fare-free transit spreading in europe? can cities do this on their own?

LogoIt's too soon to say, but Tallinn, Estonia (pop. 425,000) is now by far the largest city to offer fare-freefree public transit — not just in Europe but anywhere in the world as near as I can tell.  Most other free-transit communities are either university-dominated small cities (like Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Hasselt, Belgium) or rural networks where ridership is so low that fares don't pay for the costs of fare collection technology, let alone contribute toward operating cost.

Tallinn — along with Hasselt and the small city of Aubagne, France — are also forming the Free Public Transport European Network, to spread the idea and disseminate experience about it.

As the city's webpage explains, Tallinn citizens must still buy a farecard, which will allow them to ride free. This allows the transit network to continue to collect fares from tourists and people living in other cities.

This raises the interesting possibility that any city, inside a bigger metro area with a regional transit system, could elect to subsidize transit fares for its own residents, by simply buying fares in bulk and giving them away to its own residents — just as some universities and employers already do for their own students or staff.  Indeed, smart farecards make it possible for anyone to subsidize fares without much complexity, opening up a huge range of subsidy possibilities for any entity that sees an advantage in doing so.  Yet another reason that city governments are not as helpless about transit as they often think, even if they don't control their transit system.


19 Responses to fare-free transit spreading in europe? can cities do this on their own?

  1. Alon Levy February 19, 2013 at 8:15 pm #

    If people have to buy a farecard, it’s not really free transit. It’s just a more extreme version of the German fare system in which regular users get heavily discounted monthly and annual passes.

  2. David Paschich February 19, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

    The card costs €2, and looks like it lasts forever. That’s pretty close to free.

  3. Kd5mdk February 19, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

    Do they do swipe on boarding and exit? I suppose on exit is probably too cumbersome for a system that mostly doesn’t charge by distance, but I keep thinking how cool it would be to get real time feedback on route performance, most popular transfers etc without any extra effort.

  4. Andre Lot February 19, 2013 at 11:50 pm #

    The farebox recovery ratio in Tallin was only 16%.

  5. Ted Re February 20, 2013 at 11:18 am #

    Can you pass this valuable information on to the people who run the French trains?
    To go from Nice to Aubagne (180km) on the train second class return this Saturday can be up to 79.70 euros, second class, according to voyages-sncf.com.
    Meanwhile from Milan to Talinn by plane (2200km) can be as low as 70.98 return (on RyanAir leaving 09 Apr 13 and returning 18 Apr 13).
    The people who think of “captive riders” should realise that most people have a car sitting at home. Sadly 75% of French choose the car. In our example here, the train is double the time and double the cost of fuel if going by car. They do have discount rail cards costing between 30 and 75 euros, but you need a PhD in language and one other subject to work out their website.
    There needs to be more incentives to get people out of their cars and onto transport, and making it free is a nice start!

  6. Erik Sandblom February 20, 2013 at 11:22 am #

    What will fare-free transit do for walking and cycling? Has there been a travel survey? Travel surveys usually show that a large chunk of trips can be covered in 20 minutes on foot or by bicycle.

  7. Prattleonboyo February 20, 2013 at 11:56 am #

    Such a freebie model works in Europe because the transit system has riders from other countries using its services. This fact makes subsidizing residential passes with non-resident fare a no-brainer. But in the U.S., it doesn’t work this way.
    Transit service is almost always run by county government and offers service that only county residents would find useful. For e.g. you won’t find Los Angeles residents on an Orange County busline because the latter does not offer service to L.A. County. If you want to travel in L.A. then you use L.A. transit. If you want to travel in Orange County, then you use Orange County transit. Never the twine shall meet.
    Even in other transit authorities, such as SEPTA, this line spans several different counties in Pennsylvania. How then would that line be able to offer free transit to residents whev everyone using the service IS a resident?
    The bottom line is that what works in Europe will not necessarily work in the U.S., which is for the most part, adamantly opposed to public transport, anyway, thanks to the fact that the oil companies own and operate the federal government.

  8. Shane Phillips February 20, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

    To Erik, I suspect this would improve walking and cycling rates. Based on personal experience, driving less usually leads to greater reliance on ALL other modes of transportation.
    Another interesting implication of this is how it would improve transit service by expediting loading. Currently in Seattle we have only been moderately successful in getting people to shift to ORCA (farecard) adoption, and everyone who’s paying with cash or paper transfers is adding extra delay to the network. If everyone is given a farecard essentially freely, things should speed up considerably.
    I work at the University of Washington where we have ID cards that are necessary for various things, but they also function as ORCA cards. Because the IDs have uses other than for fare payment we can’t easily pass them off to friends (or in this case, non-residents of the city), either, so maybe it’d be worth thinking about combining driver’s licenses with farecard capabilities. Obviously that’s a more complicated issue, but possibly with interesting implications.

  9. Erik Sandblom February 20, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

    Shane, I agree that less driving usually means more of all the alternatives. But that doesn’t mean that public transit isn’t being used for journeys that could just as well be done on foot or by bicycle. That information can be gathered by doing a travel survey. For example, in the UK, 56% of car journeys are shorter than five miles and a quarter are shorter than two miles. Two miles by bicycle takes about 13 minutes, door to door. See link:
    Fares don’t affect load times if you have pre-payment, or if passengers enter through all the bus doors.
    Whatever you think of walking and bicycling, a fair question is whether the money spent on fare-free transit might be better spent on upgrading the service or encouraging transit-oriented development. If users aren’t willing to pay for transit, that should be something to think about.

  10. Bob Davis February 20, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

    A year or two ago, someone posted a “Ten Reasons Why People Don’t Use Public Transit”, and “The fares are too high” was NOT among them. Indeed, a Los Angeles area transit blogger found that of all the LA Metro employees, who have free passes as a “fringe benefit”, only about 5% use the “sponsor’s product”.

  11. Andre Lot February 20, 2013 at 8:38 pm #

    @Ted Re: intercity non-commute transportation is an entirely different animal. You can’t possible make the whole train network of a country “free” to use without creating massive problems on its own.
    For a starter, the costs per trip made “free” to the user are much higher than that of urban commuting systems. Then, you have the issue of hard capacity caps (intercity trains, mostly, don’t carry standing passengers). Now imagine people wanting to commute 200km daily on a TGV because it is free – the idea looks nice, but if many people start getting on board, the costs would explode if a similar service is to be offered for everyone who wants.
    This is also a potential problem for adopting such “free” systems on larger metro areas: it would create certain incentives for longer commutes that would put a strain on the local authority offering it. Imagine if Metro North, NJT, MTA and LIRR were all free. Then, some developer would build massive towers in Long Island (assuming that is made possible by zoning) and the system would be pushed beyond its limits.
    “Free” transportation only works within limited settings of smaller cities where these effects of induced travel are lower.

  12. asdf February 20, 2013 at 10:46 pm #

    So, why doesn’t free transit in Tallinn cause the buses to effectively turn into roving homeless shelters? That has been a frequent argument against free fares, especially in large cities with 24-hour transit systems.

  13. bintang movers February 21, 2013 at 12:51 am #

    Its a good idea if any free transportation system, and for the operation need a supporting from goverment and authority…..

  14. Edward Re February 21, 2013 at 4:47 am #

    I agree with you, if stimulated demand overwhelmed the network (not sure how many would take the train, even if it were free, as per the comment from Bob Davis above).
    I wanted to say that when pricing is set, they need to look at the competition. If a plane can go 2200km for the same price as 200km on the train, and driving your car is half the price, then the train is going to the option of last resort. There’s plenty of spare capacity on most of the trains I ride on. At present the pricing is so ridiculous that we only ever ride on the train as a treat for the kids.

  15. Alon Levy February 21, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    I think the French example you gave is not normal for the country. To be fair my experience riding French trains is just short-distance TERs and long-distance TGVs, and the treatment of 180 km trips may be different, but the fares per km I know are much lower than your example. Monaco-Nice, a distance of 16 km, is if I remember correctly €2.50 for a single trip, comparable to the price of short-term parking, and often faster since the roads are longer and slower and the autoroute has considerable access time from Monaco. And Nice-Paris, a distance of 1,000 km, cost me about €100 in each direction, bought not far in advance; most people on that city pair fly rather than take the train but that’s due to speed rather than cost.

  16. LX... February 21, 2013 at 9:22 pm #

    “This raises the interesting possibility that any city, inside a bigger metro area with a regional transit system, could elect to subsidize transit fares for its own residents”
    The City of Frementle part of the Perth Australia metro area did exactly this for a period between 1996 and 1998.
    Fremantle City (population 25,000) sits within the Perth metro area (population 1.8 million). Fremantle negotiated a deal with Transperth to provide free travel on public transport services within the municipality and in return the City was required to pay an annual fee of $120,000 to Transperth, which equated to the estimated loss of public transport fare revenue.
    Residents were issued with special fare cards which they validated each time they used a bus within the City boundaries. Non residents continued to pay regular fares.
    I understand the scheme finished in 1998 after the City and Transperth failed to agree on the ongoing cost of the scheme and forgone revenue to Transperth.
    There was also an argument that money was better invested into improving bus services to make the service attractive rather than just taking what was at that time a very poor bus service and simply making it free.

  17. Christohpe Jemelin February 25, 2013 at 1:21 am #

    Just have a look to (old and not accessible) trams and (very polluting) buses in Tallin… and you may think that even the 16% revenue should have been kept to improve the system. If you read french, have a look at this, too :

  18. Joe Busman February 26, 2013 at 6:38 pm #

    Have we learned nothing from Communism? Free doesn’t work. Free housing, free schooling, free food, free land, it doesn’t work. Free creates waste. If STarbucks had free coffee, people would take two cups and the lines would be twice as long at least. They’d throw away cups. They’d pay people to stand in line for them. Fewer people would tip and service would go down. Likewise with free transit, people would take it instead of walking four blocks. They’d overcrowd it during rush hour. No incentive to take transit at off peak. They’d sit on the bus all day to stay warm or stay cool. They’d hang out with their buddies on the bus and play card games. They’d jump aboard and talk to the driver all day to keep company. Horrible idea. It’s unbelievably wasteful, and whenever you make something free, people feel entitled or ashamed. Either way, they resent the organization or person giving them free gifts.

  19. Tim Dow March 1, 2013 at 2:07 pm #

    Those same arguments could be made for the free automobile infrastructure (road construction, maintenance, parking, signals, police patrols). This is given away for free which creates huge waste. Living far away from their place of employment is the equivalent of the person taking two cups of coffee. People drive instead of walking four blocks. It’s free, why not?
    The playing field should be leveled. Either make public transportation free or charge per mile for using automobile infrastructure. The status quo is not fair by the standards of communism or capitalism.