A free ticket to ride

 

Imagine if you got on the bus, Tube, train or tram this morning without paying. Imagine if you could travel into town, day in and day out, without ever paying a penny. From next year, this is exactly what you'll be able to do if you live in the capital of Estonia. And you won't even get arrested.

From New Year's Day, Tallinn will become the world's first capital city to offer a completely free public transport network – only visitors will have to fork out €1.60 (£1.30) for a ticket. Four tram lines, eight trolleybus lines, dozens of bus routes – all free for residents, all of the time.

Tallinn's bold step has reignited the debate about whether free public transport in cities is something we should aspire to. Estonian opponents of the headline-grabbing move by the Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar say it's pork-barrel politics: a brazenly populist echo of Ken Livingstone's 1981 Fare's Fair campaign, where the Greater London Council slashed London Transport fares by a third.

Not so, counters Taavi Pukk from Savisaar's Centre Party: "There's no doubt that free public transport is the future." Pukk points out that 75 per cent of respondents in Tallinn's referendum on the issue voted "yes" – though turnout was low, just one-fifth of those eligible actually voted. Savisaar claims he's set on turning Tallinn into Europe's greenest city and tells us that, as well as helping the poor, the free transport move will get drivers out of their cars. Something for nothing is a compelling proposition: a spike in public transport use of 15 per cent is predicted.

Neighbouring Lithuania and Latvia are looking on eagerly – both of their capital cities, Vilnius and Riga, are considering following Tallinn's lead. Rich Helsinki, across the chilly Baltic, is reportedly interested, too.

Free public transport isn't as rare as you might imagine. The Flemish city of Hasselt has an entirely free public transport system, as do a handful of left-leaning towns in France – Châteauroux, near Orleans, and the Toulouse suburb Colomiers – which abolished tickets in 1971. In Marcel Pagnol's birthplace, the cultured Provençal town of Aubagne, the free transport system is wryly marketed under the slogan "liberté, égalité, gratuité!" – also the title of a book about the scheme penned by the philosopher Jean-Louis Sagot-Duvauroux and Aubagne's feminist Mayor Magali Giovannangeli.

Even in the rather less socialist-minded United States there is a surprising range of free transport. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, offers 31 complimentary bus routes, while Vero Beach, Florida, has an on-the-house city-wide system. The biggest spanner in the works though is the most obvious one: you immediately lose an enormous tranche of income from fares. In Tallinn, 33 per cent of public-transport revenue comes from tickets. The state will have to find that cash – but from where? When we call Transport for London's press office for a quote, the TfL spokesman seems amused we're even asking the question: "Could London's transport ever cost nothing?" (The answer, unsurprisingly, is no.) He makes an interesting point: "The Victoria line alone carries more people in a day than Tallinn's entire population of 416,000." TfL does offer free travel one night a year: New Year's Eve. This is paid for by corporate cash – at the moment, appropriately, the drinks giant Diageo stumps up.

"Free public transport can foster a switch from road to rail where the car still dominates," Gareth Edwards, editor of the London Reconnections blog, says. "But London has one of the strongest public-transport cultures in the world. TfL's real battle is financing and building new trains and Tube lines. Removing the fare box would hinder, not help, that."

Yet it does seem galling that elsewhere train-operating companies and deregulated bus operators like First and National Express are allowed to turn a profit providing a public service. The social effects of free public transport are an interesting enigma, too. You'd imagine that busy buses and trains would reassure travellers, but that wasn't exactly the way it played it with London's bendy buses, which ran from 2002 to 2011. Known widely as the "free bus", the huge numbers of extra passengers who took advantage of two unmanned doors to board without paying gave routes like the N29 and "70 free" the smoky air of Wild West stagecoaches populated by outlaws.

In civilised Sweden, fare-dodging has a political dimension. Members of the Planka activist group have their fines paid from a shared pot if they get caught by police. Planka believes that transport, like health and education, should be free. "We use political action to forward the idea of free public transport," the group's Christian Tengblad says.

In Yorkshire, free bus routes exist in the centres of Bradford, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Wakefield, Rotherham and Sheffield. Bristol will launch a new zero-fare bus next year. And Manchester has a free shuttle bus.

News
peopleTop Gear presenter and all-round controversialist is at it again
Sport
Aaron Ramsey celebrates after opening the scoring in Arsenal's win over Hull `
sport
News
peopleActress speaks out against historic sexual assault claims, saying things have 'gone quite far now'

Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvReview: New 10-part series brims with characters and stories

VIDEO
Life & Style
Guests enjoy food and cocktail parings by Chefs Jimmy Bannos, Jimmy Bannos Jr, Daniel Rose and Mindy Segal with mixologists Josh King and Alex Gara at Bounty & Barrel: A Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Dinner Series at Heaven on Seven on April 9, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois.
food + drinkSprinkle Palcohol 'on almost any dish' for 'an extra kick' firm says...
Arts & Entertainment
Shaun Evans as Endeavour interviews a prisoner as he tries to get to the bottom of a police cover up
tvReview: Second series comes to close with startling tale of police corruption and child abuse
Arts & Entertainment
Schwarzenegger winning Mr. Universe 1969
arts + entsCan you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
News
politicsLabour launches the 'completely hollow' Easter Clegg
Sport
Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring in Liverpool's 3-2 win over Norwich
sport Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
News
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth-II by David Bailey which has been released to mark her 88th birthday
peoplePortrait released to mark monarch's 88th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
The star of the sitcom ‘Miranda’ is hugely popular with mainstream audiences
TVMiranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Arts & Entertainment
Last, but by no means least, is Tommy Cooper and the fez. This style of hat became a permanent trademark of his act.
comedyNot Like That, Like This centres on alleged domestic abuse
Arts & Entertainment
Oxegen in Ireland has been axed as promoters decide it is 'no longer viable'
arts + ents Promoters have axed the event as it is 'no longer viable in current form'
News
The troubled star is set to give fans the biggest insight into her life away from the headlines
people Star made the announcement during the final episode of the programme, entitled Lindsay

Day In a Page

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

The man who could have been champion of the world

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
Didn’t she do well?

Didn’t she do well?

Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
Before they were famous

Before they were famous

Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players