While cheap tickets undoubtedly matter to public transport users, boosting the speed and quality of public transport to make it attractive to those who currently prefer to use a personal vehicle is even more important, Kaido Padar writes.
The National Audit Office's recently published public transport report found, among other things, that public transport organization is neither sustainable nor able to serve its purpose today. Mobility trends analyses carried out by the Transport Administration come to a similar conclusion, whereas whether public transport if free for the end user or not is not the main problem.
The problem is that public transport fails to consider to a sufficient degree the needs of users and does not offer a serious alternative to a personal vehicle in all parts of the country. We plan to change that.
Public transport organization has been highly fragmented so far. The railroad has largely operated independently, with county coaches and public transport in larger cities – all of these participants – going about their business independently and seemingly inhabiting different worlds.
Figuratively speaking, it is as if there is a wall between city and county bus lines, coach and train stops. However, we all inhabit the same physical world and want to move around in it as quickly and conveniently as possible, using different modes of transport that must all consider one another.
People's daily commute has not been confined to the municipality where they live or a single mode of transport for a long time. By improving cooperation and planning efforts, the Transport Administration wants to render the public transport system and access to it more convenient, starting with how people go from their home to the public transport stop, moving on to better interoperability of different modes of transport and down to a common ticket system in major areas.
Important traffic hubs must offer fast and convenient transfer options between modes of transport or headings. Also, "Park & Ride" solutions to better combine public transport with other ways of getting around.
The wealthy taking the train and bus
While cheap tickets undoubtedly matter to public transport users, boosting the speed and quality of public transport to make it attractive to those who currently prefer to use a personal vehicle is even more important. Mayor of Bogota Enrique Penalosa has said that a wealthy country is not one where the poor drive cars but where the rich take public transport. This must also be our goal.
The current trend is seeing low-income workers rely increasingly on personal vehicles, being forced to choose whether to spend a considerable part of their salary on a car, waste too much time taking public transport or give up the job altogether. It also makes a massive difference in a household's expenses whether it needs to run two cars or one, or whether the family can do without a car in a city.
This situation needs to change, and we have started that change at the Transport Administration. This spring saw the completion of the Estonian public transport development plan 2021-2025 that prioritizes shifting at least 10 percent of trips made using cars to public transport and boosting the relative importance of public transport in motorized mobility from 19 percent to 27 percent.
Instead of efforts to secure the most resources and mutual competition, coordination of rail, county and local public transport and infrastructure developments must walk hand-in-hand. Cross-usage of different modes of transport and reaching public transport stops on foot, riding a bike or driving a car must be more convenient.
The Greater Tallinn Area (Suur-Tallinn) needs a common ticket system
A lot of emphasis has been placed on creating a common ticket system for Tallinn and Harju County and its organization in cooperation of state agencies, the city of Tallinn and neighboring municipalities.
While Tallinn has merited international recognition courtesy of its free public transport, the system is very expensive for many people commuting from nearby rural municipalities.
For example, a middle-aged person who lives in the small town of Keila and works in Tallinn and would like to take the county bus, Elron trains and Tallinn city transport every day would have to spend in excess of €100 on monthly passes as there is no single pass.
The Greater Helsinki area in Finland where the cost of living is 40 percent higher than in Estonia has a corresponding pass that costs €96 a month, whereas ticket revenue is used to cover half of public transport expenses.
We see the solution clearly and it simply needs to be made happen – looking at how people live, Tallinn and the surrounding municipalities form a single area and that must also be the case from the point of view of public transport.
Focus away from machines and onto people
Of course, the Transport Administration realizes that we cannot afford to create fast and frequent public transport links to every Estonian village, while we can develop the quality of public transport where more people live and work, shape a network offering rapid and frequent departures and develop on-demand and combined transport services in sparsely populated areas.
Public transport data collection must pay a lot more attention to how people move as opposed to looking at the movement of vehicles. While we have a very accurate overview of the number of vehicles using state roads today, we know much less about how many people are moving around, what is the purpose of their trips and which journeys lack proper public transport coverage.
If we want better, faster and more competitive public transport, this situation needs to change and it will.
The Transport Administration has made it its task to coordinate the development of public transport all over Estonia. The public transport development plan has mapped out the main shortcomings and set clear goals of where we want to be in four years. We know what we have to do to get the rich to take the train and bus, and we will get it done.
Editor: Marcus Turovski