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Tallinn is one of the two European capitals to offer free public transport

These EU cities have embraced free public transport

These EU cities have embraced free public transport

The growing trend in basic service provision has its own name – zero-fare

Transport mobility as a basic human right and free service: Who would’ve thought this could be possible some decades ago? However, in the EU more and more places are starting to embrace the idea and offer their residents (and tourists) the chance to move about their city without financial worries.

Nowadays, comfortable life as a modern urban denizen is seen as a necessity in prospering societies. But it’s not only that. Concerns, such as CO2 emission from private transport, overcrowding, traffic congestion and the need for more spaces have been weighed as issues that need solutions. And then there was the war in Ukraine and the consequent rise in fuel prices that showed the precariousness of having to rely on individual car ownership.

The Luxembourg government was the first to respond, making the country back in 2020, the first in the world to offer free public transport and beyond. It will soon be followed by Malta, which will take the same step on 1 October 2022. These, however, are tiny countries with small populations.

Making public transport free across the board in larger societies could still be too complex and inefficient. Most recently, the case of Germany’s 9-euro ticket experiment showed that it can lead to overcrowding and problems during critical moments like public holidays.

More practical and easier to manage is the introduction of free public transport in towns, districts and cities. If it proves successful over time, it could then be scaled up to a larger area. The approach is also known as zero-fare or free-fare transport. In Europe, it was actually first tried in a suburb of Toulouse called Colomiers in 1971 and the service there survived until 2016, when it closed down due to reorganization and inefficiency.

Things are only looking up though as increasing number of European local authorities are showing their dedication to the provision of public goods that benefit the people. And they are not afraid to experiment in uncharted territory, such as zero-fare transport.

European cities with free-fare transport

Following a referendum in 2013, the inhabitants of Tallinn (Estonia’s capital) voted overwhelmingly in favour of free public transportation. The problem in Tallinn can be compared to the problem in Luxembourg City: thousands of commuters travel to the city centre every day. Plus, many people with low incomes struggled to pay. The system has been functioning without any major hitches for almost a decade now, even if analysts say it hasn’t led to a reduction in private cars on the streets.

In the French city of Dunkirk, steps to provide free buses and trains, however, did lead to less traffic. Since 2018, residents can travel on public transport for free.

A study conducted a few months after the switch found that it had discouraged locals to drive their cars. Although two-thirds of respondents said they had depended on cars, over half said they were now regularly riding buses to get around. About 5% even said the availability of free buses helped convince them to sell their car or not buy a second vehicle.

Aubagne (also in France) was a pioneer in implementing the first free tram network in the world, and public transport has been free there since 2009. Seen at first as a simple test, the initiative turned out to be a great success. After three years, there were 5,000 fewer cars driving around the city every day, a decrease of 10 per cent. The popularity of public transport also rose by 235 per cent.

Cascais is, so far, the only municipality in Portugal to have opted for free-fare public transit. And it is happy with the results.

Anyone who has heard of Livigno is probably also an avid skier. This village in the Italian Alps offers its public transport free of charge from 7:30 in the morning until 20:00 in the evening. The town is very clear to its visitors: nobody needs a car to discover it and this sure sounds like a good way to stand out among winter destinations.

Rather than skiing in Italy, you might want to explore some island vibes in the North. Here comes Ærø, a charming small Danish isle, where you can ride the bus for free all you want. It is known as the sunniest place in all of Denmark and its colourful houses and modest locals make it an easy-to-choose destination. Keep in mind that the ferry that gets you to the island, however, isn’t free of charge.

Many people would rejoice if Amsterdam were to implement a completely free public transit network. And while this is still not a reality, the good news is that the city ferries floating on its canals are indeed free to pedestrians, cyclists and moped riders.

Not only a Western phenomenon

If we turn our gaze to Eastern Europe, we would find that there are notable examples of free transport as well.

Since 2011, people can use free public transportation in Frýdek-Místek, a town in the east of the Czech Republic. The number of passengers increased by as much as 40 per cent during the first two years. What’s really cool is that the free buses take you easily to villages further away and thus go beyond the town’s borders to provide a service for the adjacent regions. The longest free ride takes you 30 kilometres further to the touristy Beskydy mountain.

The regional expansion aspect of zero-fare services has also been introduced in parts of the Lower Silesia region in Poland. Free transport exists in Polkowice, an industrial city of 22,000 inhabitants, and in some agglomerations of its canton, in Lubin and throughout its canton and in some agglomerations of the canton of Legnica, an industrial city with 100,000 inhabitants.

Samokov is a town in Bulgaria with about 27,000 inhabitants, lying at the foot of the Rila Mountains on the way to the country’s famous Borovets ski resort. The initiative was initially intended for residents only, but two years after its launch, public transport was offered free of charge to everyone.

Velenje is the sixth largest city in Slovenia, and one of the 100 recently selected Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030. It has a network of free yellow buses that transport you around the city. What makes this city so special, besides its sustainable character, is Lake Velenje, the deepest lake in the entire country. Next to the city, you will find a green oasis, which you can reach for free by bus.

These are some notable examples of European cities, which would be also worth visiting this summer in order to try their free transit offer first-hand. Whether they will serve as an inspiration for the scaling-up of zero-fare transport on a wider scale remains to be seen.

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