x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

City becomes world's first to offer free public transport for all residents

Estonia's capital gives free transport to all in buses, trams and trolleybuses at no charge to residents.

TALLINN // Estonia's capital became the world's first to introduce free public transport for all of its residents. All that's required is a transit pass showing you're a registered Tallinner – and the city's buses, streetcars and trams are yours for free.

"I live on a tight budget since I don't have too much work right now," said Mare Tulp, who recently registered as a Tallinn resident.

"I need to save money wherever I can, so I'm very happy with the free public transit scheme. This is a good thing for the common person."

Three months after launching the initiative, city officials are already calling the experiment a success, though sceptics have described it as an expensive, populist trick ahead of local elections.

The free-ride scheme is the brainchild of the caital's mayor, Edgar Savisaar, who wants to reduce congestion and pollution while alleviating expenses for the city's poor.

Mr Savisaar has even dubbed the programme the "13th monthly salary" since, he claims, families will be able to save a month's salary now that they can get around Tallinn without charge.

The deputy mayor, Taavi Aas, said the experiment, which will cost the city €12 million (Dh57.5m) annually in lost ticket sales, has surpassed expectations. Passenger numbers are up 10 per cent, while the number of cars on city streets has fallen by as much as 15 per cent, according to the city's transport authority.

A recent opinion poll commissioned by Tallinn authorities showed that nine out of 10 capital residents were satisfied with the project. "People now move around the city more frequently during weekends," Mr Aas said. "This means they also spend more money, which boosts the economy."

City officials said it was too early to tell how much Tallinn's economy had been stimulated in this way.

But the programme is expected to boost the city's tax revenue because the registration requirement is essentially winning the city more taxable residents.

According to city calculations, some 40,000 people living and working in Tallinn are registered in other cities and towns. But more than 5,000 new Tallinn residents have been registered since January 1, compared with 3,600 residency registrations during all of last year.

With 1,000 new residents equaling an estimated 1 million euros in city tax revenue, the current registration rate would offset the programme's costs this year, Mr Aas said.

The initiative covers buses, streetcars and trolleybuses in Tallinn - a city of 425,000. The only catch is that one must be registered as a city resident and get a transit pass for €2.

Once on board, you must place the pass on an electronic reader. If you don't, expect a fine of up to 40 euros should a ticket inspector appear.

Installing the system was a breeze in tech-savvy Estonia, birthplace of Skype and pioneer of online voting.

Many European capitals, including London, have similar electronic fare systems, but the difference is Tallinners never have to top up the card with money (out-of-towners do).

The fact that the Tallinn card is personal, essentially allowing the transit authority to monitor every resident's travel pattern, has raised some "big-brother-is-watching-you" concerns. City officials have responded that tracking travel patterns will help them improve transit service.

To be sure, Tallinn is not a trailblazer with free transportation. Many small European towns, such as Hasselt in Belgium and Colomiers in France, have tried it, as well as some Chinese cities. In New York, the city's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has mulled over the idea.

But Tallinn is the first capital and the largest city after Changning City in central China to introduce free public transport, Aas said.

He said the project's two risks - insufficient capacity and the risk of derelicts spending entire days in buses - have not, to date, materialised.

Critics contend the experiment is doomed and will bankrupt Tallinn.

Politician Valdo Randpere from the conservative Reform Party, the ruling party in Estonia's centre-right government, said the centre-left Savisaar is wasting taxpayer money for his "own purposes and propaganda".

"There are lots of other areas where the city should invest but doesn't have the money," said Mr Randpere, a former member of the Tallinn city council. "It all sounds nice, but it's a lot of populism."

Some Tallinn residents groused about the affect the scheme is having on their business.

Andrea Green, manager of a Tallinn-based taxi company, Saksa Takso, said the capital's free transportation was undermining entrepreneurship and risked taking jobs from cab drivers. He said orders declined 25 per cent in the first two months of this year compared with the same period in 2012.

"The city should invest in improving the condition of Tallinn's streets instead," he said.

But for Tallinners on a moderate income, the free rides are a gift.

"It gives you freedom," said Ms Tulp, as she boarded a bus on her way home to a suburb of Tallinn. "It's not just money."