Audit report: Free county public transport has not fulfilled goals

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A free bus in Vijandi. Source: ERR

A report by the National Audit Office finds that free public transport in Estonia's countries has not reached its goal to reduce car journeys, organization differs by counties and costs have risen significantly.

Even though the demand for county public transport has increased, more than half of the people commuting to work continue to use a car and there are no indications that they now prefer public transport, the report concluded.

Additionally, the National Audit Office said better survey data is needed to determine the mobility needs of the people and that the funding of public transport centres across Estonia is unequal.

Background

The National Audit Office analysed whether economic feasibility had been taken into account during the planning, organisation and funding of county bus transport between 2017-2019. It also looked at if the county bus transport network has been planned based on the mobility needs of the people using it.

Transport Administration was the institution responsible and organized public transport in nine public transport centres and the rural municipality governments of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. This totaled 1,502 county bus lines in 2019.

The right to travel free of charge on the basis of a public service contract is valid on the Tartu, Jõgeva, Valga, Põlva, Võru, Viljandi, Ida-Viru, Järva, Lääne, Saare and Hiiu county bus lines. In Lääne county, riding a bus is free of charge in some regions.

Report

One of the aims of establishing free tickets on county bus routes was to increase the number of public transport users.

"What is positive is that the decline in the share of public transport users has stopped for a couple of years," said Auditor General Janar Holm. "Unfortunately, not a significant number of new users have been attracted to public transport despite the fact that over the recent years, the state has allocated more and more funds to cover the costs of county bus transport and has allowed people to travel by bus free of charge in most counties."

On county bus routes, the number of journeys increased by around 15 percent in 2019 compared to 2018 and according to the Transport Administration, the increase is due to the more frequent use of public transport by the current existing passengers, the continuous urban sprawl, the addition of previously not registered passengers to statistics and the closure of commercial lines.

According to Statistics Estonia, 20.6 percent of people used public transport to commute to work in 2019, which is 2 percent less than in 2014. Compared to driving, the use of public transport is not attractive enough for people and getting from A to B by public transport can be inconvenient and time-consuming.

Prices have risen significantly

Holm highlighted the rapid growth of state expenditures in funding public transport. "In a relatively short period of time, the costs of county public transport can be expected to triple," he said.

Before the introduction of free public transport in 2017, county bus transport was supported out of the state budget with €21.9 million, and in 2019, with €43.1 million. The forecasts of the Transport Administration show that in 2024, the organisation of county bus transport will cost the state €64.6 million.

"In a situation where the costs associated with the 0-euro ticket price increase significantly year by year, it is appropriate to ask whether Estonia will be able to maintain such a system," said Holm. "An option could be that the funds could be channelled to improve the route network and 0-euro tickets granted only to those who need them to cope with their lives."

The National Audit Office said that the bus network may not meet the needs of all people as the actual mobility needs have been under-researched. "The network of county bus lines has so far been developed based on the needs of current public transport users," said Holm. "Changing habits is difficult, but if we were to increase the number of passengers and get more car users to use buses, we should be more aware of the preferences of car users and find out what would make them change their habits."

On the whole, Estonia is sparsely populated, which makes the economic viable planning of public transport difficult and expensive. In most cases, public transport in low-density areas is organised by regular bus lines. This means long and slow lines and half-empty buses. Right now, there are few alternative transport options available.

The data of the Transport Administration showed that some of the regular bus lines with on-demand stops are very expensive to maintain. Using the data of the Transport Administration, the National Audit Office calculated that in 2019, the average cost per passenger for one county bus line was €6.31. At the same time, there were bus lines where this cost was over €100, which is covered from the state budget.

The state has not referred public transport operators to look for alternatives to regular line services, which in cooperation with modern information technology options would help organise public transport more flexibly and economically. An alternative can be, for example, passenger transport based on demand, i.e. upon reservation by minibus or car.

Oraganization differs across the country

The National Audit Office found that the principles of bus transport organization differ quite a lot across Estonia. The responsibilities and tasks of the organizing agencies are not uniform and this leads to unjustified differences in funding and an increase in public spending.

The Public Transport Act does not provide an opportunity to clearly distinguish lines as county and local lines and it is not clear which line must be managed and funded by the state through a regional public transport centre and which by the municipality.

This has led to a situation where the division of lines is decided on a case-by-case basis and municipalities are treated differently. Thus, some municipalities have had the opportunity to organize the mobility of their people largely by county transport, while others have had to organize transport themselves and pay for it.

"It is not just a question of money, but of equal treatment of municipalities, and that if it is not clear who has to organize bus services and pay for the costs, important bus lines may be left unopened altogether due to disputes, or reasonable changes not made in optimising the route network," Holm said.

The audit showed that so far, there is no clear agreement on the funding principles of public transport centres or the tasks for which funds are allocated to the centres from the state budget, and on how to use the funds sustainably.

Therefore, there is a difference between the experience of public transport centres in using subsidies and the costs, and the state pays more for organizing bus transport in some counties than for bus transport in other counties.

The rate of state support to cover the costs of public transport centres, including public regular service contracts in 2019 ranged from €0.83 per line kilometre in Northern Estonia to €1.31 per line kilometre in Pärnu county. Also, in 2019, local government subsidies to public transport centres varied, ranging from €0 in Tartu county to €630,000 in Northern Estonia.

Recommendations

The National Audit Office recommended that the minister of economic affairs and infrastructure oblige the Transport Administration, public transport centres and municipalities to consider offering alternative mobility options instead of regular bus lines in low density areas.

Secondly, it recommended that the Transport Administration and public transport centres change the public transport route network based on the actual mobility needs of the population for existing lines and assess the economic feasibility of opening new lines, taking alternative mobility options into account as well. 

It also recommended that the director general of the Transport Administration develop clear rules for funding public transport centres and for efficient use of the funds in organising county public transport, organise or create new information systems assembling public transport data and implement a common national ticketing system.

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Editor: Helen Wright

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