If public transport were free in your city, would you leave your car at home?
That was one question the Tallinn city government was about to answer last year when it introduced free public transport for all residents of the Estonian capital.
The main benefits the city hoped to gain from such a dynamic move were to reduce carbon emissions and road congestion, ease access to jobs for the lower-income and unemployed, and expand mobility and social inclusion.
Now just over a year into the experiment, which began January 2013, Tallinn’s mayor, Edgar Savisaar, is lauding the program as a big success. “Free public transport does strengthen society’s social ties while stimulating local economy and sparing environment,” he said at the recent Cities of Tomorrow: Investing in Europe forum. “This is, indeed, smart policy.”
But coaxing people out of their cars by offering free transport has proved to be less successful.
When Tallinn launched the program ridership numbers did increase, but not by the 20% the city had projected. Instead, they grew by a modest 3%, according to a study by Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology.
Nor was that slim 3% entirely the result of eliminating fares. The city had added 70 new trams and buses to the fleet, built dedicated bus lanes, increased service frequency, and extended routes in preparation. When these improvements were taken into account, the actual increase in ridership from offering free transport was only 1.2%, the Swedish study calculated. And ironically, people who used to walk rather than pay for transport were now choosing to take a free ride, losing the natural exercise benefit.
In the first five months of 2013, the number of cars in Tallinn fell by 10%, according to Mayor Savisaar, and traffic at the biggest junctions dropped 14%. Yet the Swedish study found the actual speed of traffic in the city hadn’t increased — which would have been one indicator that roads were less clogged and people were changing their commuting habits.
So how do you pry people out of their cars? The most effective way, the study suggested, is to raise prices for petrol, parking, and toll roads.
Tallinn isn’t the first city to experiment with free public transport, but it is the largest, with a population of 430,000. It has dubbed itself the “capital of free public transport” and is actively encouraging the rest of Europe to adopt a similar approach.
“We are frequently asked… why we are offering free-of-charge public transport,” Mayor Edgar Savisaar told journalists last August. “It is actually more appropriate to ask why most cities in the world still don’t.”
While the traffic benefits for Tallinn may be in dispute, the social benefits are clearer. In poorer parts of the city such as Lasnamae, a densely populated neighborhood with high unemployment, ridership has jumped by 10%. People can travel to jobs without worrying about cost, and employers can draw on a larger pool of workers and expand their workforce without needing to build additional parking.
For the city government, going free only cost an additional 12 million euros a year. That is, in part, because public transport was already heavily subsidized to the tune of 70%. Now it is subsidized 96%. (Most European cities subsidize transport more than 50%.)
In order to ride for free, residents have to register with the city and buy a green card for two euros. After that, they have unlimited access. Thousands of people had moved to Tallinn over the years but had remained tax residents of their former town. As of December 2013, more than 10,000 “new” residents had signed onto the city rolls, generating an additional 10 million euros of tax revenue. So the 12 million euro outlay for making transport free has been largely recouped.
Moreover, Tallinn continues expand the program. Recently train rides within the city were added (passengers pay for any portion beyond the city limits). Meanwhile, the city that launched the whole idea back in 1997, Hasselt in Belgium, which was the first to offer free transport to residents, just ended its program last May because of budget constraints.
For most cities, what’s more financially feasible than a completely fare-free system is targeted free ridership. For instance, Barcelona provides children up to the age of 14 with smart cards that allow unlimited rides on buses, trams, and the metro.
Time will tell if other cities will take the leap to fully fare-free public transport and be able to sustain it. But as one city official commented, the cost of building new roads, repairing old ones, and the poor air quality, all weigh in favor of free transport.