This 1 July 2018, Estonia becomes the first country in the World to introduce free public transport in most of the nation.
Estonia has 15 counties of which 11 have agreed to offer free public transport for its residents. The project was first launched in Tallinn five years ago, its success has led other countries in the EU and around the World to take a look at the idea.
Despite having neo-liberal governments for over 30 years, Estonian coalition government set up public transport centres as public bodies to run bus services in the regions.
Kadri Simson, minister for economic and infrastructure affairs, explained the government left the decision as to whether to move over to zero ticketing to local authorities. This is a concept known as subsidiary, meaning decisions where possible should be decided at a local level. This is one of the guiding principles of the European Union.
“What is most important is that public transport centres are authorised; that they determine where buses drive and at what time,” Simson said.
“If local government transport centre wants to continue with the current system, that opportunity has been created.
“The ministry will not interfere. This is an area of responsibility for public transport centre and I believe local people know better what they want,” Simson added.
Public bus transport will be free in Valga, Võru, Põlva, Järva, Jõgeva, Tartu, Ida-Viru, Hiiu and Saaremunicipalities as well as on routes operated by the non-profit North-Estonia Public Transport Centre in West county.
Anybody can use these buses without needing to live in the area. As in Tallinn, the passenger will have to register their ride on a special public transport non-personalised card, so the bus lines can keep data as to which lines and times are popular.
In Tallinn, free public transport was introduced on 1 January 2013. At the time, out of a city budget of 53 million euro, revenues of 17 million came from tickets sale. The introduction of free public transport meant in 2014 an additional 18,000 people opted to become taxpayers in Tallinn meaning any loss in income was covered by additional tax income.
The same principle does not apply in the countryside. The hope is free public transport will prevent people from leaving. The driving force behind free public transport is increased mobility for citizens and easier access to places of work.
The Estonian government has set aside 3.3 million Euros for counties to consolidate their bus lines, order new stock where necessary and improve services. This money is available to local transport centres whether they choose to stay with the current system, reduce fares or scrap them all together.