“The Tallinn experiment: what happens when a city makes public transport free?”

Waiting for the bus in Tallinn, April 2016.

Plenty of pros, and a few cons, too. During our spring break getaway in Tallinn …

All the Estonia links are here, in one place.

… we used inexpensive public transportation day passes, and adored them.

The Tallinn experiment: what happens when a city makes public transport free? by Maeve Shearlaw (The Guardian)

Since Estonia’s capital started providing free public transport for residents in 2013, it claims to have turned a €20m a year profit each year. But has the scheme achieved its ambitions of reducing traffic and saving people money?

In London a monthly travel card for the whole city costs almost £200. In Copenhagen, a city a fraction of the size, you’ll pay £160. So when you ask the residents of Tallinn about the benefits of free travel across the city, it’s a surprise to be met with a roll of the eyes or a sarcastic smile.

The capital of Estonia introduced free public transport at the beginning of 2013 after their populist mayor Edgar Savisaar called a referendum on the decision, dismissed by critics at the time as a political stunt that the city couldn’t afford.

Three years on Savisaar has been suspended amid allegations of corruption, but the city remains committed to the programme – claiming that instead of it costing them money, they are turning a profit of €20m a year.

To enjoy Tallinn’s buses, trams, trolley buses and trains for free you must be registered as a resident, which means that the municipality gets a €1,000 share of your income tax every year, explains Dr Oded Cats, an expert who has conducted a year long study on the project. Residents only need to pay €2 for a “green card” and then all their trips are free.

Since the scheme launched, an additional 25,000 people have registered in the city that previously had a population of 416,000, but this is where the tension lies. The more money for the city of Tallinn, the less there is for the places they leave behind, explains Cats, “so it’s not hard to see why the government and the mayor’s office might see things differently”.