Free Public Transport in Tallinn

Free Public Transport in Tallinn

When some German pirates first started to bring up the idea of ticketless public transport they were laughed at by politicians from other parties. What those other politicians didn’t know at that time is that it was not so unrealistic. In Tallinn it’s nearly real by now.

After a while this idea ended up in the program of the German Pirate Party,  aiming for ticketless public transport for long term benefits for society and economy. The rationale is that without tickets public transport would become attractive to visitors and the locals would use it more. This way,  less popular routes could be revived and the costs lowered. as the personnel would no longer need to sell and check tickets. These personnel could then be used to improve service.

This is mostly a reality in Tallinn since January 2013. There, the Estonian Centre Party introduced free public transport for all people registered in Tallinn. To use the public transports, the residents are given “Green Cards” that entitle them to use the public transport for free.

CC-BY Pirate Times

CC-BY Pirate Times

These cards then work as normal pass cards, so when you step into the bus you have to check-in to legitimize your trip. Interestinglyt you actually have to pay a fee, as a registered citizen in Tallinn, when you forget your green card even though you have the right to use the service for free. Along with the mandatory usage of pass cards for everyone also comes privacy issues related to this technology. Some information was leaked directly after it started so now only the usage of the bus-lines is tracked.

This whole program is mainly funded by taxes. It used to be heavily subsidized and is now fully paid for by the city. The only direct income is from visitors who still have to buy tickets. Another source of money is the tax money brought in by people who newly registered in Tallinn wanting to use the public transport. This leads to the problem that this tax money is then missing in smaller cities that actually might need it.

This is one of the problems  criticized by Märt Põder and Eero Elvisto from the Estonian Pirate Party. To quote Eero Elvisto on the issue:

Yet ironically, it can be argued that the advancement of public transport is more necessary in small places, as there it is severely lacking and deteriorating, whilst public transport in the capital is subsidizing its already efficient model even more (if slightly).

They also criticize the legal problems and fees in case you forget your green card at home or forget to validate it but actually should have the right to use the service for free. Furthermore they are still quite suspicious about possible privacy issues as the systems actually offers the opportunity of tracking every single user. Aside from those points the free public transport is mainly supported by the Estonian Pirate Party.

Now after more than a year of trial, it is time for evaluation. Depending on the point of view some parts succeeded, some didn’t. It certainly stopped the decrease of people using the public transport and even managed to increase it by 3% according to a recent study carried out by the Centre of Transport Studies from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. However, only 1.2% is because it is free now, the other part of the increase is due to the improved quality of the public transport. Concerning other points the project has been a failure, the amount of cars is still nearly the same and therefore there also aren’t any environmental benefits.

This all might have been the case because the public transport in Tallinn already used to be quite cheap and with a share of 40% it was already quite well used. Nevertheless, the project will go on at least as long as the Estonian Centre Party is in power, according to Olga Sõtnik who is a member of that party and currently also a member of parliament. As of the end of 2013 the program has also been extended to the usage of trains within the city limits but it stills leaves room for a lot of improvements.

This comes quite close to the idea found in the German program but also differs in some key points. There are restrictions for local residents, the existing ticket which needs ticket controls and some selling points for visitors. But, who knows, maybe these are compromises that are acceptable to the Pirate movement and might even help to pursue this idea in cooperation with other parties.

Featured image: CC-BY-SA 3.0 Pjotr Mahhonin