The capital's plan to introduce free public transport for residents came under the microscope on Friday as dozens of city officials, academics and journalists from around Europe gathered in Tallinn to discuss the ins and outs of such schemes.
The city-sponsored conference, "Free Public Transport - a Brave Step Toward the Green Capital," was a chance for Tallinn officials to present the motives and philosophies behind their move as well as a platform for municipalities that already have free public transport to talk about their experiences.
Benefits discussed ranged from the obvious, such as reduced traffic congestion and carbon emissions, to the not so obvious, including the economic benefits of having a more mobile, money spending public. The larger focus of discussion, however, was the practicalities of making such a system work, not least of which is how to maintain service quality when the number of users surges.
The small Belgian city of Hasselt, the birthplace of free public transport, saw its rider numbers shoot from 1,000 to 8,000 when it made the switch in 1997. City affairs manager Marc Verachtert, who took part in the conference, said that local planners had upped the number of bus lines from 4 to 11 in anticipation of the increase.
Tallinn, where the increase is expected to be much lower, has a quality improvement plan of its own in the works. It includes, according to Deputy Mayor Taavi Aas, bringing on an additional 70 buses, introducing a "park and ride" system for long-range commuters and creating a new passenger information system. According to Verachtert, just as large a concern as maintaining service quality was how the public would relate to the free service. Experts had warned Hasselt officials of vandalism and buses crowded with bored youngsters, discouraging the intended target travelers from using the system.
"Never believe experts," he told ERR News. "We expected that sometimes a seat would be damaged by a knife, but that happened very few times because the buses are a lot more crowded by people. There are people on the bus who feel a kind of ownership of the bus and they take care, they keep an eye on what other people are doing."
Magali Giovannangeli, head of the urban district of Aubagne near Marseille, went further, saying that after her district made the change during the recent economic crisis, the relationship between passengers and drivers became much more respectful as it was no longer a payer-payee dynamic. Other problems raised at the conference remained unresolved, such as the phenomenon of people switching from walking or biking to using public transport, as opposed to switching from using their cars.
And there was the uncomfortable example given by a German expert of two cities near Berlin where free public transport proved too popular, was economically unsustainable and had to be abandoned. Every case was different, as the presenters made clear.
Though Tallinn is not making free public transport universal when it implements the change on January 1 (only registered city residents are eligible) it is nevertheless one of the largest cities and the first European capital to have such a policy. Academics and city planners from around Europe and beyond will be watching closely.