County bus lines in the majority of Estonian counties have been offering free transport since the beginning of July, and last month already saw an increase of 10,000 more rides per day on free routes than in August of 2017. ETV news broadcast "Aktuaalne kaamera: Nädal" investigated what, if any, weaknesses are plaguing the new system.
On the whole, residents of Viljandi County are satisfied with the free public transport. Ridership has increased more than 50% on year, but buses are frequently overcrowded, and there isn't enough money to add more buses to the schedule.
According to Viljandi County Transport Centre board member Kaupo Kase, it would have been a more reasonable approach to start by making changes to bus routes and only then begin offering free transport.
"It would have been better if passenger numbers increased as a result of us making changes to the bus network, not us offering free bus transport," Kase said.
On the other hand, Southeast Transport Centre board member Sander Saar observed that while it was previously thought that the bus schedule was the issue — that bus times weren't a good fit for riders — the increase in ridership following the introduction of free transport supports the fact that it was ticket prices that were a greater issue for riders.
Saar admitted that the buses being used on routes in the region are too small, as nobody could foresee while drawing up the procurement in 2015 that free transport would be introduced just three years later and that ridership would increase significantly as a result.
Simson: Multiple goals achieved
According to Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Kadri Simson (Centre), the positive results of the free public transport scheme should silence any critics.
For example, county bus ridership on year increased 56% in Viljandi County, 32% in Põlva County and 16% in Võru County, indicating that one goal of the introduction of free public transport, to halt the drying up of bus services in rural areas, has been achieved.
Another goal, to help residents of sparsely populated areas reach town in order to get to work, school, doctor's appointments and be able to run errands, must be solved by revamping bus schedules. But regional transport centres will have to do this in cooperation with transport companies.
"There are areas where the buses are completely packed and we need more buses," Simson said. "Unfortunately, there are parts of Estonia where a bus is necessary, but there are only a few people riding it — and bus transport cannot disappear from these areas either. But in the future we will take into consideration that if someone takes a bus all the way to its final stop only a couple of times a week, this stop should be served on demand only."
On-demand social transport is also in the works for serving riders who travel to town infrequently.
While the state budget strategy foresees funding for free public transport for a period of four years, the continuation thereof will depend on the results of next year's Riigikogu elections.
Editor: Aili Vahtla