first country in the world to make public transport free — but what can it learn from another European pioneer, Estonia?
Tallinn was the first capital city to offer its residents free travel when it introduced the trailblazing measure seven years ago.
Then, in July 2018, the authorities decided to extend the scheme to scrap fares on some — but not all — nationwide bus routes.
Free public transport isn’t for every city
Andrei Novikov, deputy mayor of Tallinn, told Euronews if ticket sales make up a large proportion of a city’s public transport budget, then providing free travel becomes harder.
“We have seen that budget implications are crucial,” said Novikov. “Here [in Tallinn], where the lost revenues have amounted to just 20 per cent of the public transport budget, it was justified.
“For cities that depend on ticket sales for a larger share of their public transport budget, free public transport would be more difficult to support.
“We do have problems, but they do not differ from the problems cities have where transport is not free, such as maintenance costs, managing reasonable commuting times and congestion.”
While buses, trams and trolleybuses are free for residents, visitors and tourists have to pay, providing vital income for the city.
“So we get some revenue from that also to cover the costs.
“In recent years — while public transport has been free — annual ticket revenue has been €4.5 million.”
Novikov said free public transport costs Tallinn around €70 million, which is mainly financed by income tax revenues.
Fewer people are using their cars
Rasmus Ruuda, head of public relations at Estonia’s economic affairs and communications ministry, said usage of regional buses had increased since fares were stopped.
“After a year and a half of the experience, we have seen the passenger trips rise by about 15%,” said Ruuda.
“Also, it has had a positive effect on the health of our elderly people, making them more active, as they make up the majority of people who use regional lines.
“Overall it has helped with changing the mindset of people, as some have switched from cars to fare-free regional buses.”
Free transport in Tallinn is also helping boost passenger numbers.
“If we look at the most recent statistics, from 2018-2019, there have been additional 2 million rides taken on board our fleet of buses, trams and trolleys, so even after seven years the numbers keep increasing,” said Novikov.
The latest feedback survey among 1,500 Tallinn residents in 2019 showed that 44 per cent (40 per cent in 2018) mainly use public transport to move around, while 38 per cent principally use cars (46 per cent in 2018).
People who mainly move around by foot represent 14 per cent (12 per cent in 2018) and the percentage of bike users has been stable for many years at 1 per cent.
The trend of using public transport in noticeable among the younger generation, 52 per cent of people aged 15-26 use public transport in Tallinn for moving from A to B.
Free public transport does have some disadvantages
Because fare-free regional buses have become more popular than anyone forecasted, there have been situations where buses are overcrowded, making it hard to reach the desired service quality in some regions, Ruuda noted.
“Furthermore, a lot of the children, who used to walk or take their bike to school, have switched to buses. From a security perspective, it is welcoming, but it might hurt the health of our youth,” Ruuda added
“Though the costs of maintaining this system have risen due to its popularity, fare-free public transport in Estonia has enabled people with lower incomes to have greater mobility.”
Joseph Enge, a journalist in Tartu, Estonia’s second-largest city, said the free regional buses are not always as good as they sound.
“The circuit and timing are big issues,” he said. “For example, one circuit to get six kilometres from point A to B requires you to go in a big circle of 60 kilometres with many other stops, while if timed right you can take another that is direct.”
Jüri Etverk, CEO of Go Group, one of many Estonian bus operators that are part of the subsidised public transport system, said: “Overall the impact of the decision [to introduce free transport] to us was limited.
“On some lines, we had to introduce larger vehicles to cope with the increased passenger flow. Even if the increased passenger number wasn’t large enough to require larger vehicles, the increased weight still increased fuel consumption, which was a definite downside for us.
“The administrative burden became easier, however, as we didn’t have to sell tickets anymore nor handle cash.”
“The most important aspect that we hope that others learn from us is that yes, offering free transport comes with costs, but it is worth it,” said Novikov.
“Many Estonian counties now have the system where at least some of the registered citizens can use public transport for free.
“And we are also very happy that we saw that Luxembourg made public transport free starting, from March!”