The Tallinn experiment: what happens when a city makes public transport free?

An interesting read for those who want free transit, but remember, free transit comes at a price.


The Tallinn experiment: what happens when a city makes public transport free?

Since Estoniaai??i??s capital started providing free public transport for residents in 2013, it claims to have turned a ai??i??20m a year profit each year. But has the scheme achieved its ambitions of reducing traffic and saving people money?

Passengers board a public transport tram at a stop in downtown Tallinn


Since the scheme launched, thousands more people have registered as residents to qualify for free transport. Photograph: EPA


in Tallinn



In London a monthly travel card for the whole city costs almost A?200. InCopenhagen, a city a fraction of the size, youai??i??ll pay A?160. So when you ask the residents of Tallinn about the benefits of free travel across the city, itai??i??s a surprise to be met with a roll of the eyes or a sarcastic smile.

The capital of Estonia introduced free public transport at the beginning of 2013 after their populist mayor Edgar Savisaar called a referendum on the decision, dismissed by critics at the time as a political stunt that the city couldnai??i??t afford.

Three years on Savisaar has been suspended amid allegations of corruption, but the city remains committed to the programme ai??i?? claiming that instead of it costing them money, they are turning a profit of ai??i??20m a year.

To enjoy Tallinnai??i??s buses, trams, trolley buses and trains for free you must be registered as a resident, which means that the municipality gets a ai??i??1,000 share of your income tax every year, explains Dr Oded Cats, an expert who has conducted a year long study on the project. Residents only need to pay ai??i??2 for a ai???green cardai??? and then all their trips are free.

Since the scheme launched, an additional 25,000 people have registered in the city that previously had a population of 416,000, but this is where the tension lies. The more money for the city of Tallinn, the less there is for the places they leave behind, explains Cats, ai???so itai??i??s not hard to see why the government and the mayorai??i??s office might see things differentlyai???.

Allan Alakula, the official spokesperson for the project, admits boosting the popularity of the mayorai??i??s office was one of the key motivations for rolling out the project ai??i?? but insists that it was primarily about easing the burden on peopleai??i??s wallets, and the cityai??i??s roads.



The project took a year from inception to reality in which time Alakula and his team struggled to find cities to learn from. The city of Hasselt in Belgium had free transport for 16 years but they had to reintroduce fares when it became financially unsustainable. It is also free in the town of Aubagne near Marseille in France, but neither were on the scale of Tallinnai??i??s ambitions.

Three years later the project has been inundated with requests ai??i?? from the Chinese city of Chengdu, home to 14 million and desperate to ease traffic congestion, to Romaniaai??i??s capital Bucharest. ai???We would be happy to hand over the title of the free public transport capital of the world,ai??? Alakula laughs.



Tallinn is not a crowded or a big city, most journeys donai??i??t take longer than 15 minutes, and transport feels like itai??i??s part of the cityai??i??s furniture rather than something to be braved.

Drivers wait patiently as passengers cross their path to board a tram near Vabadus square in the centre of the city. It is nearing rush hour but everyone who needs a seat gets one. The trams and trains are clean and Tallinners have been enthusiastic about using them for free, with early polls delivering a 90% approval rating for the scheme.

Dr Cats, who is based at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, found that the number of people in Tallinn using public transport instead of cars was up by 8%, but at the same time the average length of a car journey had gone up by 31%, which he said meant there were more, not fewer, cars on the road in the time they tested.

He puts the increase down to a change in ai???shopping and leisure habitsai??? rather than limitations of the scheme itself, and suggests that making driving more expensive, through parking fees and other taxes, could be more effective at cutting back on traffic.

A passenger holds his ticket card to a scanner aboard a public transport bus in Tallinn,


Early polls showed a 90% approval rating for the scheme among Tallinners. Photograph: EPA


So could cycling, which Alakula admits the city hasnai??i??t done enough to promote: ai???less than 1% of people make their journey by bike, which basically means that cycle commuting doesnai??i??t exist,ai??? he says.

Cats also found ai???mixed evidenceai??? whether the scheme has ai???improved mobility and accessibility of low-income and unemployed residents ai??i?? [and] no indication that employment opportunities improved as a result of this policyai???.

According to Cats, free public transport is not the no-brainer everyone might initially think it to be. ai???The idea still faces political opposition and visitors who use public transport are less satisfied with having to pay more for it than But in the case of Tallinn it is almost exclusively used by residents, not tourists ai??i?? who rely on private buses, taxis and most recently Uber.



There is also a risk, says Cats, that free public transport could lead to less investment in the service. ai???In the event of an economic depression, investment in public transport will be more exposed to potential budget cuts if they are not earmarked,ai??? he says.

Tallinn also canai??i??t rely on increasing tax revenues by attracting new residents forever. Before the scheme started, 6,000 new residents registered annually. And while the numbers shot up to about 10,000 new registrations in the immediate years after the scheme launched, early figures Alakula has seen suggest that only 3,000 to 4,000 have registered in 2016 so far.

But Alakula is positive about its longevity and says they have also been able to funnel money back to improve their networks. ai???We are also in the process of building a tramline in to the airport that will get you there in 15


One Response to “The Tallinn experiment: what happens when a city makes public transport free?”
  1. eric chris says:

    Terrific post, I knew it. I am not at all surprised by the finding that making public transit free worsens road congestion.

    Doing so allows any fleabag or riff-raff derelict onto public transit and drives normal people to drive. I value public transit more than anyone. Let’s get real. When you board public transit, the person next to you could be a violent offender or deranged lunatic. Unless there is a high enough fee based system with “fare inspectors” or drivers on public transit to either call for help or weed-out these rejects, people don’t feel safe on public transit and turn to driving. TransLink’s police officers costing $30 million annually to go after low-lifes who ride for free or not at all on the driverless s-train are mainly there to go after undesirables under the pretext of curbing fare evasion and saving money. Whatever. There is reality and then there is fantasy by TransLink.

    Now on the topic of fare evasion and TransLink, TransLink’s new $30,000 monthly paid CEO is telling us that based on the 2% increase in the number of people counted twice by TransLink or ridership, Comp-ass is projected to save, get this: up to $30 million annually, adjusted for seasonal variations.

    He’s from planet loo-loo where all things TransLink are smiles and lies. TransLink doesn’t add anything to the seasonal cost of running public transit in mild Vancouver compared to the seasonal cost of running public transit in Toronto where the cold and harsh weather makes public transit more expensive to run than in Vancouver. In other words, more crap from the crapsters at TransLink.

    He’s telling us that TransLink is saved from financial ruin by Comp-ass! Surprisingly, TransLink still needs to raise fares and taxes despite the barrels of money rolling TransLink’s way from its great investment in Comp-ass paying big “dividends”, which are merely imagined at the moment.

    Anyhow, back to reality. Elizabeth Murphy has done another great article on the pitfalls of HK style high rise condo development clustered around s-train stations, in The Vancouver Sun. I think; deep down, the editors of the The Vancouver Sun despise the pig-dogs at TransLink as much as everyone else and just pass on the frequent advertorials by TransLink for the concomitant “advertising” revenue from their golden goose, TransLink.

    “Opinion: Density not the answer to transit funding

    Published on: October 10, 2016 | Last Updated: October 10, 2016 3:25 PM PDT”

    “The province of B.C. is poised to fund transit by undermining the civic tax base, civic land use authority, and civic democracy. The province is looking at using development fees to fund transit and at making increased density zoning a requirement of transit funding. It is a ploy that has been underway for decades as the province creeps into city jurisdiction.”

    Zwei replies: I think Mr. Desmond failed to include too facts. 1) Income increases with every U-Pass forced onto a post secondary student. According to TransLink, over 130,000 U-Passes have been sold, up by at least $10,000 from last yer. 2) With the new Compass Card regimine, if one pays a cash fare on a bus, one must again pay a cash fare on the light metro system as transfers are no longer available and for some reason, the Compass Card does not work well on a buss, then SkyTrain.

    I know of scores of ‘older people’ who have given up taking transit altogether because of the Compass Card and either just drive ot take a taxi if one can afford to.

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