Could public transport in the UK ever be free?

In a month's time, using Tallinn's public transport system won't cost a cent. Could we ever see similar moves here? Chris Beanland finds out.

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 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 villes in France – Châteauroux, near Orleans, and 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 such as 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 cannoning 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 are common: in the centres of Bradford, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Wakefield, Rotherham and Sheffield. Bristol will launch a new zero-fare bus next year. Manchester has a free shuttle bus plodding around its centre – but some locals want everything from buses to Metrolink trams to be free. "Free public transport is an idea whose time has come," Steph Prior, from Manchester's Free Public Transport Campaign, says. "It would enable people to manage despite dwindling incomes, create employment and reduce the need for expensive road building."

She adds: "Where this idea has been properly developed, benefits far exceeded expectations."

Tallinn believes it can make it work. "We know many cities are watching and hope this is the beginning – spreading the idea of free public transport over Europe," Pukk says.

But when even the sustainable transport charity Sustrans seems lukewarm, perhaps the idea needs more finessing?

"It'd be hard to argue that a completely free system should take priority over government spending on health and education, but we need affordable fares," the charity's policy adviser Joe Williams says. "Of course walking and cycling are pretty much free." And maybe that's the only kind of free transport that we can all agree on.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Recruitment Genius: Centre Manager

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Guru Careers: Accountant

    £28 - 45k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Accountant is needed to take control of the ...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Assistant Manager

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hotel in Chadderton is a p...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before