To support the Tallinn FPT project, World Streets readers comment on Free Public Transport

In June of 2012 your editor was invited by the mayors of Tallinn to give a public talk mayor of tallinnto comment on how some of the policy concepts developed  over the last two decades under the New Mobility Consult program might be put to work to support their decision to take new approaches to transport policy challenges starting in 2013.  Subsequent to that visit we signed with the City of Tallinn a public agreement of strategic cooperation over 2013.

The first transformative event they were considering for 2013 was  the first-ever Free Public Transport project in a European capital. After careful planning their project went into service on 1 January.  In the run-up to this important event World Streets in cooperation with our readers has been developing and drawing to the city’s attention a broad repertory of expert comments on FPT, all of which you can see at We invited contributing editor Anzir Boodoo to read through  the various comments and see if he could put them in some kind of order for our busy readers in a single article, which you can now read here.

* In case you have not been following the Tallinn project here you have a two-minute commentary from Reuters —  Plus a short newscast from Al Jazeera presenting some citizen reactions to the project –

Why is free public transport a dang’rous thing?

– Anzir Boodoo, The Institute for Transport Studies, Leeds, UK

In the World Streets piece of 22 November, Free Public Transport! (But hey, are we talking about the same thing?), we followed up on an earlier discussion on Free Public Transport by turning the issue on its head. Fundamentally, we could be facing a linguistic issue of what we mean by free, but in any case, the issue of fare-free public transport raises its head once every so often.

“‘Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
But, of the two, less dang’rous is th’ Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense”
(An Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope, 1709)

To make a judgement over the issue of fare-free public transport, especially a bad judgement, is perhaps a little dangerous, as Alexander Pope might have said if he was talking about free public transport 300 years ago, so I will endeavour to err more towards tiring your patience than misleading your sense (and as Pope pointed out later on, erring is only human).

A “bad idea”

Is free public transport a bad idea? In the original article, a bad idea was “for example, to undertake to do anything that will increase capacity for car traffic in cities, or something really stupid like spending public money to build high-tech elevated systems in cities in the global South or pretty much anywhere else as far as this observers concerned. Those are bad ideas”. Naturally, at World Streets, we have somewhat of a predefined agenda, so many things which work against that are “bad ideas” (and in case you weren’t paying attention before, that agenda is to have fewer cars in cities). We have our reasons…

A “bad idea” in New Mobility terms, is therefore something which could serve to increase the number of cars in cities, with all the attendant negative impacts that come with that. This, of course, is where things get complicated, and where free public transport may not just be a bad idea (one which we can choose to stay well away from), but a dangerous one, a siren calling us into the murky depths of our cities and the choices of their citizens.

Dang’rous Minds

“A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again”
(An Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope, 1709)

Fortunately, in World Streets we have the benefit of a great deal of learning, from our knowledgeable and influential contributors, whose responses to this topic are summarised below.

Arguments For Fare-Free Public Transport

In many cities, the high cost of public transport (especially when coupled with low parking charges, or even easy availability of free parking) can be a deterrent to people who have a choice between the car and public transport, so making public transport free would, in theory, attract them.

If access to mobility is an equity issue, then not only should we think about providing that access to those in society who are unable to afford it, but perhaps making affordability a non-issue by making it free to all.

In some systems, the cost of fare collection, in relation to recovery of operating costs through the farebox, is such that it costs more to collect fares than the amount which is collected.

It is also argued that the auto industry and its associates are collectively subsidised through the provision of free roads and subsidies to oil companies and car manufacturers.

Arguments Against Fare-Free Public Transport


          Fairness – not everyone uses it

Because public transport, however it’s provided, may not always serve people’s needs (and none of the respondents seem to have suggested that public transport will be operated or provided any differently if it were to be fare-free), it will, in part, be paid for by people who do not use it. There is a counter-argument to suggest, of course, that this already happens with public transport and other social service subsidies. Whether making public transport free to use is the best use of scarce public resources is, of course, another question.




Free public transport is a way of altering the market of demand for transport services and to increase ridership by making it cheaper than other modes of transport. Subsidised and reduced cost public transport stimulate demand, and this can cause crowding. Where, at present, the increase in journeys made cannot be accommodated, often the solution is to raise fares and price people off public transport onto other modes. However, Dr. Simon Norton, as a strong advocate of free (and much improved) public transport, acknowledges that overcrowding on public transport as a result of free fares is a potentially serious issue, although Walter Hook suggests that overcrowding does not automatically happen as a result of having no fare, and points to examples, such as Orlando’s BRT, where this has not happened.

Having no fares at peak times could cause severe overcrowding, which may prompt those who can to seek other modes of travel. If more capacity needs to be provided, who will pay for this, given it is only having to be provided as a result of the transport being free? One suggestion was that this would serve to reduce demand for those who have a choice of how to travel. Another suggestion was that supply could be restricted to reduce the potential increase in demand, but this would need to take into account that trips will be generated because the system is free to use, so some trips which have more reason to use public transport, ones where there is a higher willingness to pay for it, may perversely be shifted away.

In addition, fares information can be used to monitor and anticipate demand, without this, more general (and thus less accurate) modelling will have to be undertaken, or travel surveys will have to be administered at additional cost.


Free public transport on a large scale could contribute to the maintenance and extension of a hypermobile society, where people’s activities range over a wider area, making them more dependent on motorised transport to undertake their daily activities. Replacing motorised hypermobility by car with motorised hypermobility by public transport may well result in reduced carbon emissions, but, with people encouraged to travel when and where they want to (restricted only by the availability of services), these reductions may not be as much as could be gained from other policies.

Making existing public transport free could increase emissions by modal shift from walking and cycling, and by having buses stop more to pick up more passengers. Other impacts could be on levels of crime and the use of local shops relative to either out of town or city centre ones.

          Reduces efficiency of public transport system

It’s argued that making public transport free will reduce the efficiency of the system, which could make it a less efficient mode overall. Roger Gorham argues that “in time-sensitive environments (e.g. developed-country cities), free public transport will generally slow the system down (artificial “congestion” from higher frequency of stops, more people boarding at stops) which would further incentivize private vehicle use”. A counter-argument to this was made by Lori, that under conditions of very low density of public transport use in sprawling cities, making it free could improve the system efficiency by spreading the cost of provision over more journeys and making it more relevant.

Laura Machado argued that making public transport free in Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil, has slowed it down “According to reports from users of public transportation, the time limit of one hour between the passages in the turnstiles the first and second vehicles – in the same way – is insufficient to move between neighbourhoods to the South of the capital. The delay prevents use of gratuity and increases the costs at the end of the month”


          Financial Sustainability

Eric Britton notes that “any extension or improvement to the public transport service must be fully funded from the public purse: being free, it cannot recover part of its cost from increased farebox revenue. As patronage on the system increases, so does the cost of provision. This may create resistance to measures to improve public transport or promote public transport use”


Brendan Finn suggests that “for a city of 1 million people, this is likely to require 300 to 500 million Euro per year just to keep what we have going. That consumes all the money that could have been spent on extra services, better quality, transit improvement schemes such as BHLS/BRT, terminal/stop upgrades, etc.”, with Local Authority funding for capital improvements being tied up by operating costs. This is even without taking into account the impact of additional demand, which imposes additional operating costs (vehicles and drivers) without generating additional revenue. Lee Schipper expounded on this in relation to other modes, “Public transport systems have very high running costs/variable costs. While it is not free to maintain cycleways or sidewalks, costs are small. And many of us DO advocate charging for using roads!”

Value of Farebox

          Willingness to pay

Brendan Finn asserts that “people are willing to pay a fair price for a reasonable quality product. It makes no sense to give it away and lose all the income customers were willing to give. The people transit most needs to attract – car-users – pay a lot of money to buy and run their car. They have already shown a willingness to pay for quality, so why focus on free rather than quality?”. Indeed, Transport Economics entirely focuses on the trade-offs people make, and are willing to pay for in their travel choices, and while a transit journey may even be longer than the equivalent by car, car drivers already pay for public transport where other factors, such as the stress of driving or the cost of parking, are considered more expensive than the fare and inconvenience of getting to the stop and waiting.

          Perceived value

Anzir Boodoo suggests that “people value thing they pay for, and not necessarily things they get for free (see “the tragedy of the commons”). What about respect for drivers, vehicles and infrastructure?”. Will free public transport be perceived to be of value if people aren’t paying for it?

          Business Focus

Brendan Finn notes that transit “works well and efficiently because people remember that it is a business. Even if the public purse is a significant customer who pays for those extra services, affordable tariffs, extra quality, etc., it is still run as a business. You work hard for your buck, and you make sure the job gets done right and gets done safely. If you forget that it is a business, the discipline goes and everything gets sloppy“, which may seem to suggest that a free transit service may be taken for granted by its operators as well as its passengers, as they stand to keep their jobs and vehicles regardless of patronage – however, many subsidised services already have contracts stipulating minimum standards and imposing penalties if these are not met.

          Ticket information monitors demand

The monitoring of demand for public transport “is easiest done from the farebox, so that adjustments may be made to service frequency, hours of operation and introduction of new routes where transfer demand becomes significant. Free travel removes these data sources and would require replacement by costly surveys of Origin – Destination, journey purpose, required arrival, departure or dwell times and the like”, according to Peter Lutman. While surveys are done for other purposes (such as settlements for multi-operator passes, at least in the UK), operators are able to cope with other forms of free travel, such as that for over 60s.

Modal Shift from car

          Lowering PT costs v raising driving costs

In trying to achieve modal shift from the car, there is the question of how to balance the costs of travel between different modes. As Peter Smith points out, “making public transport free is just a way of increasing the relative cost of driving, but does it very indirectly, thus very ineffectually. The more appropriate policy response would be to have drivers pay for the full cost of driving”. However, the two fall within the very different jurisdictions of local and national governments respectively.

Simon Bishop asks us to consider the value of convenience brought by the car – “Measures to rein in car use, principally by raising its cost have a disproportionate impact on encouraging greater transit use than lowering the costs of public transport. That’s because using a car/motorcycle (the case in nearly all countries/cities of the world) is more convenient than using transit … Professor Mohan at IIT-Delhi has found that up to distances of 12km (most urban journeys) the car is faster than both Metro and BRT. Given that time is now almost out to reduce transport’s contribution to climate change perhaps our emphasis should shift accordingly?”.

Simon Field mentions that “a number of papers have found that service quality elasticities are generally greater than those of fares, although it is not clear that this applies in both directions, especially with regard to reducing the cost to zero. Finally, I wonder whether it will be necessary to introduce free PT once car users – sooner or later – pay their external costs and are faced with massive demand-induced pump price increases.”. This also doesn’t take into account the great unknown of what may happen to service quality once public transport becomes fare-free.

          Making it free does not counter inconvenience relative to the car

“In the Slovenian town Velenje, for example, there is free public transportation and still most of the people use their cars. Even those who live only 500 meters from their jobs, would rather take their cars and park them in front of the companies, as Josip Rotar has noticed.  So would free public transport really produce a modal shift in people’s travel? Rory McMullan follows with an observation from China, “I’ve been informed by some travel planners that car drivers tell them they wouldn’t use public transport even if they were paid to do so. In Taichung City in Taiwan where I once lived, a city of over 2 million people with practically no public transport, free buses was tried on two occasions when they introduced a city bus system. With no priority lanes the buses were slow, and by their very nature did not run door to door, and since motor scooter parking and pretty much car parking was unregulated, (sidewalks were for scooter parking certainly not for walking), even when free only a handful of people used the bus”.

Simon Bishop summarises these, using some previous studies, by saying “when attention is turned to the influence of the costs of travel, it is apparent that, unless the real and perceived costs of car travel, for instance in relation to speed, parking and fuel prices, are dramatically increased, holding down fares is likely to have only a minor effect on this particular modal choice: a modeling exercise has revealed that halving public transport fares would only reduce car traffic by two per cent (Dasgupta et al., 1994), and if public transport were free, car use would be reduced by no more than 6 per cent (Norris, 1995)”


          Environmental Impacts

          Modal shift from walking & cycling (higher CO2, lower health)

If free public transport may only generate modest shifts away from car use, the real worry amongst transport planners is that its greatest attraction may be for those currently getting around under their own power, namely pedestrians and cyclists.

Anzir Boodoo has noticed that “free public transport creates modal shift from walking (and possibly cycling). For example, the free city centre bus in Leeds (UK) has mostly replaced trips on foot, not trips by taxi from the railway station (as intended) or even short hop trips by bus. Free public transport can thus be a loser on public health grounds (people should be walking and cycling more), and CO2 emissions (which are higher by bus than on foot)”.

And Jeroen Buis gives another example: “I remember when, many years ago, here in the Netherlands students, including myself, got a free public transport pass. The result was that many students who always cycled to the lectures started taking the local bus. Some used always the bus, but particularly in rainy days suddenly buses that used to be rather empty were overfull. I know of students who hadn’t fixed their flat tire for weeks because there was the free bus. I am not sure if they added capacity to the fleet (which would mean more costs and pollution) but even without this this led to overcrowded and less attractive bus travel for those who already used it (with the chance that they would shift to cars) and it meant missing the positive health effects of cycling for those that shifted from bike to bus and maybe continued with their inactive travel behaviour even after graduating. Someone already mentioned induced travel.

That certainly happened with the free country-wide public transport pass. We used to travel around the country for fun and I know of students who used the train to study, just traveling back and forth while reading the study material”

As far as our agenda for car use in cities goes, Josip Rotar sums up the strategic problem as that “we have to think how to turn car drivers into bus users, and not how to turn pedestrians or cyclists into bus users”.

          Polluter should pay

Anzir Boodoo notes that “free public transport is unfair on the “polluter pays principle”. All transport produces CO2 emissions, from breathing when you walk or cycle, to the fuel use of motorised transport. Are we allowing people to burn fuel and not pay for the damage this causes?”. Mark Kirkels expands, stating that “the important argument against FTP is the non-inclusion of environmental costs. Public transport, albeit to a lesser extent than private MT, burdens non-renewable natural resources and requires carbon sink capacity. Policy makers consider FTP as an option in competition with private MT in the price of which environmental costs aren’t included either”.


          Social Impacts

          Creates dependency

Brendan Finn points out that “free transit means complete dependency on the public purse, and the political support for such a policy. Expensive programs get cut sooner or later, it is inevitable as government philosophy changes. The Horn of Plenty dries up. Reintroducing fares and a slew of service cuts to balance the books seriously undermines transit attractiveness and ridership. If making transit free attracts riders, it stands to reason that charging for it again will drive them away”. This could be seen as calling into question the sustainability of such a policy when it is so dependent on political and financial situations which make it possible.

          Undermining public transport in non free areas

While Simon Norton has been a strong advocate of making public transport free, he also notes “one possible argument against it — that it might undermine public transport in adjacent areas where it is not free”, although that may depend on the differences in demand for public transport in those areas and what the social and economic impacts of free public transport turn out to be, where it is available.

Requires massive restructuring

Roger Gorham makes the important point that “in developing country cities, the very immediate logistical problem is that ‘public’ transport is provided by thousands of small operators — there is no way to contemplate creating a ‘free’ system under these circumstances without generating a myriad of other problems that would be too horrible to think about. So the larger question is how to transform these systems into more manageable, sustainable, and organized public transport delivery systems, which is what we are all grappling with”

The other problem – how free is free?

          Speaking the same language?

“Most Criticks, fond of some subservient Art,
Still make the Whole depend upon a Part,
They talk of Principles, but Notions prize,
And All to one lov’d Folly Sacrifice”
(An Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope, 1709)

It is, of course, important not to consider Free Public Transport as a monolithic thing, and rather as a point in a continuum. In fact, in these discussion, “free” hasn’t always been interpreted in the same way.

          Fare-free for all

A lot of the discussions on this topic have focused around completely fare-free public transport, that is, free at the point of use, as cars appear to be. As Brendan Finn discussed, this still has a high cost on the public purse through taxation (although some cities, such as Hasselt, have made this choice). As Karthik Rao Cavale points out, the costs of fare collection may well outweigh the amount collected, and as Lori and Professor Eric Bruun have stated, in places with very low demand, it may make sense to induce more by making it free for users, which will hopefully reduce subsidy per passenger without needing more resource.

          Fare-free for some

In the UK, for example, over 60s may travel free on buses, and this has led to passenger growth (though this has been offset by falling numbers of paying passengers). Jeroen Buis has already mentioned “many years ago, here in the Netherlands students, including myself, got a free public transport pass. The result was that many students who always cycled to the lectures started taking the local bus”, and that “Someone already mentioned induced travel. That certainly happened with the free country-wide public transport pass. We used to travel around the country for fun and I know of students who used the train to study, just traveling back and forth while reading the study material”

          Fare-free with an upfront cost

Otherwise known as season tickets, most cities’ “Free Bike” schemes resemble these to some degree, as there is a membership fee involved. Even so, as Randall Ghent points out, if the fee is low enough, it can be considered free (in contrast to high cost season tickets, which can be likened to car purchase with a high fixed cost and low, or in this case, zero variable cost), “In Prague you pay about EUR 15 a month (basically free as far as I’m concerned) for your pass, and you can use buses, trams, metros and trains as you please. The system is highly subsidised of course — even with the fares. Ivan Illich argued back in the 1970s that free public transport would increase the dominance of transport over our lives, but the Prague example convincingly counters that argument”

          Limited time fare-free

Simon Field adds that “there is now a debate in Switzerland about the growing problem of accommodating commuters into Zürich and Basel: tiered pricing according to demand would appear to be the way forward even for the Swiss. It is not economically sustainable to over-subsidise long-distance commuters, who of course have among the greatest theoretical willingness to pay, even if it is environmentally sound on a 95% hydro-electric powered railway”

And so, to conclude

“Avoid Extreams; and shun the Fault of such,
Who still are pleas’d too little, or too much.
At ev’ry Trifle scorn to take Offence,
That always shows Great Pride, or Little Sense”
(An Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope, 1709)

Perhaps the easiest thing to say is that the most probable way to defuse the free transport “bomb” is to accept that, as in other matters of public transport, the landscape is very varied, and as with Metros and BRT and High Speed Rail, not only is there no “one size fits all” solution, but the way these things are implemented, spatially, socially and organisationally, can make all the difference.

This is not so much a cop out, as perhaps a relief. If all the answers to sustainable cities in the 21st century were known, or indeed knowable, then that would make all of us at World Streets and the New Mobility Agenda redundant. However, we perhaps need to stop being so shy of the dangers and confront them. While we must perhaps avoid jumping straight into thinking the extreme solution (PRT, bikes for everyone, superdense cities, even free public transport), they all have something to contribute to the debate, and our role as 21st Century Urbanists must surely be to dabble with the dangerous ideas and make them less dangerous, but no less effective.

# # #

About the author

Anzir Boodoo is a transport activist involved in a number of projects and programmes connecting people, space and mobility. His PhD work at the Institute for Transport Studies is on the relationships between urban form and perception, and in addition to this he works as a Policy Officer for the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (UK), on the committee of Carfree UK and his activism includes work on public space and transition to low(er) carbon intensive living. His is working on public space activism with make-Pla(y)ce, a local group which is challenging the privatisation of public space. He is working on the side on a series of presentation on “car diets” and “road diets”, both of which have a substantial sharing component and are aimed at easing the process of transition to new and more agreeable life styles

# # #

But don’t stop there

Most consulted W/S articles on FPT since 2009 (And not over yet!):

* No FTP without SCR  (Systematic Car Reductions)

* To support Tallinn FTP project, W/S readers comment on FPT

* Free Public Transport! (But hey, are we talking about the same thing?)

* What is the right price for Free Public Transport?

* Free-for-all: Organizations supporting free public transport

* All W/S coverage of “Free” “Public Transport”

About the editor

Trained as a development economist, Eric Britton is founding editor of World eb-tallinn-statementStreets and managing director of EcoPlan International, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change and sustainable development. His latest work focuses on the subject of equity, economy and efficiency in city transport, and helping governments to ask the right questions and find practical solutions to urban transport issues.  More at     (Picture shows Britton holding 2013 Tallinn Cooperation Pact)

6 thoughts on “To support the Tallinn FPT project, World Streets readers comment on Free Public Transport

  1. Tallinn is in the process of shrinking (and I believe eventually abandoning) its silent, smooth, non-polluting on the street, environmentally friendly trolleybus network. This, at a time when the European Union is funding the retention, modernisation and development of trolleybus networks, seems wrong at several levels. Perhaps the tram and trolleybus operations should be free (or have much lower fares – say a 1€ flat fare) with polluting diesel buses charging at least double this. The Soviet Union used to do this with Trams priced at 3 kopeks Trolleybuses 4 kopeks and petrol buses 5 kopeks, and it seemed to work well, channelling demand onto the the most capacious and environmentally friendly modes.
    Perhaps the Mayor would like to study to see what others are doing to expand and renew their electric systems!

  2. I hope that also other readers understand the joking tone of Eric when he refers to “carefully planned” project of Tallinn. ;-)
    And to Peter Lutman — the Mayor is carefully studying the number of votes and persons registered to Tallinn (the latter is requested to get the free pass) – he has not commissioned any transport related (public) studies during the last year since before taking this decisions.

  3. I think most of the international media has got the impression that there has been careful planning and a public scheme behinf the decision and that all PT is now free free for everyone inTallinn. To give some more background to the readers:
    – The decision is not based on any comprehensive transport studies or analyses of costs, benefits and impacts of the idea. Tallinn is probably one the few European capitals that does not have any up to date transport or public transport development plan what so ever.
    – Commuter trains and regional commuter buses are not included in the scheme etc.
    – PT is free for Tallinn citizens + all Estonian school chidren up to 19yo
    – Free public transport users (except the ones who had the benefit already before – ie 65+ and kids under 7 + parents with small kids) can be still fined with 40 eur fine in case you forget to validate your smart card, show you identity or leave your pass behid – this has had very strong reactions from the public.

  4. Quite a well considered and well researched article by Mr Boodoo. Has free buses for pensioners in the uk after 0930 been a success? In my view it is a mis-allocation of scarce resources. It would have made more sense to subsidise younger people attending lower paid jobs or allocated it to family bus travel, which is a segment that needs to reverse its decline.

  5. News from the ZFPT front in Tallinn — welcome to fine Tallinn!
    300 Tallinn residents were fined last month for using public transport for free — exclusevely offered for them since January 1, 2013. Not validating your smart (?) travel card or failing to prove your ID is made equal to riding without a ticket (fine 40 eur). The same can happen to non-residents when they actually have purchased a monthly pass of 23 euros but have not validated the boarding. Raid-like ticket controls continue to stop buses and trams for 3 min with 120+ ZFPT passengers on board.


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