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?
By Shaunacy Ferro, January 31, 2014
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
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.