TALLINN, Estonia — Last January, Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, did something that no other city its size had done before: It made all public transit in the city free for residents.
City officials made some bold predictions about what would result. There would be a flood of new passengers on Tallinn’s buses and trams — as many as 20 percent more riders. Carbon emissions would decline substantially as drivers left their cars at home and rode transit instead. And low-income residents would gain new access to jobs that they previously couldn’t get to. As Mayor Edgar Savisaar likes to say, zeroing out commuting costs was for some people as good as receiving a 13th month of salary.
One year later, this city of 430,000 people has firmly established itself as the leader of a budding international free-transit movement. Tallinn has hosted two conferences for city officials, researchers and journalists from across Europe to discuss the idea. The city has an English-language website devoted to its experiment. And promotional materials have proclaimed Tallinn the “capital of free public transport.”