The experience of free public transport monitored by the entire world

In the opening speech of the international summer school “Capital of free public transport” taken place in Tallinn, the mayor Edgar Savisaar recalled that two years ago the city of Tallinn started to deal with something that at a time seemed an unreal dream for many people, but as of 1 January 2013 free public transport is reality for the inhabitants of Tallinn.

“I remember it well how the first publication of the idea aroused various reactions and believe me – not all of them were positive. It became obvious quite fast the development of the idea did not need the decision of the city government or the city council alone, but a much stronger mandate that would survive the elections and different coalitions. That is why we organised a referendum on 19-25 March 2012 for implementation of free public transport for the citizens of Tallinn, and the result of the referendum was convincing: 75.5 % of the participants said YES to free public transport!

Mr Savisaar said the European Union institutions are monitoring the experience of Tallinn and other cities that have transferred to free public transport with a serious interest and they very often ask at international forums why does Tallinn offer public transport for free.

“Actually, it would be more appropriate to ask why the majority of the cities in the world still do not provide free public transport. How to justify the subsidy rate reaching 60-70 per cent and sometimes even higher paid from the public budget for a public service, which due to its cost is still not available for many people. If we considered public transport worthy of such a subsidy, we must ensure that all people wishing to use it could do so,” Mr Savisaar said.

On the example of Tallinn, it could be said that, above all, public transport gives new opportunities for people with average and low income. “The employment rate in the city has improved, as free transport extends the area of job search in the city. The fact has at least the same important side for the employers as well – finding the potential required labour is cheaper and they need fewer investments in parking spots for private vehicles. Already more than 11,000 people have registered themselves as inhabitants of Tallinn from the referendum of free public transport and the number of inhabitants is continuously increasing. That, in its own turn, means that the city receives the individual’s income tax as an extra income, which is our main financing source for the free public transport. According to our calculation, about 1 million euros of additional income tax will be received by the city treasury per each 1,000 inhabitants. Which means that we are nicely in balance in a fiscal sense with free public transport.

Free public transport also enables people with lower income consume goods and services at the entire territory of the city, as they do not need to worry about transportation costs. The increase of use of public transport in the evenings and at weekends, however, refers to the changed behaviour of people with an average income and also bigger than average income – instead of a private car they often prefer public transport for visiting entertainment establishments and family events.

The mayor finished his opening speech with a belief that although Tallinn is just a moderate sized attraction centre on the world stage, we could be pleased with the international attention and interest paid to us. “Thank you, the experts, politicians and representatives of international media who are present here today for introducing our experiment on all continents.”

The mayor also expressed his gratification that one of the main speakers of today’s conference, the European Commissioner for Transport Siim Kallas, has had a neutral optimistic attitude to the idea of free public transport.

Among the participants of the international summer school “Capital of free public transport” lasting from 22 to 24 August, there were local, regional and European policy planners, representatives of intergovernmental associations, experts and representatives of interested parties fascinated by the tightly intertwined issues of transport, environment, social cohesion, economy, budget, and spatial planning.

Also the foreign journalists from China, Russia, New Zealand, South Korea and several European Union countries took part in the event.

One of the keynote speakers of the summer school starting with a conference day was Siim Kallas, the European Commissioner for Transport. Besides Tallinn, the experience with free transport was introduced by Aubagne (France), Chengdu (China), Hasselti (Belgium), and Zory and Zabki (Poland).

The study results on Tallinn free public transport made by the researchers of KTH, Swedish Royal Institute of Technology, was presented by Dr Oded Cats. Social space development policy was treated by Prof. Georg Sootla from the Tallinn University.