Free transit for everyone! Then again, maybe not

An interesting experiment is taking place in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, where, for the last year or so, its 430,000 residents have been able to ride the city’s transit lines practically for free. City officials hope to pump up ridership by 20%, cut carbon emissions, and give low-income Tallinnites greater access to job opportunities. But is it working?

March 26, 2014 |
Rob Cassidy

Tallinn, Estonia. Photo: Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0

Most workdays, I ride the commuter train to my office. It’s a pleasant, half-hour trip, and I almost always get to stretch out on a seat made for two. Due to my advanced senectitude, I pay half-fare; with the tax writeoff of my flexible spending account, I save even more. But here’s the kicker: I’d pay full fare if I had to.

Sure, it’s nice to be “subsidized,” but I don’t need the handout. I’d ride the rails to work just to avoid the traffic—and get a half hour to proofread copy and think.

I bring this up in the context of an interesting experiment that’s taking place in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, where, for the last year or so, its 430,000 residents have been able to ride the city’s transit lines practically for free (there’s a  €2 signup fee; tourists still pay the €1.60 fare).

According to Sulev Vedler, writing in CityScope magazine, city officals hoped to pump up ridership by 20%, cut carbon emissions, and give low-income Tallinnites greater access to job opportunities.

Tallinn, with roughly the same population as Omaha, Neb., and Raleigh, N.C., follows on the heels of Templin (Germany), Aubagne (France), and Hasselt (Belgium), all of which have tried free transit, with varying degrees of success.

In the U.S., several cities with major universities—Chapel Hill, N.C.; Minneapolis–St. Paul; Stanford, Calif.; and Corvallis, Ore.—offer free rides, as do some small communities like Commerce, Calif. (pop. 12,823), Vero Beach, Fla., (15,527), and Mason County, Wash. (60,999). 

Back to Tallinn: How’s the noble experiment doing? Depends on who you ask.

The mayor of Tallinn says transit ridership is up substantially, and traffic congestion “at major crossroads” (Vedler’s phrase) is down 14%.

But researchers at Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology who are studying Tallinn’s program say it’s more like a 3% blip in ridership, and that more than half of that can be attributed to service improvements and new bus priority lanes. In fact, the Swedish scientists found that traffic flow had not improved, as would be expected if there were fewer cars on the street.

Moreover, the Swedes reported that some Tallinnites were hopping on the tram instead of walking a few blocks—not a good prospect for the population’s future kilo count.

The researchers did, however, find that transit ridership in a high-unemployment neighborhood of Tallinn was up 10%. Whether this was helping the locals get to good jobs has not been proven.

The problem with applying the Tallinn experience to big cities in the U.S., Europe, or Asia is that Tallinn’s trams and buses were already subsidized to the tune of 70%; now it’s 96%. On most systems, fare collections pay for a huge chunk of operating costs: on my train line, it’s 50%; in London, fares cover 85% of ops costs.

If people won’t flock to transit with the lure of a free ride, what will get them on the bus? From my experience, comfort, quality of service, and convenience of schedule are, within reason, more important than low fares. 

As America’s metro areas get more and more dense, our ability to move people and goods efficiently and affordably will become even more problematic. Your clients need to know that their customers will have ready access to the retail stores, offices, hospitals, schools—whatever—that you’re designing and building for them.

Until the happy day when everyone gets a free ride, though, don’t mess with my subsidies!

Rob Cassidy | Building Team Blog

Rob Cassidy (“ClimateGrouch”) is editorial director of Building Design+Construction. A city planner, he is the author of several books, including “Livable Cities,” and was a co-founder of the Friends of the Chicago River.

Related Blogs

Leadership or limbo: Moving to building green’s next level

3 PNC Plaza. Photo: John Marino via flickr Creative Commons

November 29, 2015 | Green | Building Team Blog

After interviewing more than 50 AEC firms for our Greenbuild Report in the November issue, I wonder if the...

Benjamin Kasdan, AIA, LEED AP, NCARB, Design Director/Senior Designer with KTGY Architecture + Planning, Irvine, Calif. (Class of 2015 40 Under 40 winner)

October 26, 2015 | Building Team Blog

Are you an AEC superstar? The 2016 "40 Under 40" competition is now open for entries. Here are some helpful...

Competency-based learning: A glimpse into the future of higher education?

Photo: Xbxg32000 via Wikimedia Commons

October 16, 2015 | University Buildings | Building Team Blog

For better or worse, the higher education experience for many young Millennials and Gen Zers will not resem...

From Gehry to the High Line: What makes a project a game-changer?

El Peix sculpture in Barcelona, by Frank Gehry. Photo: Till Niermann via Wikimedia Commons

September 24, 2015 | Architects | Building Team Blog

Each year, there are a handful of projects that significantly advance the AEC industry or a particular buil...

Why AEC firms should be cultivating 'visible experts'

Photo: Cydcor via flickr creative commons

July 07, 2015 | Architects | Building Team Blog

A new study pinpoints the true dollar value of having knowledge leaders and market shapers on your team....

Tactical urbanism: Why bigger isn’t always better in urban revitalization

Each September, as part of Park(ing) Day, citizens, artists, and activists in more than 160 cities collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into micro parks, gardens, and art exhibits. Photo:

May 27, 2015 | Smart and Resilient Cities | Building Team Blog

A budding urban planning movement that is sprouting in cities across the globe proves that low-cost, small-...

Hackathons and RFCs: Why one developer killed the RFP

Image depicts design concepts from the hackathon winner, Pickard Chilton of New Haven, Conn. Photo courtesy Skanska

May 06, 2015 | Building Owner | Building Team Blog

In lieu of an RFP process, Skanska Commercial Development hosted a three-week "hackathon" to find an archit...

Chance encounters and the ‘action’ office: Do collisions spark innovation?

Google is among a handful of tech giants to unveil plans for “action” offices. Rendering courtesy Google, BIG, Thomas Heatherwick

March 29, 2015 | Office Building Design | Building Team Blog

Google, Facebook, Samsung, and Tencent have all unveiled plans for “action” offices designed to get their p...

The High Line effect: Placemaking as an economic development engine

Eight years into the transformation of an elevated section of New York Central Railroad’s West Side Line into a public park, the $273 million project is being hailed as a resounding win for the city. Photo: Beyond My Ken via Wikimedia Commons

March 02, 2015 | Cultural Facilities | Building Team Blog

As big money and eager tourists flock to Chelsea, cities across the globe are starting to take notice. Chic...

Add new comment

Your Information
Your Comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Refresh Type the characters you see in this picture. Type the characters you see in the picture; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.  Switch to audio verification.
Overlay Init