Estonia will be the first country in the world to introduce free public transport. And the city of Tallinn showed it was possible


This is a great story of how a city can discuss amongst its citizens a big policy idea, run it successfully for years on a local/municipal level - and then have it taken up by the national government. 

Tallinn is the capital of Estonia - and both are famed for their digital cutting-edge (the famous "e-passport/residency" is part of a whole vision of "nation-as-service-provider"). But five years ago, Tallinn embarked on an experiment which seems much more boringly infrastructural - yet has opened up new avenues in lifestyle and commerce. 

In short, they made all their public transport free of charge. Allan Alaküla, Head of Tallinn European Union Office, explains what the consequences have been, in this blog for PopUpCity:

Five years ago, citizens of Tallinn were asked in a referendum if free public transport should be realized. Why should citizens be involved in such political decisions?

A decision for a long-term project should not only be taken by the current elected council, but it should be locked politically by asking for support from the public. Although a local referendum is not legally binding, the mandate from the popular vote is stronger than just from the council.

To ride Tallinn’s network of trams, buses and trains for free, you must be registered as a resident, which makes the municipality profit €1,000 from your income tax every year. All you need to do then is get a €2 green card and carrying your ID on public transport

How does this work out for the municipality?

There’s no doubt that we not only cover the costs, but also come out with a surplus. 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.”

Who is profiting the most from free buses, trams and trains in Tallinn?

A good thing is, of course, that it mostly appeals to people with lower to medium incomes. But free public transport also stimulates the mobility of higher-income groups. They are simply going out more often for entertainment, to restaurants, bars and cinemas. Therefore they consume local goods and services and are likely to spend more money, more often. In the end this makes local businesses thrive. It breathes new life into the city.

What further actions is Tallinn taking to make the use of individual transport less attractive?

Before introducing free public transport, the city center was crammed with cars. This situation has improved — also because we raised parking fees. When non-Tallinners leave their cars in a park-and-ride and check in to public transport on the same day, they can't only use public transport for free, but also won’t be charged the parking fee. We noticed that people didn’t complain about high parking fees once we offered them a good alternative.

What inspired the Estonian government to introduce free public transport all over the country?

People in other parts of Estonia started to demand free public transport, too. In Wales, an experiment with free public transport is about to end in May, but has already been extended for another year. Taking this as an example, we would also like to remove the public transport ticketing for all rural connections in Estonia.

What advice would you give to other European cities that are hesitant to implement free transport?

Tallinn’s approach is not a universal solution for all and for some it might be too extreme. We know examples of cities in Poland, Germany and France that already realized free public transport or are considering it. But we’re also seeing plenty of partially free public transport ideas are being executed, ranging from free weekend rides and lower fares in off-peak hours to free public transport for the retired and students. Municipalities should be brave to use their city as a testing ground to find out what system is realistic for them to implement.

Which city will be the next to copy Tallinn’s successful system?

Right now, Paris is considering the introduction of free public transport — mostly to reduce pollution in the city center. Once a city of this size and scale takes the step, other cities will inevitably follow. No doubt about that.

Interestingly, free public transport as a policy chimes with some recent thinking in the UK, complementing the idea of universal basic income with the idea of universal basic services - which extends the NHS notion of "free at the point of use" to areas like transport. UCL define it below:

Universal Basic Services (UBS) are a collection of 7 free public services that enable every citizen to live a larger life by ensuring access to safety, opportunity, and participation.

We repurpose the idea of public services to look at the feasibility of extending the same principles of universal access, free at the point of need, which we already manifest in our National Health Service, our public education, our democracy, and our legal services (albeit with variable quality). To the 3 existing public services we add Shelter, Food, Transport and Information. In some fashion these have been, or are, delivered as limited public services,but to reap the maximum returns all of these need to be elevated to more fully fledged BasicServices.

Enabling every member of society to maintain their material safety, and the opportunity to usetheir own efforts to make their personal contribution to their society are the first two criteriafor a Basic Service, to which we add the vital element of participation as necessary to the functioning of our democratic political system.

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Table 1: Reasons for Including Services in UBS.