Does free public transit boost ridership?

Not as much as you might think.

 For more than a year, Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, has offered its public transportation services for free to residents. The assumption was, of course, that if you make public transit free more people will ditch their cars and transit ridership will skyrocket. 

Well, the results are in from the latest experiment in free fares and results weren't what you might expect.

According to a new study [pdf] -- as reported by Citiscope -- analyzing the impact of the free fare policy, researchers at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden found that while transit demand increased three percent in the city, the free fare policy only helped increase transit ridership by 1.2 percent. The other 1.8 percent of the growth comes from upgrades like increased service and the expansion of transit priority lanes.

So, one year into the Tallinn free fare experiment, is transit demand increasing? Yes, but there's isn't a mad rush of car sales because residents are turning to transit.

And one unintended consequence of the policy, people walked less and took transit more.

But does that mean a city should ditch the idea of free transit? Not necessarily. 

The report says that the increase in ridership is relatively low compared to other free fare programs. That can be explained by the fact that the city's transit fares were already low. In addition, transit ridership was already relatively high (around 40 percent).

Tallinn isn't the first city to come up with the idea of free transit. In Moscow, you can do a few squats to get a free subway ticket . In Baltimore,  circulator buses run for free along targeted routes. But in Hasselt, Belgium, which first abolished transit fares citywide in 1997, the free transit program was canceled last year because of budget concerns, despite increasing ridership by more than 13 percent. 

Budget problems are the crux of many transit programs. Make them free and cities have to be more innovative and creative in order for them to be sustainable. Back in Tallinn, they've decided to partially fund the program by charging tourists and suburbanites, while letting residents ride free. And that has led to another source of funding, new residents, as Citiscope reports:

More than 10,000 people registered as Tallinn residents in 2013, nearly three times more than registered in 2012. They contribute new annual revenues of about €10 million — almost as much as the lost farebox revenue of €12 million. "If all the registrants were taxpayers," says Deputy Mayor Aas, "then the project costs of free transportation would be covered."

Maybe ridership numbers will follow.

Photo: Flickr/One_day_in_my_garden

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