Estonia's capital gives residents free rides

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) - Looking for a free ride? Go live in Tallinn.

Estonia's capital became the world's first to introduce free public transport for all of its residents. All that is required is a transit pass showing you are a registered Tallinner - and the city's buses, streetcars and trams are yours for free.

"I live on a tight budget since I don't have too much work right now," said Ms Mare Tulp, who recently registered as a Tallinn resident. "I need to save money wherever I can, so I'm very happy with the free public transit scheme. This is a good thing for the common person."

Three months after launching the initiative, city officials are hailing the experiment as a success, though skeptics call it an expensive, populist trick ahead of local elections.

The free-ride scheme is the brainchild of Mayor Edgar Savisaar, who wants to reduce congestion and pollution while alleviating expenses for the city's poor.

Mr Savisaar has even dubbed the programme the "13th monthly salary" since, he claims, families will be able to save a month's salary now that they can get around Tallinn for free.

Deputy Mayor Taavi Aas says the experiment, which will cost the city some 12 million euros (S$19 million) annually in lost ticket sales, has surpassed expectations.

Passenger numbers are up 10 per cent, while the number of cars on city streets has fallen by as much as 15 per cent, according to Tallinn's transport authority.

A recent opinion poll commissioned by the city showed that nine out of 10 Tallinn residents are satisfied with the project.

"People now move around the city more frequently during weekends," Mr Aas said. "This means they also spend more money, which boosts the economy."

City officials say it is too early to tell how much the city's economy has been stimulated in this way.

But the programme is expected to boost the city's tax revenue because the registration requirement is essentially winning the city more taxable residents.

According to city calculations, some 40,000 people living and working in Tallinn are registered in other cities and towns. But more than 5,000 new Tallinn residents have been registered since Jan 1, compared with 3,600 residency registrations during all of last year.

With 1,000 new residents equaling an estimated 1 million euros in city tax revenue, the current registration rate would offset the programme's costs this year, Mr Aas said.

The initiative covers buses, streetcars and trolleybuses in Tallinn - a city of 425,000. The only catch is that one must be registered as a city resident and get a transit pass for two euros.

Once on board, you must place the pass on an electronic reader. If you do not, expect a fine of up to 40 euros should a ticket controller emerge.

Installing the system was a breeze in tech-savvy Estonia, birthplace of Skype and pioneer of online voting.

Many European capitals, including London, have similar electronic fare systems, but the difference is Tallinners never have to top up the card with money.

The fact that the Tallinn card is personal, essentially allowing the transit authority to monitor every resident's travel pattern, has raised some "big-brother-is-watching-you" concerns. City officials have responded that tracking travel patterns will help them improve transit service.

To be sure, Tallinn is not a trailblazer with free transportation. Many small European towns, such as Hasselt in Belgium and Colomiers in France have tried it, as well as some Chinese cities. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has mulled over the idea.

But Tallinn is the first capital and the largest city after Changning City in central China to introduce free public transport, Mr Aas said.

He said the project's two risks - insufficient capacity and the risk of derelicts spending entire days in buses - have not materialized so far.

Critics contend the experiment is doomed and will bankrupt Tallinn. Lawmaker Valdo Randpere from the conservative Reform Party, the ruling party in Estonia's center-right government, said the centre-left Mayor Savisaar is wasting taxpayer money for his "own purposes and propaganda".

"There are lots of other areas where the city should invest but doesn't have the money," said Mr Randpere, a former member of the Tallinn City Council. "It all sounds nice, but it's a lot of populism."

Some Tallinn residents groused about the affect the scheme is having on their business.

Andrea Green, manager of a Tallinn-based taxi company Saksa Takso, said Tallinn's free transportation is undermining entrepreneurship and risks taking jobs from cab drivers. He said orders declined 25 per cent in the first two months of the year compared with the same period in 2012.

"The city should invest in improving the condition of Tallinn's streets instead," he said.

But for Tallinners on a moderate income, the free rides are a gift.

"It gives you freedom," said Ms Tulp, as she boarded a bus on her way home to a suburb of Tallinn. "It's not just money."

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