Daniel Gabaldón-Estevan, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Valencia University

Urban areas are of increasing relevance when it comes to sustainability. Firstly, about half of the world’s population now lives in cities (increasing to 60% by 2030). Secondly, cities are nowadays responsible for levels of resource consumption and waste generation (of all kinds) that are higher relative to their share of the world’s population. Thirdly, cities are more vulnerable to disruptive events that can lead to restrictions on the provision of resources and to changes in the environment caused by climate change. And finally, because they concentrate key resources (political, social, cultural…) cities are seen as strategic scenarios where to experiment and develop solutions to cope with the prevailing sustainability challenges driven by major social and environmental transformations. Urban agglomerations can therefore be seen as complex innovation systems where human activities are shaped in order to transform societies towards sustainable development.

In this research[1], we focused on the case of an environmental innovation regarding transport policy, the implementation of the free fare policy on public transport for all inhabitants of Tallinn, Estonia. Tallinn, with 439,000 inhabitants in 2015, is the capital of Estonia and the largest city in the country. However, over the last two decades the share of public transport trips has decreased dramatically. After a public opinion poll in 2012, in which over 75% of the participants voted for a fare-free transportation system (FFPTS) in Tallinn, the new policy was implemented on 1st January 2013. From that date residents registered in Tallinn could use all public transport services (buses, trams, trolley-buses) operated by city-run operators for free. Later the free fare system was implemented also on trains within Tallinn.

This work evaluated the implementation of the free fare policy on public transport in Tallinn as a case study experiment regarding innovation in transport policy with potential environmental consequences. We evaluated this experiment by comparing the previous with the actual situation regarding several indicators such as public transport use, change in modal split, pollution, etc. This was done by using existing data records, and by interviewing relevant stakeholders to identify the main enablers of and obstacles to the use of the fare-free transportation system in Tallinn as well as possible limitations of this experiment to contribute to sustainable development.

In exploring the main enablers of and obstacles to the implementation of the fare-free transportation system in Tallinn, we applied a multi-level model of social innovation (Geels et al 2001) that allowed for systematic exploration of the role of institutional regime (market, policy and science interactions) and the impact of the so-called ‘landscape’ level of societal values, overall paradigms and megatrends that both shape the success of innovation in socio-technical systems. The research allows us to deepen our understanding of innovation governance in relation to mitigation and adaptation, as well as identifying effective ways of stimulating and diffusing experiments on policy and governance innovations.

Our preliminary results show that the interlink between local and national politics have a determinant effect not only on the initiatives taken and the support they achieve but also on the interpretation of the success of those initiatives and their stability. Also, the discourses build around those initiatives and “unexpected” consequences of the policy are reported. In the following we present some of the preliminary ideas extracted from the interviews:

It is clear from the interviewees’ perspective that the idea of the FFPTS in Tallinn had been for some time in the Estonian political arena proposed by social-democrats for another city in Estonia (Tartu) and by the former Major of Tallinn, Hardo Aasmäe. However it had not been formally considered by Tallinn transport authorities until the Major of Tallinn, Edgar Savisaar, put it on Tallinn’s political agenda. The specificities of Estonian political alliances and population distribution are key to understanding not only the political opportunity of this proposal, but also the support and resistance it encounters.

Another result that emerges from the analysis of the interviews is that the FFPTS in Tallinn did not come so much as a publicly discussed and integrated environmental innovation regarding transport policy but as one of several measures implemented to increase the quality of public transport in Tallinn and to reverse the tendency of decreasing number of passengers. The interviewees highlighted the link between this specific measure and the local elections one and a half years ahead of when this proposal was re-launched by Savisaar. In fact one of the criticisms is the lack of a coordinate plan, or, in the words of the interviews “not such a thing as a plan exists”. The environmental side of public transport dimension has been exploited afterwards as the city council has become interested in gaining the competition for the European Green Capital Award in 2018.

The main controversy refers to the evaluation of the success of this FFPTS policy. Evidence regarding its success is inconclusive due to a lack of accurate measurements of public transport passengers and car users both before (when validation was not compulsory) and after (when validation is done only by 1/3 of travellers) the FFPTS was implemented. This picture, due to the lack of accurate measurements, becomes more blurred, as during the aftermath of its implementation, the city has undergone important infrastructural reform (the variability registered in street crossings might be due to city access and street works and also to tram railway renewal), there is no specific available data on private vehicles petrol consumption, and according to experts even air quality is more dependent on climatic conditions than on traffic.

The controversy also affects the (dis-)connectivity of this policy with other measures also affecting mobility in Tallinn, such us the development of the bus priority lines, the acquisition of new vehicles (trams and buses), the renovation of the tram railway, the Park & Ride facilities in the peripheries of the city, the new transport card (ühiskart), and the inconsistencies of other policies such as the parking policy in the city (regarding prices, zones, private parking, city centre residents parking facilities, or the requisite of new parking in new developments), or the slow public transport connectivity between peripheries in the city. Therefore the idea that the original purpose of this proposal was not related to the promotion of green or sustainable mobility in the city is also rooted in the lack of more challenging policies regarding the promotion of intermodal public transport, especially with sub-urban areas, and the real transfer of users from private car use to public transport. To the point that one interviewee said “there is no public strategy on the transport policy in Tallinn”.

One unexpected result has been the increase on the city budget that accompanied the implementation of the FFPTS in Tallinn, the cost of which (about 16 million €) has been self-financed thanks to new taxes due to the increase of residents registered in the city. Most interviewees agree that the majority of those new registered residents (c. 16000) were actually (none-registered) residents in the city of Tallinn before the FFPTS was implemented, and that they have officially changed their register to gain benefit from this new free transport policy. Also, an extended criticism to this policy is that it only provides free service to Tallinn residents and therefore has not challenged the problems derived from suburbanization, as it does not cover neighboring villages.

Within the arguments against the FFPTS policy, interviewees claimed that this new policy had to do more with a “populist” move to assure re-election; that it has not achieved a significant increase in public transport use (only of about 1-2%). On the other hand, it is claimed that this policy has increased the use of public transport (of about 10%), specially favoring lower income families and promoting economic activity in the city.

This blog is a summary of work done in collaboration with Hans Orru, Kati Orru and Clemens Kaufmann, and is submitted to:

  • The Special Issue at the Journal of Cleaner Production on ‘The opportunities and roles of experimentation in addressing climate change’ under Prof. Mikael Hildén. (Abstract selected to be submitted as a full paper)
  • The XII Conference on Transport Engineering (CIT 2016) to be held in Valencia (Spain), from June 7-9, 2016. (Abstract accepted)


[1] This study is an outcome of COST Action IS1309 ‘Innovations in Climate Governance: Sources, Patterns and Effects’ (INOGOV)

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