All aboard for free in Estonia's green capital, by Cliff Hague

Tallinn's free public transport scheme is gathering support in several other European countries.

Planners on both sides of the Atlantic, ever well-intentioned, aspire to get people out of their cars and on to public transport and active travel. Green mobility is the order of the day – to reduce carbon dioxide and other nasty emissions, and to improve public health and wellbeing. "Walkable neighbourhoods", mixed uses and transit-oriented development have become familiar concepts. Thus I came to be speaking on the theme of green mobility in an event in the Estonian capital Tallinn recently. The location matters, since the city has forged an international reputation through its leadership of the free public transport movement, which is gathering support in several other European countries.

Allan Alaküla, the head of Tallinn’s European Union Office in Brussels, gave a presentation about the Tallinn initiative that he has delivered widely to policymakers across the continent. The idea of making buses and trams free to use for residents of the city was first floated by the city’s populist former mayor Edgar Savisaar, who called a referendum on it in 2012. The citizens voted three to one to back the proposal. The thinking was that free public transport would increase the mobility of those on low incomes, and reduce harmful emissions. However, there would be benefits to business as well: labour mobility would be increased across the city, and shops and services would gain from increased footfall.

Alaküla explained how the proposal made economic sense for the city council. Some 90 per cent of the buses, trolley buses and trams were operated by a council-owned company. Annual running costs were €67 million (£59 million), while ticket income was €17 million, of which €5 million came from non-residents. So, making rides free to citizens meant taking €12 million out of the budget – but it also made being a resident of the Estonian capital an attractive proposition. The result has been a spike in the local population of some 36,000, boosting municipal income from local income tax by €36 million. The scheme has also massively boosted Tallinn’s brand globally as a smart, green city.

Before introducing the scheme, the council extended the bus lanes network in the city centre from 15 to 23 kilometres. Not only did car users lose road space to buses, they also faced a steep increase in parking costs in the city centre and the Old Town.

So how is it working? I can report from personal experience of riding the trams that they are clean, frequent, punctual and heavily used. Alaküla said that usage was up ten per cent since 2012, and that car traffic in the city centre had decreased by six per cent – although in the zone around the centre there had been an increase of 4%, suggesting the attachment to car use has yet to be fully doused. Also commuters from out of town do not enjoy free rides; indeed, train fares were actually increased when the scheme was introduced. Despite this, there is clear momentum behind the idea. Linked with a concerted challenge to applications for car-dependent housing layouts, free public transport could make a difference.

Cliff Hague OBE is a freelance consultant and researcher


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