Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Meet the new world leader in fare-free living.
It feels like the free public transit plans are coming like buses: You wait ages for one, then several come at once.
Yesterday, I wrote about how Paris is looking into the possibility of abolishing fares on its metros and buses, an effort that, if it went forward, would make the city and its environs the world’s largest free transit zone. But, as an alert reader pointed out, there’s an arguably bigger cost-free travel scheme in the works, and it’s far more concrete: On July 1, the entire country of Estonia will create the largest 24/7 free public transit zone in the world, one that will stretch across its entire territory. That will make it feasibly possible (if complicated) to travel by bus from one end of this 1.3 million-strong Baltic nation to the other without paying a cent.
Estonia is already a world leader in free public transit: In 2013, all public transit in its capital, Tallinn, became free to local residents (but not tourists or other visitors, even those from other parts of the country). The new national free-ride scheme with extend this model even further, making all state-run bus travel in rural municipalities free and extending cost-free transit out from the capital into other regions.
The plan will not, however, extend Tallinn’s existing free public transit policies to other Estonian cities, and it also won’t make riding Tallinn transit free to visitors (at least, not initially). So while most of the country’s land area and population—which is overwhelmingly concentrated around Tallinn—should get fare-free daily lives, it’s not precisely the case that no Estonian will ever buy a bus ticket in their own country again.
Still, it’s a remarkable plan. While Wales in the U.K. (a larger, more populous place than Estonia) already offers free bus travel on weekends, no country has yet tried to abolish fares all day, every day, across such a large area. And the implications of such a model are vast. Free buses for all could lead to a massive democratization of mobility for Estonians, meaning that travel costs paid at point of use need no longer be factored into many people’s monthly budgeting. And while outsiders might assume the government’s costs to be prohibitive, it won’t actually be that expensive to implement.
That’s because Estonia’s public transit already gets extremely generous subsidies. The state-owned railway operator Elron, for example, will get a €31 million boost from taxpayers next year. The rural bus routes due to go free, meanwhile, are already subsidized to up to 80 percent of cost as it is. Making them entirely fare-less should only cost around €12.9 million ($15.2 million) more—not a vast amount for even a small country such as Estonia.
Getting rid of ticket sales and inspections, meanwhile, will eliminate some overhead—and also cut down on delays. I couldn’t turn up any figures on the actual cost of charging for Estonian bus travel, but on larger, more complex networks such as New York’s MTA, it can reach 6 percent of all budget. When only 20 percent of the bus network’s costs are being recouped from fares, it’s easy to see how maintaining a ticket sale and inspection system can come to seem like a burden worth shedding.
But why is Estonia going so big on free transit now? At its root, this is a form of fiscal redistribution. Rural Estonians, who comprise 32.5 percent of the country’s total population, are generally older and less affluent than their urban counterparts; younger country-born Estonians have increasingly moved to cities and to other countries. The rural parts of this former Soviet state, which joined the E.U. in 2003, thus rely heavily on decent functioning public buses. Making this system free to use for all might help slow this rural population drain.
The plan also comes at a time when it’s more needed than ever. In an effort to streamline the country’s bureaucracy, last year Estonia went through a major administrative upheaval, redrawing its own map to reduce its 220 municipalities to just 79. This bundling together of smaller districts into larger ones means that many rural Estonians now have to travel over long distances to reach their county seats. Making bus travel free is thus a way of easing this transition, especially for older residents who prefer to do business face-to-face (even in a digitally obsessed country such as Estonia).
The effect of the plan could be surprisingly wide ranging. As Allan Alaküla, head of Tallinn’s European Union Office, told me, it would probably force Estonia’s capital to make its public transit not just free for locals, but for anyone, including visitors. That’s because the rural bus routes are planning no ticket inspections at all. “Tallinn residents can use country buses without paying, he said. “It seems impossible to expect rural residents do the same in the capital, so I predict that situation could change quite quickly. That could also have a good effect on tourism in the city as well.”
He has a point. Public transit in Tallinn is hardly expensive for visitors, but a capital city where anyone from anywhere can jump on any bus, train, or tram without thinking twice? Now that would be groundbreaking.