A visit to “Summer School – The Capital of Free Public Transport” in Tallinn


Tallinn, the winner of the Free Public Transport Award 2012, implemented a zero-fare policy at the beginning of this year. At the same time, the city has profiled itself as a strong advocate for free public transport. Through conferences, studies and networking they have positioned themselfs as the main city of the free public transport-movement. This week their zero fare-themed “Summer School” took place at the University of Tallinn. Among the guests where lecturers from the free public transport-cities Hasselt in Belgium, Chengdu in China, Aubagne in France as well as ?ory and ?abki in Poland. The EU commissioner of transport, the Mayor of Tallinn and researchers from Tallinn University as well as the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm were also present.

Tallinn where represented by mayor Edgar Savisaar who told the audience that since they removed the fares in the public transport they have seen a 14 percent decrease in car traffic as well as a 15 percent increase in public transport users. One of the reasons that Tallinn implemented a fare-free system was that they already subsidised the public transport by 70 percent and felt that it was hard to motivate why such a hefty amount of public funding should be spent on an operation that was to expensive for some to use. Instead they reasoned that if the public transport is something that is worthy of such a large public funding, should not everybody also have the right to use it?

Before Tallinn removed the fares, the share of public transport commuters had slowly but steadily shrunken. And even though they had spent a lot of money on new buses and trams that trend did not change, but this year 21 percent more of the Tallinners have used the public transport, out of which eight percent had never used it before. 68 percent of the citizens use public transport as their main way of getting around, a number that has grown by 13 percent while the share of people who mainly drive cars to get around have shrinked with nine percent.

One thing that strikes you on the streets of Tallinn is that the buses are travelling at a significant speed while the cars are stuck in traffic. This is due to the reserved bus lanes that were implemented just before the fare was abolished. One criticism we have directed toward Tallinn is that they haven’t made public transport free for all, just for citizens of the city. It was motivated by an effort to get prople to register as citizens of Tallinn, thus getting more municipal tax revenue. This has been succesful, Tallinn has gained 11.000 inhabitants and 11 million euro in revenue. The idea to attract people to register as citizens was reoccuring among the lecturers, and stresses the importance of keeping together and integrating the public transport system not only in cities, bur in entire regions. To mutually finance public transport in the region simplifies making it free for all.

Mayor Savisaar also mentioned the critique that people will stop walking or using bicycles after the zero-fare policy is implemented. He said that this had happened to some extent in Tallinn, but the fact that so many people have stopped using cars have a much larger on public health, and car drivers are the ones with immobility.

Chengdu is a central city in the Sichuan-province of China. The city has 5 million inhabitants and is the transport hub of a region consisting of 15 million people. Since 2012 a number of fare-free bus lines have opened, to this date the number is 44 lines. They have also implemented free public transportation between 5-7 AM and many local buses has also abolished fares. This lecture was a little bit hard to understand, very technical, with diagrams and maybe it required knowledge of the city itself. But Shi Tao, vice chairman of the Chengdu Bus Group, concluded that the zero-fare experiment was successful and would be implemented on yet more buslines. Also he confirmed that everything they did “benefited the people very much”, the dictator-lol-factor was quite high during this lecture.

Hasselt is a city in Belgium that has been one of the most interesting zero-fare cities. During the nineties they were to bulid a third bypass highway, but the costs were running wild and proposed explotation of precious nature forced the plans to a halt. Instead they abolished fares and reduced the space for cars on the second bypass. It resulted in a 1300% increase in public transport ridership!

Marc Verachtert, civil servant of Hasselt’s public transportation, also mentioned the critique towards zero-fare policys. He agreed that some bicyclists (10%) started using buses and trams instead, but the total amount of bicyclist did increase when fewer cars occupied the streets. Hasselt also decreased the parking lots in the city, from 1500 to 500, and the city has an interesting system called last-mile delivery to decrease the heavy transports. Around the city they have depots where lorrys deliver goods, which is then packed on transport bicycles, for example.

The bad news is that Hasselt, despite the success story, will take a step backwards next year and experiment with fares again. The Social Democrats and The Green were elected 2012 on a program to keep the zero-fare policy, but still it will be brought down. Much of the conflict seems to relate to the relationship with the region, which finances 75% of the program. Verachtert argued that a major obstacle in negotiating with the region was that they lacked adequate statistics on the impact of zero-fare. Many inhabitants of Hasselt are pleased and see the advantages, and ridership was up 1300%, but this was not enough for the region.

Verachhert requested more research on the subject, and said that Hasselt will remain in the network of zero-fare cities, initiated by Tallinn. They will gather information, and hope to bring free public transportation back to their city soon.

Żory is a small town in southern Poland, but a town wih big ambitions: they want to become the leading free public transport-city in the country. Starting next year they will implement zero-fare as one of several measures to stop the population decrease. They have not decided on wheather to make it free for everyone or just for people registered in the town. When they asked the participants, the representative from Aubagne said that everyone should benefit, because no one likes to be controlled.

Ząbki is a town near Warszawa with 50.000 inhabitants, although only 29.000 persons are registered. Many commute to Warszawa for work or studies, and the zero-fare policy was a measure to get more people to register as inhabitans, because public transportation is only free for the ones that have registred.

The conference showed that there are two different camps in the zero-fare question: those that made public transportation free for all, and those who made it free for registered inhabitants. This is a question of how it is financed, Aubagne and Hasselt hade regional backing and could make it free for all. The other cities finance public transportation by themselves. This shows the value of integrated public transportation systems.