Tallinn's (free) ticket to ride

By bne IntelliNews November 13, 2012

Mike Collier in Tallinn -

Like the small kid at school who over-achieves to compensate for his stature, Estonia has a thing about proving itself. The Baltic state of 1.3m was the first country in the world to introduce online voting and pioneered the use of free public internet. It was also the first former Soviet republic to join the Eurozone, and precisely two years after that took place on January 1, 2011, Tallinn will become the largest city in the world and the first capital to provide free public transport to all of its residents.

At first it sounds counter-intuitive for this strident champion of the free market (which also championed flat-rate taxes) to be offering something so reminiscent of state socialism. But as ever in Baltic affairs, there is more to free public transport than meets the eye.

The official line presses all the right euro-buttons about social cohesion, empowerment and environmentalism, as Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar explained at an October conference dedicated to the initiative due to take effect on January 1, 2013. "Families with low or medium wages and with children have really suffered during the recession... [and this] will allow more mobility, will allow the unemployed to be cohesive and will promote commerce as consumers can move around freely," Savisaar told delegates in the unusual surroundings of an Tallinn multiplex cinema.

But perhaps the first hint that local politics plays at least as much of a part in the scheme than municipal philanthropy came when Saavisaar said: "A Scandinavian mayor told me, 'You in Tallinn have no idea how excited you have made opposition parties and how nervous you have made us'."

The move to free public transport was approved by a city plebiscite last March, in which 75% of Tallinn residents voted in favour - a figure surprising only in that it wasn't larger, and explained by the fact that die-hard opponents of the Centre Party veteran (including the ruling government coalition) find it impossible to vote for any initiative with Saavisaar's name on it.

To his opponents, free public transport is a populist move aimed at shoring up Savisaar's ebbing support among pensioners and other low-income groups, including a large number of ethnic Russians, that form the core of his power base.

With the size of Tallinn's budget dependent upon the number of registered residents it has paying municipal income tax, offering free public transport to residents (and not visitors or commuters officially residing in neighbouring counties) is simply a way of Tallinn poaching cash from other municipalities that need it far more, Savisaar's critics maintain. "No one is going to lose public money - in the end, our revenue base will be strengthened by this decision. When people say free public transport will be paid for by those who do not live here and those driving cars, it is not true," Savisaar maintains. "According to our estimations, there are 20-40,000 people who live here, but are not registered as residents... I wouldn't be surprised if more people decided to move to Tallinn as a result of this."

Whatever the real reasons behind what is known in academic circles as zero-fare public transport (ZFPT), it is undoubtedly a bold move, taking the idea to a new level. Currently the largest city to provide a comparable service is Aubagne in southern France, with just a quarter of Tallinn's 400,000 population, according to Sweden's Department of Transport Science in the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), which has been commissioned to monitor and evaluate the success or otherwise of the Estonian experience. The KTH's initial report can barely contain its excitement at the prospect of "a full-scale experiment that provides an unique opportunity to investigate the impacts of such policy."

"The main objectives of this policy measure are: to lead to modal shift from private car to public transport, to increase the mobility of unemployed and low income groups and to increase the municipal income tax by providing a stimulus to register as a resident of Tallinn," KTH says, neglecting to mention what its critics argue is the main objective: to get Edgar Savisaar re-elected as mayor.

Valuable experience

Having the Swedes on board provides not only a fig leaf of academic impartiality, but will also generate some genuinely useful data, as the experience of most other municipalities with free public transport offers little in the way of guidance.

The small Belgian town of Hasselt, for example, began offering free buses in 1996. "On the first day, the number of users changed from 1,000 to 8,000 - and stayed there," says Marc Verachtert, the city's general manager. "We made a lot of people mobile. Beforehand only a quarter of people visiting hospitals used buses; afterwards that changed to three-quarters," Verachtert says, admitting that before the buses were free he had never actually used them himself, but has now been turned into something of an evangelist for the cause.

But in Tallinn, which has a well developed network of trams, buses and trolleybuses totalling more than 700 kilometres and free transport already available to many social groups (only 8% of passengers pay full fare), the prospect of a similar surge in the numbers using the network is unlikely, deputy mayor Taavi Aas tells bne. "Our projection is that passenger numbers will increase by around 15% in the first few months. There is certainly no danger that the network will be overloaded," Aas believes.

He is cagey about the prospect of relaxing the rules so that visitors to Tallinn could make use of the network for free, despite regular complaints that the large number of tourists the city attracts rarely make it beyond the walls of the souvenir-heavy Old Town.

On the other hand, Aas is unabashed about speculating on teaming up with other major cities: "We have already had very interesting discussions with neighbouring cities including Helsinki, Riga and Vilnius. They are very interested and in the future you might be able to use one card in all these cities," he says.

Unlikely though that prospect seems, Aas points out that in most major cities transport is already heavily subsidised. In Tallinn, ticket revenues account for just 30-40% of the annual transport budget, so subsidising the remainder isn't quite as drastic a step as it first seems. Cities such as Vienna, which charges a nominal €1 fare on its inner network, are in effect providing free public transport already, though thankfully for Estonia that €1 prevents that city from claiming to be the first capital city to do so, according to Savisaar.

So on one point at least, Aas and Savisaar from the Centre Party and the government that has such a strong aversion to them are in complete accord: the eternal Estonian need to prove they are as good as the big boys. "At last Tallinn has done something that our Nordic neighbours can learn from!" boasts Savisaar.

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