For many, free public transport sounds like a kind of utopian dream. Hop on a bus, tram or train – or all three – and it costs you nothing at all. Zilch. Nada. The idea, generally, is that it’s supposed not only to reduce car usage and cut emissions, but also allow greater mobility for lower-income citizens and encourage spending across a much wider area.
The residents of Tallinn have been living that dream for the best part of a decade. When the Estonian capital made public transport free in 2013, it was the largest city in the world to do so (and the first capital city).
With Luxembourg recently becoming the first country (albeit a teeny, tiny one) to introduce free public transport, the initiative has been in the spotlight again. Which prompted us to revisit Tallinn. Eight years on, does free public transport in the city work? What has it meant for emissions? And would it work elsewhere?
In Tallinn, the current system was brought in after public transport became unaffordable for many less-well-off residents following the 2008 financial crisis. The ideas was that poorer communities would be lifted out of poverty if they didn’t have to spend so much of their income on travel.
While the environment was never Tallinn’s primary focus, the climate emergency has led governments around the world to consider introducing free public transport to help protect the planet. In theory, the policy disincentivises car usage and so improves air quality and lowers pollution levels.
Free public transport in Tallinn was voted in via public referendum in 2012 and implemented in 2013. The initiative is funded through income tax, so each of the city’s 426,000 citizens has to chip in. It’s only free for official Tallinn residents, with tourists and visitors having to pay standard fares.
The free transit network initially included five tram lines, eight trolley bus lines and 57 bus routes, but now it includes some inner-city trains, too. So, has the scheme achieved its aims? Well, it’s a little bit complicated.
‘In 2014, we had a 6.5 percent increase in ridership from 2012,’ says Grigori Parfjonov, traffic expert at the Tallinn Transport Department. ‘From then on, it has remained more or less steady with a 1 percent increase year by year.’ In other words, free public transport achieved what it should have done: it got more people to use it.
The system also worked so well financially that it spread across most of Estonia (11 of the country’s 15 countries have since made bus travel free) and local authorities have been able to widely reinvest in public transport.
It’s a popular policy, too. ‘I'd say our people are more than satisfied with the public transportation aspect of the city,’ says Parfjonov. In 2018, a poll by Turu-uuringute showed that 83 percent of Tallinners were satisfied with their public transport system.
But a 2014 study also showed a reduction in trips made by Tallinners on foot (which dropped by an astonishing 40 percent) and only a small decrease (5 percent) in the number of trips by car. The effect on emissions appeared to be nowhere near as huge as hoped. So what else can be done to promote public transport in a way that disincentivises car usage and curbs emissions?
Other cities are trying different methods. Vienna has introduced much cheaper, €1-per-day public transport passes, while Austria as a whole has launched a €3-per-day annual travel pass that will take you anywhere in the country. Rome trialled offering free rides to commuters that recycle their waste, and Barcelona will offer three years of public transport to anyone that trades in their car. But most of these examples are pretty recent developments, and their impact on emissions is yet to be properly investigated.
A climate-conscious future likely requires a balance of public transport incentives, private car deterrents and financial viability. In that regard, Tallinn isn’t a model city – but it doesn’t necessarily want to be.
‘We’re putting our city first, putting the citizens first,’ says Parfjonov. Tallinn’s system seemed to be the best option for the city at the time and was never supposed to be a blueprint for others to follow. Luxembourg, by contrast, wants to become a ‘laboratory for mobility’ – its free public transport system is focused chiefly on reducing the number of cars on the roads and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
But Tallinn also serves as proof that a drive to be more sustainable has to look beyond just traffic and car use – and venture far beyond major cities. In 2023, Tallinn will take the title of European Green Capital, having introduced measures that have cleaned up waterways and rapidly expanded (and protected) its green spaces. This decade will also see the completion of Rail Baltica: an ambitious high-speed rail project linking the Baltic nations with Poland and Finland, which will provide a viable alternative to plane travel in the region.
What’s more, the free public transport scheme – and its fiscal successes in particular – has also enabled the city to invest in other green initiatives. Tallinn is currently upgrading its tram network and the city intends to eliminate diesel and hybrid vehicles from its bus fleet as early as 2025.
Tallinn has made a pretty admirable start to creating a public transport-centric world. While the city might not yet have reaped the environmental benefits, it shows that free public transport is far more than just a pipe dream, and the Estonian capital remains a case study for hundreds of other cities worldwide.
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