No ticket to ride: Estonia makes public transport free

From this month, Estonia has put in place free transport for its residents across much of the country. What can the rest of the world learn?

Estonians can stop rooting around for loose change at the bus stop. The country will create the world’s largest fare-free public transport network in July, allowing both locals and visitors to travel from one end of the country to the other without paying a cent.

“Our goal is to ensure people all across Estonia have better transport connections and travel options, both in rural and urban areas,” said the minister of economic affairs and infrastructure, Kadri Simson.

The nation has been at the forefront of a growing global push for free public transport: the government heavily subsidises public transit, and the capital, Tallinn abolished transport fares for residents in 2013. The new wave will expand the fare-free programme to rural bus routes, though other cities will continue to charge fares, as will Estonia’s train network.

Proponents say free transportation reduces congestion and pollution, helps less well-off residents travel to find jobs, and pays for itself by lowering road maintenance costs, boosting tax revenues, and spurring economic activity.

“Before introducing free public transport, the city centre was crammed with cars. This situation has improved,” said Allan Alaküla, a spokesman for Tallinn’s transportation project, in an interview in May. “In the end this makes local businesses thrive. It breathes new life into the city.”

Fare-free transport to Tallinn led to a 14 per cent increase in public-transport usage, and reduced car trips by a tenth, according to a recent study. Still, some experts question the long-term viability of free transportation, warning that it could lead to overcrowding. Even in rural Estonia, which is poised to benefit most from the initiative, only about 25 per cent of locals support the plan.

In the end this makes local businesses thrive. It breathes new life into the city

But global leaders are following the experiment closely. In May, officials from nations including the UK, China, Brazil, France and Germany gathered in Tallinn to discuss the project. There are currently about 100 free-transportation experiments under way around the world, including a free weekend bus programme in Wales. Paris is considering an ambitious scheme to provide free transportation for its 11 million residents – a move that some believe could spark a global wave of copycat initiatives.

“Once a city of [Paris’] size and scale takes the step, other cities will inevitably follow. There’s no doubt about that,” said Alaküla.
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