On Friday, October 26, Estonia's capital is hosting an international conference called “Free Public Transport in Tallinn – a Brave Step Towards the Green Capital” to present the city's much-debated plan to make public transport free for registered residents next year. Before the event, ERR News spoke to Deputy Mayor Taavi Aas to get the official take on the controversial idea as well as to ask what Tallinn hopes to get out of the conference.
The “green” in the name of your event suggests that the main reason for the city's move to free transport for residents is environmental. Is that the case?
There are two main reasons. The first is environmental and the second is social - to help lower income and unemployed people get around.
On the environmental side, do you have a number or target in mind?
In Tallinn, most CO2 comes from cars. We know that only 6 percent comes from public transportation, meaning buses, and 60 percent from cars. In Europe they want to reduce CO2 output by 20 percent by the year 2020. If we also want meet this target in Tallinn, [...] we have to deal with the cars. Maybe we can reduce it by this 20 percent.
Does that mean there is a certain percentage of cars you are trying to get off the streets?
That's very difficult to say. I sometimes say it could be 10 percent.
A recent article by Finnish broadcaster YLE said that Helsinki is watching Tallinn's public transport developments very closely, but the city's research had found that free transport would most likely be used by people who would otherwise walk or bike, and would not discourage car driving.
I don't think that people who use bicycles would use public transport. Maybe in the city center those people who walked one stop to the next stop would take public transport. I know that a lot of cities are looking to Tallinn and watching what's happening. And we're looking to other cities that already have free public transport. That's the main point of this conference, to talk with the other cities about what has happened and how they feel when they have free public transport.
If someone has enough money - and has already spent the money - to buy a car, do you think that the 18.50 euro per month savings next year (the current cost of a transport pass) will convince them to switch to taking the bus?
In September we had one week when we had free public transport for car owners. They just had to have their driver's license to use it. We can say that about we had 5 percent more people [on public transport] and we also had less traffic on the streets.
An obvious question about this plan is the cost. Initial estimates put it at 10 million euros a year. Is this figure correct and how is the city going to cover it?
It's about 12 million euros per year that we won't get anymore from selling tickets. There are two points from which we will get the money. The first is finishing the renovation of the water and sewage system [an annual cost that will no longer have to be paid - ed.]. The other is that we hope we will have more registered residents in Tallinn. We know that we have about 417,000 people living in Tallinn and from 5 to 10 percent aren't registered. Every 1,000 more residents we have registered means an additional million euros in tax income [allotted from the state budget].
One of the worries often expressed about this move is that it will overburden the system. Are there any plans to beef it up by putting on more buses or adding routes?
We are already getting 70 buses this year and next year. Some buses will be replaced, but we have about 30 or 40 buses in reserve. So from next year there will be more buses. We renovated one tram line and in 2014 we are getting 15 or 17 new trams. They will replace the current trams, but they are bigger.
Since the majority of the people using the system would be Tallinners, it seems it would be an easy next step to make it free for everyone, not just residents. You wouldn't have to spend money on ticket checking and you could have saved the cost of installing the new e-ticket system. It would have also been a PR coup for tourism if Tallinn were the biggest city in the world offering free public transport to visitors.
I think that, in the future, we may have free public transport in all of Estonia. Maybe it's the future for all public transport systems. For tourists at the moment we have a special card for people who spend more than one day in Tallinn [Talliinn Card]. It's not free, but you can also use public transportation with this card.
There has been some talk in the press that the international public transport conference Tallinn is hosting this week is quite an expensive affair for the city. How many people are coming and what's the cost?
As far as I know there are 150 people coming and a lot of them are coming from other countries. I don't know about the cost of this single conference, because we are holding another conference tomorrow [October 25] about our e-ticketing system for public transport. The cost of both conferences together is 30,000 euros.
You mentioned that there are a lot of international delegates coming to the event and you're going to share experiences about free public transport. Since Tallinn's plans are already laid out, and you are not going to make any changes based on the new information, who is the conference actually for?
First, we want to listen to the other cities and they want to listen to us. I know the French city has an idea to make a union of cities that have free public transport. We hope that cities that are just watching what is happening in Tallinn will also be at the conference, and of course we have a lot of questions about free public transportation and we can discuss these questions openly. Just as you have a lot of questions, people from around Europe and around the world want to know how [free public transport] is possible and how it's going here.
Interview by Steve Roman