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Free Public Transport in Estonia (economist.com)
166 points by dullgiulio 8 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 169 comments

As an expat living as Tallinn resident for a couple of years, here are my two cents

1. Having public transport has a remarkable effect on the quality of life - At any time of the day, I can hop on go to any part of the city without worrying about costs involved. I have started to go out more than sitting at home simply because it's hassle-free.

2. Connectivity and frequency are quite poor if you don't reside in the city centre. It gets even worse (even in the city centre) at night. Majority of residents tend to live in the outskirts and they continue to use private vehicles in spite of free public transport.

3. Short journeys that were covered by foot are now covered by public transport defeating the purpose. Most of the times, I use a bus for half a km even though I can walk that distance quite easily.

4. The population is very low so one can easily find empty seats on most routes.

Re: 2 - I can't agree. Yes, the trams and trains stop running soon after midnight and start up ~5am or so, however that is pretty good time coverage. Many people in Tallinn don't own cars, and use the free public transport a lot, plus the coverage up to the city limits is also quite good: https://www.visittallinn.ee/static/files/063/2018_tallinn_tr...

One 'problem' here is that Taxify / Bolt is so cheap. I'll not even think about dropping 5EUR on a fare if it means slightly less hassle / time getting somewhere.

I cannot imagine going out at night if there was no Bolt/Uber. I pretty much have to walk home or some distance to get a bus. The weather doesn't help either - standing at a bus stop in winter when the next bus is in 20 mins or so is not a pleasant experience.

My 20s weekends consisted of getting the bus into town, getting drunk or going to a movie or club, then getting the night bus home. Some of the most entertaining times were actually on that journey home - as just about everyone was having a good laugh, singing badly, or talking to everyone else. Standing at the bus stop is no worse than queuing at the taxi rank or waiting for the Uber to show up once the bar or club has closed.

Sorry but I won't spend 30 minutes waiting outside in snow, then getting on a bus for 10 minutes, then waiting some 10 more minutes, then getting on a bus for 15 minutes and then 25 minutes of walking through snow, when I can just be there within 15 minutes by car. It's not far, it's just uphill (the bus is too long to fit on these narrow uphill roads).

I can't wait for autonomous cars. I just hope that someone in charge will realise that not everyone lives near a frequented bus stop before they limit all transportation to public transport (as they plan in many places). I noticed that many people talking about the great benefit of public transport live in the wider city centre - but most people live outside that!

> I can't wait for autonomous cars.

So that the US can build more ugly boring car suburbs ? Autonomous cars have the potential to make american cities much worse transit-wise.

Sorry but IMHO your perception of beauty has no priority over allowing people to live a fulfilling live...

And one can argue fairly easily that not spending life in traffic is more fulfilling.

That's what autonomous vehicles solve. So we're back to square one - your perception of beauty is not a standard.

But autonomous vehicles will mean a flood of them on the highway... Stuck in traffic.

With regards to #3, I find that a positive for people who are unable to easily get around due to disabilities.

you are 100% correct. #3 is especially funny in the city center, where most lines pass anyway

My city started to provide free public transportation every Saturday. As result, more people visit central shops and restaurants in historical center. They discuss now to make it too on Sundays.

That makes a lot of sense. I imagine public transport is largely underutilized on weekends without everyone trying to get to work.

Where are you located?

The reason why free is good in public transport is because more people move around for work and fun, better it is for the whole area. Abusing the system is not a problem. It improves the quality of life even if it's done just for fun. Free electricity or water for residents would lead to waste.

You still want to maintain the markets. Giving every resident free card to use in public transport does that. When government pays according to the use, bus companies will respond to user demand. The local government can still subsidize unprofitable routes etc. but it's good that those things must be decided separately.

> You still want to maintain the markets. Giving every resident free card to use in public transport does that.

Why not give them money instead? They can choose to buy a ticket or choose to ride a bike/walk and use the money elsewhere. You might keep the market for public transportation (though I have my doubts: why would the provider need to respond to demand if he's paid no matter what?), but you're strongly intervening in the transportation market in general.

Why does one preclude the other? "Free public transport" and "give poor people money" can both be excellent policies, there's no reason one should only pick one.

The point with specifically making public transport free is because using public transport instead of using cars is A Good Thing. It's like a reverse pigouvian tax: we want to encourage people using public transport, so lets make it free. Instead of charging for it, tax something we don't like (i.e. cars) and pay for it that way.

We're not just making cars relatively worse, but also walking and cycling, and we're encouraging (medium distance) travel in general. I don't know that this is a good idea, though I do agree that if you want to encourage travelling, it's fair to not only make it available to the rich.

I'd much prefer people to use any form of transportation when required and not spend their leisure time by descending upon the inner city, but that's a personal preference.

Two reasons.

1. UBI can be politically impossible.

2. You want to give incentive that is not local (individual level the best use of money) and becomes beneficial only when it applies to everyone. One individual does not generate enough inertia to change bus service, it's mass transit. If you give a nudge that changes the behavior of many people, you can reach states that individual incentives can't reach.

There are sub-fields of economy that study reasons why markets don't solve all issues. For example the "Theory of company." Why we have companies made of large number of people where internal structures and incentive structures are shielded from markets forces? Those same questions related to issues of what government should do and not to do.

It wouldn't need to be UBI, monthly tickets for public transportation aren't that expensive, and you can certainly limit it to the residents of the town where it's implemented.

> If you give a nudge that changes the behavior of many people, you can reach states that individual incentives can't reach.

Sure, but you don't even know if people want that "nudge". I'm quite happy riding my bike, for example, which this would punish me for by raising my taxes which I have to pay on top of bike repairs etc.

> Those same questions related to issues of what government should do and not to do.

"Provide free & ubiquitous public transportation" is quite far along on the "nothing <=> everything" axis on what should be provided/decided/enforced by the government, I'm not so sure that there's a majority that agrees in most countries.

Giving money costs money. Letting people use a bus that was running anyway does not.

> you're strongly intervening in the transportation market in general.

Good. Markets are not suitable for organizing transportation, this kind of thing needs to be planned.

> Giving money costs money. Letting people use a bus that was running anyway does not.

That bus isn't running anyway though. It's (at least partially) paid for by ticket sales, you'll have to offset that by increasing the government subsidies to 100%, which costs money.

> That bus isn't running anyway though.

Did Estonia have no public transportation before it was made free?

They probably did, but before it was made free implies that somebody paid for it. If those people no longer pay for it and the state picks up the bill, the state needs to spend more money. Unless the employees of the transportation providers no work for less money, of course.

To the extent people previously paid for tickets, free public transportation does cost money of course. But that is not really a disadvantage: The people of Estonia gains just as much by not having to pay for tickets individually as they lose by paying for them collectively by way of their state.

If the increased ridership necessitates an increase in capacity, that clearly does have a cost. But often, a route has much higher capacity than necessary in order to increase frequency or to keep the schedule more regular. No one should decide against using public transportation in such a case in order to save money. Making it free prevents that.

Paying money to people is also effectively free for the state to the extent that they use it to purchase tickets for spare capacity of public transportation or other things the state provides that have zero marginal cost. But people almost certainly spend a smaller share of that on spare capacity than if they receive it as "tickets".

So free public transport may not be free, but it is cheaper than paying people the money their tickets would have cost.

The brilliant thing about making public transit free is that unlike many other things that can be government subsidized, free public transit can't be stolen or arbitraged.

Yeah I grew up hearing that "The optimal price of public transit is free".

The one pitfall I was told about was something called a "free-rider problem", which in this specific context doesn't have its normal economic meaning and refers to people taking up public-transit resources while not actually trying to get from Point A to Point B.

Just for example, if your transit is clean, safe, supervised, a moderate temperature, and has long journeys, what fraction of its users will be using it to get somewhere vs. using it because it is a safe place to be?

In the Bay Area, there is "Hotel 22", the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority #22 bus from Eastridge Transit Center to Palo Alto Transit Center, about a two-hour ride running 24 hours a day (see e.g. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/... or https://www.mercurynews.com/2013/10/31/homeless-turn-overnig... - a safe warm place to sleep for $6).

In Pynchon's "V" there is Benny Profane "yo-yoing" on the 42nd Street Shuttle from Grand Central to Times Square, but his contemporaries were certainly finding shelter there: https://harpers.org/archive/1956/03/subways-are-for-sleeping...

These aren't necessarily bad side effects but understanding how folks will use the system when it's free is an important part of making the policy decision to make it free.

Ahh, there it is, the US can never have nice and clean things because of its massive inequality. Judging by European countries it would seem like there are ways to fix that.

Reminds me of a comment I saw on HN a while ago about an American shocked that other countries have public toilets that aren't covered in shit, blood and needles. It seems like so many Americans are not even aware that the problems they face are not global and they just take it as a fact of life.

This is absolutely against my experience. When I visited the US last year I was surprised by how clean and well maintained public toilets were. I am not used to this, as in Germany public toilets (if they even exist) are totally disgusting.

This is absolutely against my experience.

Seconded. Recently returned from New York (mostly Manhattan) and everything was surprisingly clean. Sure, not Tokyo clean, but much cleaner than I had been led to believe it would be.

The pay public toilets I used in German train stations (Freiburg, Munich Hauptbahnhof) were clean and fine.

I think "paid" is the significant word here.

That said, the toilets on German trains (not in train stations) are generally ok as well, even though they're not paywalled.

Well, they're paywalled by the train ticket, no?

Probably not, because in Germany you can walk on the railway platforms even if you don't have a train ticket, so the toilets should be free access, too, and probably this is why many railway stations have pay toilets only.

Yes, but the post you're responding to, was responding to this:

> German trains (not in train stations)

That's correct, but I have a public transit subscription, so toilets in regional trains are sort of "on the house" for me.

Paying more taxes to decrease inequality around you has its return of investment by creating a happier society with nicer places.

I’d rather pay more and live in a society that watches out for each other (and also me, should I fall), than living in the economic equivalent of a battle royal between individuals.

Me too, if the top 0.01% paid more we probably wouldn't need to, though I would have no problem doing so.

South African here. We're grappling with a similar problem; we have one of the highest Geni coefficients in the world (https://mg.co.za/article/2015-09-30-is-south-africa-the-most...)

I'd be interested to hear what these fixes are. Oft armchair philosophising ignores realities on the ground and redressing historical injustice. Europe went through years of war and bloody revolution before the current stability was achieved and we in South Africa would certainly like to avoid those aspects of the European model.

European countries absolutely have their share of smelly homeless people.

Can you name a European city that has anything approaching the homeless problem of SF, Seattle or NYC?

Honestly, I've been to SF and NYC (Manhattan only) and have barely seen any homeless people. It didn't look better or worse than a typical European city. Probably I just didn't go to the bad districts?

SF is 100x worse than any European city I've ever seen. I guess you haven't seen Mission and downtown.

I've been to SF several times, always staying near downtown and the homeless population didn't feel any larger than Berlin's.

I didn't feel like a saw many more obviously homeless people in the parts of Manhattan or Brooklyn I was than I do in say Oslo or London, but I realize that that is only a small part of NYC.

Probably London.

I've never, ever heard anyone not wanting to go on public transport here because of homeless people shooting heroine in there. Unlike Californians among which this seems pretty popular


In an ideal world, there are other clean, safe, supervised and temperature controlled places that you can provide that make hanging around public transit not a particularly attractive option.

This is not a public transportation problem, this is a housing/wage problem.

True, but that's not useful when creating transit policy. The housing and wage problems are present within the society you're writing your transit policy for.

If those problems exist, then your transit policy must account for them.

I don't get why many people think it's sane to make everyone's life worse (by making public transport scarce, expensive, and denying economic growth coming from increased efficiency of a good public transport system) just to avoid someone getting something for free, i.e. homeless getting reasonable accommodation. Bus seat seems like a pretty low bar to clear for a wealthiest country in the world, and yet apparently even the wealthiest state in the wealthiest country can't provide anything better for its residents. How come?

So in order to have free public transportation, first, free safe places you can be need to not be scarce.

I can live with that. I'd like safety to be free and abundant.

99.x% vs <1%, if Munich is a model. And if Munich isn't, then I'm curious why not.

(FWIW, Munich's transport network includes about 200 underground stations that aren't just clean, safe and supervised, but also sheltered from rain and open about 21 hours per day.)

After the rural buses here were made free, the companies that own the buses started inflating the passenger amounts. The subsidies were in part dependent on how many passengers are taking the bus - to avoid paying for bad/inefficient routes - and of course it immediately got taken advantage of.

They cannot inflate the numbers. There is a (free) card system. When boarding the bus you have to validate the ticket. The ticket system is handled by a separate company, not by the bus companies.

That seems pointless. Why make everyone carry around a card that has no purpose for the user. Why not just let the government design all the routes and manage it.

In Tallinn, Estonia, free public transport is for city residents only, which pay local taxes. You get a “city resident card” that you use on public transport to get a free ride. Everyone else pays as normal

You can track the flow of people within your own country, you could even display full buses in realtime and send a notification to get the next one. And most important: you can differentiate locals from tourists.

Do you have to "check out" when you get off the bus? If not, how could you track the flow and the amount of people on each bus?

You do not have to check out when getting off of the bus.

You could do all of this, except the last one, with simple image recognition or even an optical barrier (to some degree of precision)

Cards are even simpler than that.

Why do that if you can do it with simple plastic cards

Which assumes that people wont try to trick the system, which is a different kind of beast in public transport.

Also: in nations that had communist regimes in them, public cameras with facial recognition (biometric tracking of humans through their habitat) are for some reason not nearly as popular as in the parts of the west. A west that is still naive enough to believe they will have democracy indefinitly without ever doing anything for it, while providing all the perfect technology for any next extremist takeover including racial genocide.

We like to think our institutions will save us and they can’t be broken in a changing technological landscape, but like with denying climate change these are the arguments of an optimistic gambler, and not of somebody who thought about the risk and decided it is not big.

Helps keep companies from lying about number of people using the lines. Makes sense honestly.

So you can grant free transport to residents but still make tourists pay. Also so you can monitor the system and improve it by tracking rider numbers on the routes. See which routes need more busses. If the bus companies are private, the government can pay them based on passengers for example.

Public transport is designed based on data. The cards make the equivalent of car counting wires on roads.

To keep track of how the system is used maybe. What lines are popular and what lines can be reduced.

There are many simple solutions to that, from cameras and image recognition to creating semi-public companies that handle the bus lines. If the private companies are happy to commit fraud to increase their benefits no one should be surprised when they lose their contracts.

Seems plausibly easy enough to solve at least partly with some technology. The article states that tourists and non-residents still need to pay, so I guess they still have a ticketing system. Just issue yearly cards to eligible citizens and use that to track ridership

How do you ration limited seats on a train? By charging more at certai times you encourage those who can choose less desirable services to do so.

First come first served works fine. Making poor people wait longer impoverishes them by imposing a significant time cost. There is no particular reason to privilege better-off people on basic services, you are not more important just because you have more money.

> First come first served works fine.

Do you mean first to book in advance? Then people could squat on tickets, taking more than they need.

Do you mean first to arrive at the station? Then that's a drag on the economy as workers waste time being at the station early so they can get a seat on a train.

For long distance train journeys, you could have named tickets in that scenario. No squatting.

For city trams, subways and buses, it is simply first come (to the stop) first served. The solution is to expand capacity, as the economy is helped when large amounts of people are moved efficiently across the city.

It's in the nature of public transit to have hard capacity plateaus that take half-century capital projects to break through. You do need a plan for the next few decades.

You do need a plan for the next few decades.

Which is exactly what successfully managed cities do. There's usually something like a master plan that outlines the greater strategy for the next 20 years, or so.

Of course there's no expectation that it will be exactly implemented as planned, but is immensely helpful as a general outline and to define the overall strategy of where a city is going with things like housing, population, public and non-public transit, etc.

Or that it will exactly have the expected impact (see roads projects, traffic jams and induced demand)

  For long distance train journeys, you
  could have named tickets in that scenario.
All-reservation trains exacerbate the problems of "My first train was late, so I missed my connection" and "The train I booked was cancelled"

Unless you can eliminate late and cancelled trains, which would of course be great.

> All-reservation trains exacerbate the problems of "My first train was late, so I missed my connection" and "The train I booked was cancelled"

The European train companies I know of are responsible for fulfilling combined ticket trips that are purchased as a single journey. If the first train is late, either the next one waits or they'll have to provide another transportation.

I've had a taxi ride home on the train company's expense when train was late and the last connecting train left already.

Sure, however lets assume your train runs hourly

Your itinerary is 0930-1000 from A to B, and 1030-1230 from B to D via C.

You have a reserved seat on the 0930 and 1030, but the 0930 runs 40 minutes late and gets in at 10:40.

So you try to get the 1130. Except there's no seats available from B to D because someone has reserved the seats between C and D. The train pulls out empty from B, and you have to wait for the next train with seat available (1630)

Meanwhile the train gets to C, and people haven't turned up for their journey (reservations are free). Half empty train runs from C to D.

Reservation only trains are a terrible idea.

Imagine the chaos if the journey was free too. I'm going to London tomorrow, I'd book 5 different trains depending on what time I get up.

It also significantly reduces flexibility. I can get on any NJTransit train on my line into or out if New York. I don't have to worry about making a specific train to get to or from the city. At least a few times a month that flexibility is important.

Long distance trains in the Uk come with free reservations. These are usually ignored, people pay for a flexible ticket (when the train runs very 20 minutes why would you want to tie yourself to a specific one)

Or will you ration by saying that one person can only book one train a day?

I am British and I share your preferences. But they are not universal. In Japan, shinkansen offers reserved seating at about 25% price premium. Even on services that run more frequently than every 20 minutes more people prefer to pay to reduce the risk of standing. Which risk seems to be predictably low with few exceptions.

Unavailability is a drag in any case because transportation always costs something.

Either you come earlier and wait, or you pay more to secure a seat (and thus work longer to earn the cost but at least you won't compete with the poor), or the town/state pays for more capacity (and you work longer to pay more taxes to order and operate the new capacity).

Or you work longer to pay taxes to build more roads so that you can drive a "private" car instead of this complicated, pooled-cost public transport -- the point is that even a passenger car is anything but private when it comes to maintaining the infrastructure. Or you could only use private, toll-roads in which case you again work longer to pay for the toll.

It's always a drag.

Or, like, you just stand when there's only standing room available during peak hours?

Works fine for sub-30 minute rides (and a seat usually frees up at one point during your journey).

For longer journeys reservations are either part of the ticket, or available seperately if a guaranteed seat is important to you.

> Or, like, you just stand when there's only standing room available during peak hours?

In my city, that won't work during rush hour because there's simply no space. The busses are filled to capacity, all seats taken and people standing toe to toe where possible. If you want to avoid intimate contact with strangers, you'll have to sit out a a few; if you don't mind it, you might still have to because there's simply no room.

> Do you mean first to arrive at the station? Then that's a drag on the economy as workers waste time being at the station early so they can get a seat on a train.

Charging more so poor people have to choose sub-optimal routes also forces them to wake up way earlier in the morning because their "cheaper" routes take longer to get to their destinations.

First come first served works and, if people are getting anxious because there might not room in the bus/train, increase the frequency. If the costs keep going up then we might want to stop subsidising private companies by transporting their employees to the place of employment for free, i.e. tax them to cover the costs of public transport.

> if people are getting anxious because there might not room in the bus/train, increase the frequency

And how do you plan on doing that, once all the paths are taken?

Bigger buses, trains.

There'll be a thousand challenges before "all paths are taken".

It is actually a bigger economic loss to waste the same amount of a more productive worker's time. And that time wasted in line is simply gone; money paid to compete for seats can be invested by the transit agency into services.

> It is actually a bigger economic loss to waste the same amount of a more productive worker's time.

Only if they're losing productive time, i.e. working less. And in any case, most people don't want to maximise total productivity for the sake of it.

Plus, FCFS doesn't actually have to imply waiting in line.

That's not how any metro transport works. The Tube is manic at peak times, because...peak. But everyone mostly pays a flat rate for using the whole system each week (within the zones they travel to at least). This is a solved problem.

Except some people take the bus or walk because it's cheaper.

Those arriving at Euston in the peak and getting on the Victoria line to Oxford Circus may choose to save £4 return and walk for half an hour instead of taking 15 minutes on the tube.

If they didn't have the saving they may simply add to the crush

> But everyone mostly pays a flat rate for using the whole system each week (within the zones they travel to at least).

I was wondering how widespread travel cards are, since I never bought one personally. If you don't travel much on the weekends you end up paying more.

In 2017 TfL sold weekly, monthly, and annual travel cards covering year-round flat-rate travel for ~0.8m people. Travel card journeys account for about 39% of all journeys.

Maybe it was more common in the past, since travel card journeys dropped around 10% a year from 2015-2017.


You don't need to, the weekly cap is applied automatically. A weekly travelcard is only useful if you're visiting London for a 5-day period that covers a weekend.

People from outside the zones often have a travelcard - e.g. Sevenoaks-Z16, which allows unlimited travel between Sevenoaks and anywhere in London

Flat rate sounds like a disincentive toward demand shifting (work 10-6 or 11-7 once a week) or working from home once a week.

Either strategy would increase peak supply by 20%.

Too often, citizens jump to “we need more subways” without exploiting the low-hanging fruit.

I really dislike season tickets as they offer no financial incentive to do a 4, or even 3 day week.

If everyone had a free pass for all public transport then you can make the free pass only free at certain times, with a standard ticket price for other times.

Old retired folk don't need to get anywhere for 9 a.m. or be in a mad dash to get home at 5.30 p.m. They get a free pass that only works between 10 and 4.

Essential public sector workers, e.g. school teachers get a free pass for the commuting hours or whatever is needed for their shift patterns. They could also have free evening and weekend travel not given to the senior citizens.

School kids get a different pass again.

The incentives can be many, if it is always kept as a perk that is seen as such even if 99% of the population can get it, then you can do the rationing.

Until recently UK police had free passes to use transport networks when off duty. The cost cutting government got rid of this perk. This hacks people off, people in the police are no longer thinking the government is looking out for them. They no longer are made to feel part of a bigger family of public sector useful people because they don't get the guest treatment on the rails. Whether they used the pass or not is irrelevant, it is the treatment that matters.

There were no incidents of off duty police officers travelling for free en masse and causing paying passengers to no be able to get a seat. So rationing is one of those problems that falls into the category of 'nice to have'.

By adding more trains on the route at peek times. "Less desirable services" means taking limited space using cars

Rail lines can take a certain amount per hour (say 32 on the Victoria line). They are already maximum length and maximum capacity, and already leave people behind.

Buses are cheaper but slower. Those who aren’t in as much of a hurry can take the bus or walk.

With no cost differential people will base it just on time, increasing time taken on the rail service.

Same applys on long distance. Sometimes I need to be in London at 9am so will take a more expensive busier peak train. Sometimes I don’t need to be there until the afternoon so I travel on quieter or slower trains, saving money and freeing space for those who do have to be in by 9am.

Rapid Bus Transit[1] systems seem to be a good way to combine high capacity with (almost) guaranteed transit times and much lower costs than building rail, let alone subway systems.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bus_rapid_transit

Add more tracks. We have 8 lane highways but a 4 track train line is unthinkable?

That's what we're doing with the WCML. Adding two new tracks to the existing 4. Obviously they can't go through the middle of towns - demolishing that many buildings would be unthinkable even without the cost, so they bypass the towns they don't serve (currently half the high speed trains run non stop through places like Harrow, Watford, Hemel, Bletchly and Milton Keynes)

Building new tracks (and indeed building new highways), even in the countryside where land is cheap, is very expensive and has massive amounts of opposition.

In London, crossrail is adding two new underground tracks to the central line. It's running years behind schedule and costs billions. And underground is crowded too -- there's one point on crossrail where they had a 30cm margin of error between existing tunnels.

Free public transport in London would cost £5b a year. This would mean those who travel a lot on expensive services (like city workers on the tube) will be being subsidised by those who don't travel (like people who walk to work in the local school).

That might work in the US but it won't in Europe where cities are generally densely packed. You can't just tear down a few rows of houses/dig new tunnles/turn the city into one big construction project to add more space for tracks.

Tokyo underground trains are currently running an interesting campaign to get people onto specific off-peak trains. Such as the 07.31 out of Ikebukuro, and many others.


Riders are offered a small reward simply for being on that train. But the size of the reward depends on the size of ridership. More riders, bigger reward to everyone. So there's an appeal to group solidarity.

Is there any evidence that people with flexible schedules choose to jump on peak hour standing room only trains? I rearrange my work schedule to avoid busy times whenever possible.

> Is there any evidence that people with flexible schedules choose to jump on peak hour standing room only trains?


From Upminster into London, the price is the same on the fast train and the district. The district you get a seat, but the fast train you have to squeeze on. People take the busier train.

Conversely people take cheaper means of transport. If the coach from Exeter to London was the same price as the train, why would you take the coach (2 hours longer)? You'd end up with an empty coach and a full and standing train (I for one would rather stand than take the coach), rather than a mostly full coach and a mostly full train.

> People take the busier train.

Neither of those examples are comparing like for like, they're comparing two different services, not the same service at different times. Congestion pricing on trains is supposed to level out the distribution of travelers, not to move them to different services.

I have flexibility in my hours but I am in the busiest trains in the morning usually.

Flexible working is not just to miss rush hour IME, it's more than that. E.g. ability to take the odd morning/afternoon for personal reasons, or leaving an hour earlier or later than usual etc without clearing everything with your boss. Trust and personal responsibility etc.

You might be thinking about offset-hours rather than flexible hours?

Sorry, you don't have flex time in the common usage of the term. You simply have a standard professional, non-hourly, job.

For London Underground, peak fares apply from 06:30-09:30 in the morning, and from 16:00-19:00 in the evening. So if you want to avoid both peaks while working an 8 hour day, you can either work 6:30 to 14:30, or 11:00 to 19:00.

Needless to say, although many office jobs offer ±1 hour of schedule flexibility, few are flexible enough that one can respond to the incentives peak time provides.

What about people that don't work? As far as I understand the seniors card (I'm not aware of restriction) gives free travel around London, are seniors making a substantial number of unnecessary trips during peak times or will they naturally choose to avoid it?

But it can be exploited by crowd sourced delivery services.

AFAIK there already are (and probably have been since trains exist) courier services that bring you stuff via train in express tempo.

Even if trains were free and they wouldn’t throw you out when you fill the train with parcels, taking a truck or a plane might just be more economical, cause you can drive to distribution places directly.

Idea of free public transport (for rural areas: to add mobility to shrinking (age) and city-moving population) is interesting, to combat the otherwise natural process of urbanization and centralization.

Same for the cities that actually have meaningful public transit needs and solutions (Tallinn, maybe Tartu and Pärnu). Implementation as a "FREE stuff, vote for me" is total fail - bad timetables, pointless long routes etc.

Flexible and on-demand transportation is required for rural areas (right now money gets wasted on subsidies rather than real problem) and for dense areas different approaches than just throwing money at a sub-optimal solution (maybe "use a bicycle" would be better than "success if you don't take a car but take stinking and smoking bus instead").

Fully free public transport isn't that rare in the US: My home city, Missoula, Montana, has had it for years.[1] No passes, no metering. Wikipedia has a list, of course. [2] However, some of those routes aren't fully free, just free to some and, therefore, still incur metering costs. I wonder how much metering a bus route costs, overall, inclusive of enforcement of laws against "turnstile-jumping" or whatever you'd call it.

[1] https://www.mountainline.com/mountain-line-to-operate-zero-f...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_public_transport

This is a good example of policy makers not falling for the fallacy of "efficient public transport system = financially self-sufficient". A good public transport system has to be cash-negative because of its positive externalities. If it's cash-positive, it's either too expensive, under-investing, or both. It's a government's job to price the externalities in by reaping the fruits of economical growth (via taxes) and investing it back into public transport.

Estonia seems to be a great country for these sorts of initiatives. Is it because vested interests are less of a thing there? Also being small might help, I suppose, more agile perhaps?

They only have 1.3 Million people, so it's easier logistically do to a lot of what they want and therefore it's easier to roll back things that don't work because they take less investment.

Also their population is relatively young, and more willing to do these things.

Lastly, their last two Prime Ministers were under 40, and one was an engineer. They've also had computer scientists in their upper ranks heading up things like the e-citizenship program and their election security.

> and their election security.

This is by now a couple of years out of date and I do not have any idea if and how things have improved, but this particular aspect of the Estonian e-government should not be emulated.

> Close inspection of videos published by election officials reveals numerous lapses in the most basic security practices > [...] > These actions indicate a dangerously inadequate level of professionalism in security administration that leaves the whole system open to attack and manipulation.


I only read your quotes, but you could say that about paper ballot systems too.

The main reason why paper ballots are a better idea is that they're easy to understand. Almost any voter can sit there and supervise how the votes are counted, but they can't do that for online voting. The voter needs to trust experts for that.

The small <-> agile thing is very real. I've seen it take very little time (2-5y after conception) for big ideas to be implemented in reality, countrywide, whereas doing it somewhere like the US would be next to impossible.

What forbids to do it on a state level? City level?

Depends on how much local autonomy there is which in turn depends on how much taxation is raised by local government. In some countries local governments are funded from central taxation and are more or less instructed on what they can or can't do with it.

Don't worry, as the EU gets more power, individual countries in Europe will be less able to implement these ideas.

I am a huge fan of public transportation, and I think using it should be as easy as possible. But here is a possible problem with this idea: if you make public transport free, you change the social structure of the riders. As the cost of public transportation does not depend on income, free rides have far greater benefits for the lower classes, and this may lead to public transportation having the image of "transportation for the poor", which may then lead to vast parts of society avoiding riding on it. After some time, it may even become a stigma, and the lower classes will also avoid using it.

I fear that free public transport may lead to lower passenger numbers in the long run, except in areas with a homogeneous population.

In Tallinn's case this doesn't seem to be true. What's more, having lived in Tallinn for decades, I can say that the poorest of people have been always riding for free (illegally) - it's either worth the risk of having to run away from ticket checkers or they're so poor that they deal only in cash and don't have a bank account that the government can take fine money from. Thus making the transport free in Tallinn hasn't really changed the demographics of passengers.

There's no fear of safety in the public spaces (including transport) in Tallinn either. It's standard practice for kids to go to school alone. So you have 7 year olds waddling around the city on their own, taking various public transports etc, and everyone is happy.

Additionally, if the wealthier people are too snobby to ride with lower classes, then there's always the possibility to raise car taxes. I think that's a much better solution compared to depriving lower classes of mobility.

Also I think you might be hanging out with very wrong crowds if you think that the majority of society would not go on public transport because some lower class people might be on it. (Ed: I see you changed it to vast parts instead of majority now. Better, but I'd bet still overestimated.)

Then there's the completely bonkers idea that lower class people themselves stop riding the bus because lower class people are on it. There are many reasons why I think that's never going to happen, but the biggest one is practical - poor people have no alternatives! A minimum wage worker needs to get to their workplace or they won't have food. The idea of them skipping the busride because there are other similar people on the bus is ridiculous.

"So you have 7-year-olds waddling around the city on their own" This. I have seen so many kids going to school alone in Tallinn - quite the opposite of the current generation's helicopter parenting.

Those kids are in the current generation, or am I missing something?

You could read it as kids being the next generation, young adults being current generation, and helicopter parenting happening en masse in places other than Estonia.

As an Estonian currently living in Demark, the contrast is very stark. Kids in Copenhagen don't have any freedom at all. Parents are climbing playground equipment alongside them, touching their playballs every 10 seconds etc. On top of that they are holding protests that this isn't enough.

> aim is to persuade the government to introduce a minimum ratio of 1 adult to 3 children in nurseries (roughly 0-3 year olds), and 1 adult to 6 children in kindergartens (roughly 3-5 year olds)


That's very odd, and very un-Scandinavian. Here in Norway small children take buses to school. Even on the same buses as high school students which I think would not be reckoned safe these days in my birth country (UK). Quite a few do get delivered by car though. But schools and society generally encourages children to walk or cycle to school.

I fully agree with all your points, and you are obviously lucky to live in a society where free public transportation may be able to work (I have never been to Tallinn). Even before I edited my comment, I never claimed that such a system would never work, and it is great that it seems to work for now in Tallinn. But you should not make the mistake to assume that what works in your city, will work in general (although I wish it would be like that in this case).

> Also I think you might be hanging out with very wrong crowds if you think that the majority of society would not go on public transport because some lower class people might be on it.

I don't understand this part. This is an opinion I formed after riding in dozens of public transportation systems in Europe and the US for over a decade. Should I have restricted my travels to cities without this problem to protect the romantic worldview of my late teens?

> But you should not make the mistake to assume that what works in your city, will work in general

Sure, I expect it to be harder in places like the US that have a lot of stigma around welfare. However on that note, Estonia isn't actually that big on welfare either. Thus I think there's potential for this to work in most of Europe without insurmountable difficulties.

> Should I have restricted my travels to cities without this problem to protect the romantic worldview of my late teens?

I was basing my comment on the idea of you having actually talked to people and then the majority telling you that they don't want to ride the public transport because of poor people. However if you haven't actually gotten this feedback from the majority you've talked to and are basing it on some other experience, then I guess I would be skeptical of your methodology.


I guess most of all, I have a hard time believing that people in most places would decide their travel method based on how much their fellow traveler earns. The thing that I can definitely see being an issue is hygiene/smells, but this stuff will annoy everyone, including minimum wage workers, and rich people can also stink of sweat.

> I guess most of all, I have a hard time believing that people in most places would decide their travel method basend on how much their fellow traveler earns. The thing that I can definitely see being an issue is hygiene/smells, but this stuff will annoy everyone, including minimum wage workers, and rich people can also stink of sweat.

The problem is not the salary of your fellow traveler (which would be ridicoulus), or hygiene, or snobbism. The problem is fear of crime, be it justified or not.

> However if you haven't actually gotten this feedback from the majority you've talked to and are basing it on some other experience, then I guess I would be suspicious of your methodology.

Ha, checkmate! I withdraw :)

> The problem is fear of crime.

I imagine most pickpocketing is done due to lack of funds. Not having to buy a transport ticket will leave these people with additional funds. If anything, I would guess this kind of welfare would reduce the reasons to steal.

Then there's the point that people who would pickpocket probably wouldn't buy a ticket even if required.

However maybe most importantly, not letting these pickpocketers on the bus would just move the location of the act. They could hunt for wallets at the bus stops instead, without getting on. Thus I think this problem needs to be addressed independently and shouldn't be too big of a factor in public transport decisions.

I recognize your point however that if there's a theft problem in an area, people can become afraid of public transport due to it.

Who the hell thinks "this is for poor people, so I don't use it"? That's some serious small-minded thinking.

Of course it is! But sadly this is just the way a lot of people think, maybe without even realizing it. Why do you think middle-class families try to avoid living in poorer neighborhoods?

Poorer neighbourhoods often come with years of deprivation, including dilapidated housing stock and distinct lack of local amenities and services. When there are services and amenities in reasonable striking distance, such as in cities, people don't avoid living in poor areas terribly strongly - or how would you get rapid gentrification of all those former poor places? That so often seems to "just happen" - without focused investment.

Surely a subsidised or free bus or tram service should in no way discourage rich or poor as it is the amenity? What discourages better off people from public transport is unreliability or sparse service - as achieved by the UK's mid 80s deregulation everywhere except London. More surprisingly perhaps, so does price-gouging on fares and season tickets.

Why don't we avoid free parks, beaches and forests because poor people may be there too?

Poor people shouldn't be punished because upper- and middle-class people are narrow-minded.

Americans by the looks of it. It's one of the toxic byproducts of raging inequality.

So reducing the cost will reduce demand? I appreciate this is sometimes the case with luxury goods, but it is hard believe that it would apply to public transport.

Do you have any evidence of a reduction in price leading to a reduction in demand for public transport anywhere in the world?

> So reducing the cost will reduce demand?

My fear is that in case of public transportation, reducing the cost will change the product, and the changed product will be in less demand in the long run.

> Do you have any evidence of a reduction in price leading to a reduction in demand for public transport anywhere in the world?

No, I haven't, and the well-known example of Hasselt in Belgium seems to suggest otherwise [0]. But I am not convinced that what works in a small town in Belgium, or a medium-sized city in Estonia, will work in larger cities.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hasselt

In the US passenger numbers for ALL forms of public transport are collapsing and have been doing so for years. I submitted a story about it earlier [1] which covers BART's concern about the problem.

Making it free would help but also not curtailing bus routes to pay for the rail solutions is needed as well. So not only are they not getting riders their backlog on maintenance is growing to well over a hundred billion dollars across the US with new expensive rail programs trying to get complete. However it sounds good to expand it while the truth has been the opposite. Building a rail solution is like building a stadium, all the promised payoffs are a lie and the only payoff is to the consultants and politicians

[1] https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Flagging-ridersh...

There was one additional reason why city wanted to create a free public transportation only for local residents. So that all the people who were working in Tallinn, but whose(?) place of residence was outside of city, would register themselves as Tallinn's official residents, and that means more tax payer money coming to city budget. Win-win.

Edit: improved spelling

Everyone gets a seat because the whole population is around million and the capital 400K. It's less complex to manage than, say, London. Less dense.

The whole idea was a mayor's election campaign. Rest of the parties were all against it.

Referendum: ask any population if they'd prefer free transport. There: 75.5%.

The money comes from somewhere. Although Estonia had average less national debt, their infrastructure (health service, education etc) is post2008 screwed like everywhere else.

The money certainly comes from somewhere, but is it more efficient this way? No ticket sales overhead, no enforcement overhead, etc. Seems smarter given that public transport is something that you would want the population to use instead of their own vehicles.

> No ticket sales overhead, no enforcement overhead, etc.

There are still ticket sales in this (and most like this) programs. Usually they only apply to nationals/residents of the city/town, and others have to buy tickets.

It seems like a missed opportunity if they're doing it that way. They get a bit of revenue, but they could otherwise have been more tourism friendly and done away with unnecessary ticketing infrastructure.

I imagine you need a lot less staff.

The size of population and complexity of the system is only one small factor. You still have to organise about the same level of transport system regardelss of where the money comes from. Ridership doesn't increase massively with these schemes, what tends to happen is that the people who use the service just use it more.

In Tallin apparently some of the funding needed came from an increase in municipal taxes. You have to be registered as living in or around Tallin to get the free transport, and a lot of people updated their registration to addresses in Tallin. As a result tax income moved to Tallin (but at a loss to other places).

So a large factor in the cost effectiveness of a free transport policy is the amount that the transport system is subsudied and the ratio of that amount to the budget. In places where the transpost system is mostly funded by taxes (most places in the world, especially Europe & the US) it's easier to introduce as there's less of an impact on the budget.

The benefits & beneficiaries of this policy aren't clear and easy to define as they vary place to place. There's a lot of thinking that it's better to provide free or cheap transport for those who earn less and have to make long public transport journies to work as they're priced out of living in cities.

"Everyone gets a seat" when the system is correctly dimensioned not when the overall population is small.

i wonder if this would work if small towns in usa could implement it, like those with around 500-1000 people living in them?

It is worth noting that as far as I know enforcement of ticketing was _super_ low in the first place. To an extent this is just accepting the reality that some people will just bunk the fare given that the system is self-managed, i.e. you validate your own ticket. When I've been in Tallinn in the past I've seen people not pay as a matter of habit.

This is arguably the logical outcome of public transport. Ticket inspecting is expensive, inefficient and barely effective (without effectively doubling the staff costs of each service) and stopping the bus for the drivers to collect fares impacts the efficiency of the service (e.g. the "classic" old person paying in pennies slowing the bus down).

Given that transport is often heavily subsidised by the government anyway this is just giving up on the problem as its hard to find a cost-effective means of enforcing the collection of fares while keeping those fares affordable.

This seems like a very good and logical idea in places that have the capacity, especially those with high poverty rates. In some places, however, such as here in New York, free public transportation would make a bad problem already worse. Our public transit systems are badly over capacity already and literally falling apart at the seams, with much of the infrastructure being literally over 100 years old. The systems simply weren't designed to carry this many people, and making these systems free would make accelerate the decay and make the overcrowding even worse.

It is not free, Estonians pay for it with raised taxes.

Good for the ones with low income you would think, except of course those with low income that does not use public transport but still has to pay for it.

Tallinn resident for the past 30 years, here.

I don't know what the heck this article is talking about.

> The buses are on time, the trams are shiny and new, and passengers usually get a seat.

The buses are not on time. They are constantly leaving early, a problem that has been brought up numerous times but just doesn't get fixed. The trams and buses are indeed new(ish) but not shiny. There is a problem with funds allocated for cleaning the public transportation. Although it's not the worst by far, but it's also not a rule that they are clean. Especially in the winter. [1][2][3]

> Tallinn’s city government came up with the idea of free transport after the 2008 financial crisis. Estonia was hit badly, and even though the city paid more than 70% of public-transport costs, ticket prices were still too high for poorer residents.

No, it was for the 2009 local election campaign. Initially the idea was to keep it for a short duration. Literally no-one had complained about the ticket prices. They were not expensive, even if our economy was in a bad state. The same party did this same ploy for the rest of the country too. Literally no-one asked for this and cost is not the biggest problem, by far.[5][6]

> Since Estonia regained independence in 1991, car ownership rates have doubled.

Interesting side note, ever since the Tallinn introduced the free public transport, car ownership rates have soared.[4][8]

> Opponents branded the idea populist and unaffordable. Estonia was pushing through tough austerity measures at the time, including a 10% pay cut for public-sector workers. Critics predicted the transport system would become overcrowded and underfunded. The row was only resolved by a referendum.

A referendum where 20% of the eligible population only voted.[7] The referendum was phrased in way where saying "no" didn't make sense. It was a populist move and the voter turnout mirrors that. Also, I can't remember any other referendums happening in Tallinn.

> Surprisingly, though, instead of collapsing, public transport has improved, despite a €12m hit to the system’s finances from lost ticket sales. Tallinn’s population has grown, leading to a boost in local tax intake. Additional revenue comes from tourists and non-Tallinn residents, who still have to buy tickets. The use of public transport in Tallinn has gone up by 10%, while the number of cars in the city centre has gone down by 10%, meaning less congestion.

Again, not entirely true. I don't know where the decrease of 10% cars figure comes from and also the city center is so small, even if it were true, it's literally a drop in the ocean. I have to pass the city center every day, actually the way the transportation lines are built up, most people have to pass the city center.[4][8]

> Free public transport on its own is not enough to stop people driving, though the evidence is that it helps. In Tallinn higher parking fees and reduced space for cars also played a part in cutting city-centre traffic: on-street parking now costs €6 an hour, and some parking spaces and car lanes have been replaced by bus lanes. Officials say providing a free alternative allowed them to avoid a backlash when driving in the capital was made more expensive and less convenient.

Yet the car ownership keeps growing. You'll see the problem clearer when you compare transportation lines from the Soviet era (30-50 years ago) and realize the lines have barely changed. Yes, there are some new lines but there are buses that drive the same route for decades now, when the jobs have shifted locations.

Also, by funding the "free" public transportation, Tallinn has left schools and kindergardens underfunded. I do agree that people have definitely gotten used to it and it is comfortable. I like that they have also included trains within city limits to this. People are riding trains and we are actually buying new trains.

TL;DR: * this article is mostly a fluff piece

* spend a day in Tallinn and ride the trams and buses and then to same in Helsinki. We have much to strive for

* it isn't free, we all pay for it and get a crappy experience

* the city has awful pedestrian roads (they are narrow and cars are king) and non-existent bike lanes (especially in the city center)

* they need to modernize the routes

* etc, there's literally a 1000 page book that can be written about Tallinn's transport woes

[1] https://www.postimees.ee/1790081/bussid-ja-trollid-valjuvad-...

[2] https://www.delfi.ee/news/paevauudised/rahvahaal/eksperiment...

[3] https://www.delfi.ee/news/paevauudised/rahvahaal/anna-teada-...

[4] https://longread.delfi.ee/artiklid/tallinnasse-voorib-iga-pa...

[5] https://news.err.ee/833235/survey-free-bus-plan-unpopular-am...

[6] https://news.err.ee/861958/county-buses-often-overcrowded-si...

[7] https://news.err.ee/103737/75-vote-for-free-public-transit-i...

[8] https://blog.stat.ee/tag/auto/

> The buses are not on time.

As a fellow long-time Tallinn transport user, I can say that this statement can be both true and false. It's true in the strictest sense that yes buses sometimes don't come exactly at the scheduled minute. Also very rarely, but it does happen, a bus doesn't come at all and you need the next one, which is usually 5-10min of waiting.

However when we compare it to other places, I think Tallinn is actually very much among the leaders in reliability. Take something like Italy. It's a miracle if anything arrives as scheduled. Buses are +/- 3min wrong as a standard and often much more. Even the Rome metro doesn't run on schedule! That one is the most bizzare to me, the metro train could just sit in a station and not worry about traffic. However they don't and just speed along, going ahead of schedule.

Then there's the cross-country or even international buses that go through Estonia. Very much on time, sometimes +/- 5-10min of their schedule. Now compare this to something like the US greyhound buses in the northeast. Want to go from New Haven to Boston? Better be prepared for the scenario where your bus is delayed 2 hours because of traffic near NYC.

I agree. Italy is definitely a wildcard

> They are constantly leaving early

In Melbourne (Aus) we have phantom buses, the app shows its on its way but it never comes and then quietly disappears from the app as well.

We have that here too!

Is it free even if you have to pay for it?

For that matter, is anything free when TANSTAAFL?

The concept still makes sense in context; it's free for people in the user role, even if they also have the taxpayer role.

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