Tallinn: Estonia has become the first European country to offer free bus travel across nearly all of its territory, in a move aimed at limiting rural flight and fossil fuel consumption.
“There are cities and regions in Europe where public transportation is free but so far there hasn’t been a state-wide free public transportation solution of this kind,” Kadri Simson, the minister of economics and infrastructure, told AFP on Thursday.
Eleven out of the small Baltic state’s 15 counties began to offer the free regional bus transport this month.
“We were looking at how to liven up rural regions, how to stop the exodus from the countryside to cities,” said Simson, explaining that the programme was born out of discussions between the central government and counties.
“Free bus transport at the county-level is meant primarily to create mobility options for people in rural regions, to guarantee them access to everyday services,” she said, adding that the programme is also designed to help Estonia meet EU greenhouse gas emission targets.
To that end, Estonia’s parliament resolved last year to limit the country’s fossil fuels consumption so that use in 2030 would remain at 2012 levels.
“This means that we need to find ways to encourage people to travel in a more eco-friendly way, for example, by using public transport,” Simson told AFP, insisting this could help limit the number of passenger cars.
– Impact on trains? –
Harly Kirspuu, a 30-year-old film festival organiser told AFP that the buses he uses to travel all over Estonia for work “haven’t become worse” in terms of service since becoming free earlier this month.
Free bus rides have been available in Estonia’s capital Tallinn since 2013 and Mayor Taavi Aas insists the programme is a success despite steady growth in the number of cars in the city.
Half of Tallinn public transport users say they began using the service more often since it became free, according to the city’s 2017 annual citizen satisfaction survey.
However, critics raised concerns that, among other things, free buses could negatively impact passenger traffic on the Elron state-owned railway network.
But the train operator itself insists it isn’t worried, boasting instead that passenger numbers have risen by eight percent so far this year.
“The main question is whether the county bus network will support trains or compete with them, and this applies both to free and paid bus lines,” Ronnie Kongo, Elron’s director of sales and development, told AFP.
“In the longer term, railway traffic can, above all, grow and develop in the regions where the number of passengers grows too,” he added.