Recent estimates show that the decision on free public transport services in Tallinn was the right thing to do

1Estonia is one of the European countries which have lately tried to adapt to new requirements on economic and social growth struggling to answer to development and modernization needs in a new and revolutionary way.

Estonia was the first of the former soviet countries to adopt the Euro currency, being a promoter of the free market, providing facilities to foreign investors and privatising the important sectors of the economy. After these modernisation policies, Estonia has kept going and has launched a new challenge to European countries: since the beginning of this year, Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, has become the largest city to provide free public transport services to its citizens.
Before introducing free public transport services, the authorities have launched a referendum (in March 2012), where 75.5% of the citizens voted “for” the launch of free public transport services and the rest of 24.5% were against.
In 2012, before introducing free public transport services, the authorities implemented a series of measures including the extension of the transport network including the bus lines (in 2012), the merger of the two city companies which provided transport services (in June 2012), the decision of the Local Council on the application of the measure (voted in September 2012 and in force since 1 January 2013) and the implementation of the new payment systems (contactless payment since September 2012).
With a population of 425,000 citizens, Tallinn owns 480 public transport vehicles (buses, trams, trolleybuses) and the budget allocated to public transport in 2012 was of EUR 53 Million. “Total revenues from tickets are worth EUR 17 Million, EUR 5 Million coming from those who are not citizens of the city. In this context, studies showed that free public transport costs the citizens an annual EUR 12 Million”, declared Tõnu Karu, Representative of Tallinn at the European Union, during the conference “Optimisation of railway passenger transport services” organized by Club Feroviar and the Romanian Railway Industry Association.
When adopting the policy on the provision of free transport services, the authorities have considered four aspects related to the social, economic, environmental and fiscal segments. From the social point of view, the stress has fallen on guaranteeing mobility for the residents with small revenues or for the unemployed because the use of public transport facilitates the use of common spaces for the different segments of the society; the economic aspect has focused on increasing the mobility of the work force in the space limits of the city, stimulating the activity of consumers and directing the savings from public transport to other goods and local services. As regards the environment, the authorities have implemented this project to encourage modal shift and to attract the people using individual transportation to public transport while considering the well-known characteristics of urban transport: increased air quality, reduced pollution and noise level, as well as the development of urban areas. As part of the fiscal activity, the authorities in Tallinn see a strong motivation for registering the residency of the citizens in Tallinn, thus increasing the income tax. New financing sources have thus been identified and “since January 2012, a 2% growth of the people registered as Tallinn residents has been noticed (9,000 persons) which increases the city’s revenues coming from the income taxes. Also, the two public transport companies have merged leading to significant operating cost savings; moreover, parking spaces have been extended and parking charges have been increased”, explained Tõnu Karu.
The application of all these measures has already generated an increase in public transport attractiveness as more and more passengers have chosen public transport (the number of people travelling by bus has increased by 14%) and this also included the establishment of new types of passengers in workdays, in the evening or in weekends. Moreover, road traffic in the city centre dropped by 15%.
In order to increase the share of public transport, the authorities have implemented projects to upgrade services. “The satisfaction level of passengers has improved along with the modernisation of the ticketing system as they got used to the new system, the transport timetables are more precise, as 79% of the passengers believe; also, 60% of the people using public transport say they use public transport because it is free. Among passengers, the positive evaluation of different aspects is of 57%-83%. The benefits of free public transport for the environment, the social segment and the economic sector encourage us to continue with what we’re doing” added Karu.
The development plan of the Estonian capital is very ambitious as the authorities plan to candidate for the title of the European Green Capital 2018. Free public transport is the first step in this process. The authorities could also launch debates on the supply of other free public services.
Tõnu Karu, Representative of Tallinn at the European Union, talks in an interview about the increasing quality of public transport in European cities, its role in economic development, as well as the necessity and the challenges brought by the decision of delivering free public transport services.

Railway PRO: Can a city really adopt a new lifestyle in terms of public transport? What are the challenges met in changing the lifestyle of a city?
Tõnu Karu: It would be impossible to continue the unlimited growth and the increasing number of private cars in the traditional cities of Europa. Streets are not designed to meet all the cars.  The air pollution with CO2 and dust as well as noise pollution are dangerous for all inhabitants, including the children and elderly people. Parking the cars in the central location is expensive and increasing the tariffs for parking does not solve the problem.
The parking places in the residential regions take away the valuable land for green areas, playgrounds and recreation paths.
The growing number of private cars means heavy traffic jams and the average cruising speed is getting lower in reality. It means the time lost for the family, friends and hobbies.
For many people the private car has been a status symbol in kind. It is the challenge for the municipalities to promote alternative lifestyle to use bicycles, more walking and using the public transport.  Fortunately the younger generation in their twenties is not so much addicted to have their private cars. If needed occasionally, they are easy to rent cars or use car-sharing.

Railway PRO: How can the quality of public transport be improved in the European cities?
Tõnu Karu: The cities should have the development of public transport as the high priority in their development strategies. It means the innovative measures of spatial planning, modernised sustainable transport fleet and ITS with efficient use of the ICT applications for informing the passengers.
It means new long-time investments and the shift of priorities for the municipal budget combined with targeted using of available EU funding to implement the best practices. I consider learning from the experience of cities with most advanced and sustainable public transport will speed up the process and makes the results cost-efficient.
Considering the ageing society the measures of barrier-free public transport should be implemented (low-floor buses/trams/trolleybuses) to guarantee the high quality service for all.

Railway PRO: What are the most efficient methods of achieving the modal shift to more sustainable transport modes in cities?
Tõnu Karu: The municipalities can introduce priority/exclusive/dedicated lanes for public transport in the cities, limit the access of private cars in the city central areas, increase parking tariffs and provide comfortable park-and-ride facilities.
The guaranteed quality of public transport (clean, sufficient frequency, strict time-tables, optimised line network,) attracts the new users and promotes the alternative to using private cars.
Pricing of the public transport is the most efficient tool to achieve the modal shift for medium and low income population.

Railway PRO: What is the role of public transport in the economic development of a city and of a country?
Tõnu Karu: Efficient public transport is most important tool to guarantee the movement of people between their homes, jobs, service districts, leisure areas etc.  It enables the residents to save their personal time, their money and so increases the economic efficiency.

Railway PRO: Tallinn is the first European capital to have introduced free public transport services, an action of courage that could lead public transport to a different level. What were the reasons for which the authorities decided on such a project?
 Tõnu Karu: Like all municipalities, Tallinn has been subsidising the public transport in the city since long.
The analyses proved that introducing free public transport for the residents of Tallinn will be beneficial for the people and help us to reach the aim of sustainable movement of people. Tallinn is able to allocate the needed finances in the City budget.
In March 2012 the referendum on introducing the free public transport was held in Tallinn. As the result, 75% of the participants in the referendum supported the initiative and gave the administration the strong mandate to develop the initiative. Based on the support of the people Tallinn City Council adopted the decision in September 2012 to introduce free public transport for the residents of Tallinn from 01 January 2013.

Railway PRO: What is the objective of this policy in the transport sector, but also socially, economically and environmentally?
Tõnu Karu: The objective of free public transport is diverse.
As the social aspects, free public transport guarantees mobility for unemployed and low income residents of Tallinn, not able to travel because of financial limitations.
Economic aspects – the people can find and take the jobs in areas far from their homes without caring for transport costs and so their participation in productive work increases the tax basis for the municipality.
Free public transport stimulates consumers’ activity, they can find the needed goods and services in different parts of the city without extra transport costs.  Savings from transport are spent for local goods and services thus activating the economy.
Environmental aspects – the first three months of free public transport has proved the considerable improvement of the city environment. The number of cars in the city centre has decreased about 15%, we can forecast the amount of CO2 pollution decreasing about 45 000 tons in 2013 already. The main crossings are less congested and the noise level at the main streets decreased.

Railway PRO: Do these free public transport services refer to all categories of citizens and cover all public transport modes in Tallinn (bus, tram, trolleybus, train and ferry services)?
Tõnu Karu: The free public transport is available only for all registered residents of Tallinn. They get their personal contactless travel card for 2 € and validate every trip when travelling in municipal   buses, trams and trolleybuses.
The people who are not residents of Tallinn can buy the travel card and load it with money in the service centres or via internet.

Railway PRO: The delivery of free public transport services has attracted many critics to local authorities consisting mainly in economic criteria, such as the city budget, or as the local press reported, free transport could embezzle funds from other cities with higher needs. As representative of Tallinn to the European Union, can you explain this situation to us?
Tõnu Karu: As said before, the decision of Tallinn City Council about introducing free public transport is based on the referendum and now accepted by all political parties in the Council. It means that possible future power shifts in the Council are not able to change it easily.
The initial critics have vanished and the first months of free public transport prove that the decision was right.
Tallinn Public Transport company is the municipal enterprise financed fully by the municipality, therefore this innovation does not harm any other cities.

Railway PRO: Of course that this policy of free public transport services also includes the situation/problem of budget. Is it possible that the implementation of the project would reduce the budget of public transport development? If the budget allocated to this sector is smaller, how will investment funds be covered?
Tõnu Karu: Since the beginning of 2012 until April 2013 about 9000 new residents have been registered in Tallinn. Every 1000 residents bring about 1 million euros of personal income tax to the City budget. Merging two public transport companies gives the city extra savings and we can follow the additional income from increasing economic activity to cover the costs of free public transport.
Tallinn economic situation is fairly healthy, we do not foresee any cuts for the public transport development budget.

Railway PRO: Talking about investments, can you tell us what the public transport development strategy (especially tram) in the capital of Estonia is and what are the investments envisaged in the development plan of the entire transport system?
Tõnu Karu: The aim of Tallinn public transport development strategy is to provide better and extensive service to the residents and our guests. Our biggest project in sustainability development is reconstruction of the longest tramline. We have received funding for that and we have ordered 15 new low-floor trams by 2015 to guarantee the quality of the service.
The centre of Tallinn is standing at the narrow strip between the sea and the lake. To make the commuting better we are finalising the big development works on East-West circle road with remarkable EU co-financing this year.  The planned investments in the fleet of public transport are continuously growing and are supporting the target of Tallinn to be rewarded the European Green Capital nomination for 2018.  Sustainable public transport is one highlight of our application.

Railway PRO: From the point of view of free public transport services, can Tallinn become an example for the other European capitals?
Tõnu Karu: Our aim has been first of all to provide the best possible service for our own residents but is nice that our initiative has wider context. Tallinn free public transport system development has been extensively covered by international media.
We have learned from the experience of some European cities like Hasselt (BE) and Aubagne (FR) and the Chinese city Chengdu. We are sure that our system will be sustainable and we are ready to share our experience with all interested parties in Europe and wider (overseas).
To share the best practice, Tallinn is one of the initiators of the European Free Public Transport Cities Network. This network could serve as the focal centre of information on this innovative urban practice for all European municipalities and regions.

[ by Pamela Luică ]
Share on: