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Why The World's Largest Experiment In Free Public Transportation Failed

In an ambitious move, the capital of Estonia gave its 430,000 residents access to public transit. So why didn't the free rides result in new passengers?

A year ago, the city of Tallinn, Estonia, situated a short hop across the Baltic Sea from Finland, made public transportation free to its residents. The capital city of roughly 430,000 people embarked on the largest experiment so far in the fare-free public transportation movement, which proponents claim increases ridership, gets cars off the road, and decreases congestion all while making the city more accessible to low-income residents.

As a study from the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden found, Tallinn's fare-free transit, which applies to buses, trams and trolleys, didn't bring new riders in droves as city officials expected. The researchers, who presented at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C. this January, found that dropping fares only accounted for a 1.2% increase in demand for the service.

Eliminating fares should, in theory, make public transportation a more attractive prospect, encouraging people to shift from driving to riding transit. In turn, a greater demand for transit caused by all those people parking their cars and hopping on a bus or train should allow the city to prioritize public transit, improving service and shortening wait times.

Image: Hong Kong subway station via Saiko3p / Shutterstock

That's not exactly what happened in Tallinn. Turns out, it can be difficult convincing people to dump their convenient car ride for a cold wait at a bus stop. The highest increase in passenger demand (10%) came from the district of Lasnamäe, a dense, populous neighborhood with higher unemployment rates than the rest of the city, but the overall data suggests that instead of people switching from cars to public transit, the fare-less system mostly encouraged people to walk less. This might be attributed to the fact that the city already had a fairly high rate of transit use, (40%, versus 26% car use).

Based on this case study, it seems that in a relatively large city where public transportation already sees high use and is relatively cheap, the fare-free system may not be the most effective way to get people out of their cars and onto the bus.

[H/T: Citiscope]

[Image: New York City subway via pio3 / Shutterstock]

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  • The experiment wasn't a failure! Prior to offering free public transportation, only 26% of the population in Tallinn used automobiles. That was great already!

    For cities with much higher auto use (maybe 80% in Arizona, Florida, California), free public transit would have a significant impact. Financing would be a problem though...

  • free fares should make transit more less stressful, convenient and more efficient for its uses. Just think no hassel of finding that bloody exact change; no waiting in queue behind someone who cant find change to pay, no hassel with people refusing to pay etc.

    It also might actual cost less. No monitoring and collection of fares and all that goes with that.

  • Marit Väin

    I don't know if the general public has actually been asked what they think about this free public transport. I'm sure the pensioners and financially less secure people find it great. What hasn't been taken into account is that a lot of the public transport in Tallinn is filthy, it stinks and it's freezing because the vehicles are old and draughty. I would rather pay for public transport that is clean and comfortable than use the free one we are offered.

  • Maciej Szlosarczyk

    Not true for Tallinn - while transport is free of charge, you still have to swipe your citycard on every bus that you step into. That's one thing - the other one is that it is only free for people officially registered in the city of Tallinn. If you are living in a village next to the city or are a tourist - sorry, no luck.

    Hence, we get a lot of ticket checks and there's plenty of people who still actually pay for the public transport.

  • Ravel Tammeleht

    This experiment failed, because it was the covernment atempt to monitor every citicens move they make. People have allready lost theyr jobs because they have been sick, and while beeing sick they have used the public transport.

    And its not free it's "free" youl have to buy a card to use the free "features" wich are actually your ticket to monitor your moves, if you dont confirm the card while traveling, you can be fined by 600 euros at max.

    So this is why it failed. And I myself am from Tallinn Estonia and I use my car to travel from point A to B. I dont like the fact that my moves will be tracked. If it's free then it should be free without some stupid card. One other thing I dont understad, is that if this was the case, to get the cars of the streets of tallinn, then why does it only apply on the citysens registered in tallinn. It should be free for every body in tallinn.

  • Reino Hästikuulustantsija

    A lot of fact mistakes. The validation is needed for well planning publib transit volumes. It is used worldwide. "People have allready lost theyr jobs because they have been sick, and while beeing sick they have used the public transport." - can you please give a proof?

  • Mängu Loom

    I hope everyone can see, that this person is a moron. The real fine is 60 euro and he really should be wearing a tinfoil hat. Card is there, it's just there to register your fare, from Tallinn or not. How would it be monitored for people from outside Tallinn otherwise...

  • Kale Nahele

    in those cases the government should use the carrot and the stock, make the public service paid by higher fees to access the town center and the effects would be more positives than just allow the same people to use the bus for free.

  • The Swedes used metrics that have nothing to do with the real situation on the ground.

    Basic facts about Estonia:

    • There are no local taxes to speak of.
    • Income tax makes up ~50% of municipalities' budget.
    • Income tax is collected by the government and about half of it is transferred to the municipality where the person was registered to on Dec 31th the previous year.

    The only goal of free public transportation was to increase the number of people registered to Tallinn to increase tax revenue (with a bonus of appealing to core voters). Tallinn performed gloriously in this regard - the increase in taxes is several million over the cost of making public transportation free.

  • Tallinn is a bad example. A big factor in the lack of increase in passengers is, from experience, most likely related to a lot of people not paying for public transport before it was free anyway. The previous system was set up in a way that you could buy a single use ticket and ride around with it almost indefinitely as long as you never got checked. If you did, you just claim that you forgot to stamp it, they'd stamp it for you, you buy a new ticket and continue until checked again. I myself have only been checked once in 7 years of being in Tallinn - and that was before I actually lived here, so it was fairly easy to ride around for at least a year on one €0.70 ticket (eventually it would fall apart from wear and tear), no problem.

    So most of those that wanted to ride for free were already riding for free anyway I suppose, hence the underwhelming lack of uptake

  • (Of course actually doing this would be wrong. Just saying that it was done by a large number of people (mostly students) that I knew at the time.)

  • Nobody really cared if more people would start using public transport. Why? Simply because that was a genius political move by Mister Saavisaar to comfort the votes from grandmas and Russian speakers from Lasnamae mostly. That worked brillantly and he was re-elected extremely easily!

  • Johan Louwers

    not really surprising outcome. "Based on this case study, it seems that in a relatively large city where public transportation already sees high use and is relatively cheap, the fare-free system may not be the most effective way to get people out of their cars and onto the bus."

    What would be more interesting is on how to ensure it will work, and also how it will work in a situation such as in the above described.

    Regards, Johan Louwers.

  • Have'nt read the study yet, but there are several good news in it:

    Poor people gain mobility and freedom of movement. In one of the poorest neigbourhoods ridership was up 10%.

    Tax evasion was replaced by tax boost Three times as many registrered av citizens of Tallinn because of free public transportation, covering 10 million euro of the costs - rendering free public transportation almost self-financed.

    Free public transportation turned the tide! For the first time in 20 years, the negative trend of public transportation ridership was turned.