The Tallinn experiment: what happens when a city makes public transport fare-free?

Was interviewed by the Guardian for a piece on the Tallinn experience with free-fare public transport: “According to Cats, free public transport is not the no-brainer everyone might initially think it to be.”  Hope that I was able to provide evidence and nuances into a debate which is often dominated by political views.

Read the full article on the Guardian here.

You can find here the scientific paper which reviews other experiments, reports the evaluation conducted in Tallinn and the key findings.

Tallinn

How does zero-fare public transport fare?

What are the implications of providing public transport without charging fees from users? Together with Yusak Susilo and Triin Reimal form KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, we evaluated the impacts of free-fare public transport policy by investigating the case of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. The city introduced a free-fare public transport policy in January 2013 and became the largest city in the world so far to offer free-fare services to all of its inhabitants. While previous implementations of similar measures shed some light on the anticipated impacts of such a policy, there is lack of analysis which limits its validity. The case of Tallinn is a full-scale experiment that provides a unique opportunity to empirically evaluate economic, social, mobility and level-of-service aspects.

In the first phase of the policy evaluation, we conducted a macro-level empirical analysis of service performance, passenger demand and accessibility for various travelers’ groups. The results indicate that the the free-fare policy accounts for an increase of 1.2% in passenger demand with the remaining increase (1.8%) attributed to  extended network of public transport priority lanes and increased service frequency. The relatively small effect could be explained by the previous price level (36% free + 24% concessions) and public transport share (40%) as well as the consideration of the short-term impact. The evidence-based policy evaluation is instrumental in supporting policy making and facilitating the design of public transport pricing strategies. I discussed our findings in an interview to Citiscope, an urban magazine, which is available here.

The full article where we report our findings is available here. The paper includes a discussion on the transport economy theory and practical arguments for and against the scheme, lessons from previous experiences from which Tallinn clearly differs, a model that accounts for supply changes, an estimation of the elasticity of service frequency and reflecting on the economic viability of this scheme.

In the ongoing second phase of this study, we analyze detailed travel diary that a large sample of Tallinn residents reported directly before and a year after public transport became zero-fare in Tallinn. This will enable to analyze how the policy influences individual travel patterns, modal choice and accessibility. Moreover, we assess changes in mobility patterns for different user groups to find how fair the zero-fare policy is. If you are interested in taking part in this project drop me an email (see about page)!