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04/26/2013

Tallinn's mayor says fare is fair

Tallinn free ride blog
A public bus and tram move side by side in the Estonian capital. Tallinn is the world’s first capital to introduce free public transport for all of its residents. (AP Photo/City of Tallinn)

You walk to the nearest streetcar, hop on, and carry on without passing go – or dropping your fare in the box.

You're not dreaming, you're in Estonia’s capital Tallinn, where an electronic uhiskaart, or free pass, is your ticket to a transport of delight.

Last year controversial left wing Mayor Edgar Savisaar wheeled out a scheme to green the city, cut congestion, and give austerity-stung residents a break. He calls it the “13th month salary,” claiming that families can save that much by foregoing the fare cost for a year.

As the average monthly income in the eurozone’s poorest country is about $1,200, that means a lot. In the first quarter of 2013, passenger numbers climbed 10 per cent and auto traffic has fallen by up to 15 per cent.  A city opinion poll says that 90 per cent of residents are happy.

But not all of them.

The tough-minded Reform Party (no connection with Canada) calls it populist propaganda and a waste of taxpayer’s money. There are mutters of city bankruptcy. And taxi-drivers have seen a disastrous 25 per cent decline in fares.

But free riders aren’t complaining – yet.

Savisaar’s scheme has a catch. Only registered Tallinners are eligible for a pass (sorry tourists.)  And that means a tax bill will be landing sometime soon.

In the first quarter of this year, the city’s registration rolls have increased by a record 5,000, and Deputy Mayor Taavi Aas says that will make up for $16 million in lost ticket sales.

The no-pay system could become a magnet for new housing and development. Or it could begin to crumble under the weight of its growing success.

For now, Tallinners are just relaxing and enjoying the ride.

Olivia Ward was the Star’s European Bureau Chief from 1997-2002. She has covered conflict, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Middle East and South Asia, winning national and international awards.

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