Future of free bus transport in Estonia's counties proving divisive

County bus service from Viljandi Bus Station. March 24, 2023.
County bus service from Viljandi Bus Station. March 24, 2023. Source: Olev Kenk/ERR

While the three political parties in their fourth week of coalition talks have proven unanimous about the need to scrap the practice of free bus transport to residents in many of Estonia's counties – a system which has been in place for five years now – what this would be replaced with, how it would work and whether it would satisfy those residents remains an open book.

ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) looked at the situation nationally and in Viljandi County, South Estonia – free public transport has been available to Tallinn residents for around a decade now.

Any return to a paid service would likely affect wage earners; concessions or even free transport would remain in place for children, the elderly and students.

In Viljandi County alone, population a little under 50,000, around 7,000 free bus trips are taken (ie. 7,000 rides by passengers) on a daily basis, while during the pandemic the figure was as high as 9,000, AK reported.

This equates to 3.3km traveled by buses inside Viljandi County, in a year.

Kaupo Kase, head of the public transport center in that county says that the number of passengers rose significantly with the advent of free bus travel several years ago, while the reorganization of the route network was also a factor.

Kase said that should paid travel be reinstated, the ensuing ticket revenues, which his authority calculated would total around €300,000 per year on the basis of working-age people only paying, should remain inside Viljandi County as it would provide some much needed funds to be ploughed into improving infrastructure.

Passengers in Viljandi County were less keen on the prospect of having to pay for tickets again, however, AK reported, based on what those waiting for the early morning commuter bus in Võhma close to the county line with Järva County, to the north, told the show.

County bus service from Viljandi Bus Station. March 24, 2023. Source: Olev Kenk/ERR

One, Cilly, said that with the high cost of living, there isn't much left from the paycheck.

Another, Vello, points out that Tallinn bus, trolleybus and tram travel remains free to residents, "yet people there have much higher wages, maybe even twice as high wages, or even more," he said.

Another, Leili, points out that she has to pay tax and support the state and local municipality in any case.

As reported by ERR News, coalition negotiators announced last week that they plan to phase out free bus travel (Tallinn excepted).

Environment Minister Madis Kallas (SDE) told AK that agreement had been met during the ongoing talks, saying: "First of all, we agreed that something had to change," citing dissatisfaction both with those who live on the environs of larger urban areas, such as just outside Tallinn, and those who live a long way, in "real rural areas".

Minister of the Environment Madis Kallas (SDE). Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Meanwhile Andrus Nilisk, head of the North Estonia Public Transport Centre (Põhja-Eesti ühistranspordikeskus), covering Harju, Rapla, Lääne- and Lääne-Viru counties, called bus occupancy rates there "normal".

"When there are more passengers, there will be no space during rush hour and since the bus will travel 60 km/h on the highway, the travel time is higher higher. When there are fewer than five passengers, it makes more sense to find an alternative to the bus," he said.

With regard to Prime Minister Kaja Kallas' (Reform) demand-based transport proposition, Nilisk called it "a taxi service in a market failure area. Is a taxi service cheap? No, it is not, but if we are talking about the cost per passenger today, then we can still say that our cost per passenger is less than two euros; but with a demand-based service, the cost per passenger is €20."

What really matters is bus frequency – the more the better – otherwise due to a lack of convenience, people will choose the car instead, he said.

The coalition-in-waiting said last week that free bus travel in Estonia will become a thing of the past, while buses' schedules will run in-line with demand.

The system has been in place in provincial Estonia for around five years now; Reform has been in office only for the latter two years or so of that period, and now has a like-minded coalition partner on such matters, in Eesti 200 – and the third coalition negotiator, the Social Democrats (SDE) have also expressed an interest in demand-based public transport.

Only senior citizens and minors will be able to travel for free, Kaja Kallas said, adding that wage earners will pay to use public transport, if they want to use it in preference to other means of transport.

A county bus that provides free (Estonian: Tasuta) public transport at Värska Bus Station. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

Madis Kallas (no relation) noted that satisfying everyone would be hard, and things might need to be tried and tested. Kallas also spoke in the context of Saaremaa, of which he used to be mayor.

In any case, Kaupo Kase back in Viljandi County noted, more support would need to be provided, for instance with ticket prices, in the longer term.

"Beforehand, the state should fulfill its promise and allocate money to public transport centers for the development of the line network and give them a free hand to design bus routes," Kase said.

Whether the coalition negotiation partners had referenced axing free public transport on county line buses in their pre-election manifestos was not reported.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mari Peegel

Source: 'Aktuaalne kaamera'

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