On September 24, the Tartu municipal government announced plans to switch the city’s bus network to a swipe card system similar to Tallinn’s onboard validators. There have been many reasons to criticize the capital’s free public transport scheme, and Andrei Tuch struggles to find any justification for what Tartu is planning.
The bus network in Tartu, Estonia’s second-biggest city, has been a source of love, hate, and disappointment for residents. A recent overhaul of the entire bus fleet, now in a uniform red-and-white-swirl livery, has been received very well. Technological advances like the construction of screens at most bus stops, showing the approaching buses and wait times, and the availability of that information through convenient mobile apps gifted to the city’s residents by a local IT company, Mobi Solutions, have made taking the bus a much more realistic proposition.
However, Tartu’s public transport is still suffering from patchy coverage - much of the city is a maze of small streets, and bus lines meander through them in sometimes odd loops. If you’re not lucky enough to live next to one of the city’s two big arteries, what would be a five-minute drive can take upwards of 40 minutes by infrequent public buses. In the past, it’s gotten so bad that two of the city’s large shopping centers have seen fit to start their own free shuttles, ferrying passengers from the center of town and back - and those lines are still popular, even after a new bus operator was brought in and the lines straightened.
Now the municipal government has introduced an ambitious new plan which they say will help improve coverage. From next autumn, Tartu will switch from the current ID-based ticketing system to an “e-ticket” - a scheme based on dedicated cards that must be waved past readers at the bus doors, just like Tallinn’s infamous “validators”. Tartu’s proposed scheme does have one advantage over the capital - it is not married to unique swipe cards. As described in the city’s press release, the system would work with any standard Near-Field Communication (NFC) token, which are included in most modern smartphones and can even come as stickers to randomly put on your wallet, bag, glove, etc. There's no need to surreptitiously disassemble green cards to re-weave them into wristbands.
However, in all other respects - and compared to Tartu’s existing system of bus ticketing - the new scheme will be a massive, constant inconvenience to residents. And to cause that inconvenience, the city is planning to spend at least 583,000 euros of taxpayer money.
The current system - which still exists quietly in Tallinn, although it’s not advertised - is based on the ID card infrastructure. You can buy tickets online, at kiosks, or via your mobile phone, and the only time you need to think about the ticket is if you are on a bus that gets randomly checked, in which case any document that shows your national ID number will serve to prove that you’ve paid for your trip.
The new system will require you to pre-load money into your account on the ticketing system, which will then be debited whenever you swipe or validate your token. Not only will this slow down boarding at peak times, but it leaves travelers at a risk of being caught short of funds. Today, I can call a phone number and have the cost of a ticket added to my phone bill at the end of the month, but with the new scheme I would have to … do what, exactly? Fumble about with my phone, trying to add money to my bus account? Inside a crowded morning bus? Or at a bus stop in the freezing winter?
The proposed system for Tartu manages the impressive feat of being strictly worse than the one in Tallinn. If the capital thinks that free public transport is worthwhile, it should just make it free for everybody, saving the cost of the validators, releasing the ticket checkers into more productive jobs, and attracting tourists and residents of surrounding towns to come and spend money in Tallinn.
But Tartu has no plans for free public transport for all residents. Schoolchildren and pensioners will ride for free, as they do now, and everyone else will still pay. And while Tallinn simply hides away the ID-based tickets in a dark corner, the Tartu city government has made it clear that ID tickets will go away entirely; only the token-based system will remain.
It is unclear whether visitors will still be able to purchase individual tickets from the bus driver. That's something that drivers universally and understandably hate, as it forces them to deal with cash transactions and slows down boarding at the same time. With the explanations given by the city in its press releases and responses to numerous angry Facebook comments, it actually looks as if on-board tickets will also go away.
This is not the first time that Tartu has tried to get strict about its bus traffic. More than a decade ago, there was a brief period of rigidly enforcing the rule of entering only through the front door, and showing proof of payment to the driver. This was universally hated, and did not work. Telling the driver “I bought a ticket on my phone” was enough to pass (technically, they were supposed to ask you to show them the SMS response on your phone, but there was no incentive for the drivers to make the boarding even slower). That bit of stupidity probably contributed to the disappearance of the Tarbus company from Tartu’s streets.
The new scheme is not being promoted by the current bus operator, AS Sebe (part of the group that runs most of Estonia’s intercity coaches). It was announced in a press release by the city government, and it is the city that is purchasing the token infrastructure and associated services from Ridango, the same company that’s behind Tallinn’s validators.
So, the new scheme is inconvenient, expensive, and redundant. The city says that it will result in a database of bus journeys, which can be used to improve bus coverage. But at best, this will tell city planners how many journeys begin at a given bus stop at a given time – not where those journeys end. Forcing people to swipe when they exit the bus is not realistic, especially in Tartu, where a large share of bus users are parents with baby carriages and older people with limited mobility. Statistics can be gathered in less disruptive ways, from cameras and weight sensors to mobile-phone monitooring systems – one such system is made by Regio, a Tartu-based IT company.
Is it worth paying over half a million euros out of the Tartu taxpayer’s pocket to buy a solution that is a strict downgrade from the existing system, but requires no effort or willingness to innovate on the part of the city government? Even when that solution is unlikely to provide useful data for future planning, but is very likely to slow down bus traffic and create an annoyance for every single bus rider in the city?
Tartu’s civilian-activist group Vabakund (which has a small representation on the city council) has reached out to the deputy mayor for explanations, but there has been no response at the time of writing this article.