Can offering free rides invigorate public transit?
Image via Citiscope.
Last January, Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, did something that no other city its size had done before: It made all public transit in the city free for residents. [...]
One year later, this city of 430,000 people has firmly established itself as the leader of a budding international free-transit movement. [...]
What’s less clear on the first anniversary of free transit in Tallinn is whether it has actually changed commuting behavior all that much.
As it turned out, Tallinn's bold move last year to offer free-transit to its residents did not have a very dramatic effect on its own ridership. But the experiment has clarified some subtle issues in public transit:
- Free-transit as a "second-best pricing scheme": if a city wants to curb drivers and increase public-transit use, it may be best to de-incentivize driving, rather than incentivizing public transit. Fees on drivers and increased taxes for car ownership may be more effective in getting folks on public transit than offering free rides.
- Price affects accessibility, but not necessarily use: This may seem obvious, but without price-barriers, the unemployed could commute through all of Tallinn and increase access to potential employers. Transit ridership grew the most in Lasnamäe, a densely populated area with high unemployment.
- Free-rides for everyone may not be sustainable, but it can still be good policy for some demographics. Cities like Hasselt, Belgium and Chengdu in China have combinations of free-transit for particular socioeconomic groups or during particular commuting hours, in order to ease the flow of transit throughout the city.
For 2014, the city will continue to monitor the program and measure its sustainability for the future.