National Audit Office: the current organisation of county bus traffic and the possibility of free travel have not contributed to the preference for public transport

Priit Simson | 3/10/2021 | 12:00 AM

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TALLINN, 10 March 2021 – Even though the demand for county public transport has increased, the number of public transport users has not reached the target set, which is a quarter of all people commuting to work. More than half of the people commuting to work continue driving to work by car and there are no indications that they are now preferring public transport, the National Audit Office concluded in its audit report. Furthermore, the National Audit Office stated that better survey data are needed to determine the mobility needs of the people and that the funding of public transport centres across Estonia is unequal.

One of the aims of establishing a 0-euro ticket price on county bus routes was to increase the number of public transport users. "What is positive is that the decline in the share of public transport users has stopped for a couple of years," said Auditor General Janar Holm. "Unfortunately, not a significant number of new users have been attracted to public transport despite the fact that over the recent years, the state has allocated more and more funds to cover the costs of county bus transport and has allowed people to travel by bus free of charge in most counties."

On county bus routes, the number of journeys increased by around 15% in 2019 compared to 2018 and according to the Transport Administration, the increase is due to the more frequent use of public transport by the current existing passengers, the continuous urban sprawl, the addition of previously not registered passengers to statistics and the closure of commercial lines. According to Statistics Estonia, 20.6% of people used public transport to commute to work in 2019, which is 2% less than in 2014. Compared to driving, the use of public transport is not attractive enough for people and getting from A to B by public transport can be inconvenient and time-consuming.

Auditor General Janar Holm pointed out the rapid growth of state expenditures in funding public transport. "In a relatively short period of time, the costs of county public transport can be expected to triple," said Holm. Before the introduction of free public transport in 2017, county bus transport was supported out of the state budget with 21.9 million euros, and in 2019, with 43.1 million euros. The forecasts of the Transport Administration show that in 2024, the organisation of county bus transport will cost the state 64.6 million euros. "In a situation where the costs associated with the 0-euro ticket price increase significantly year by year, it is appropriate to ask whether Estonia will be able to maintain such a system," said Auditor General Janar Holm. “An option could be that the funds could be channelled to improve the route network and 0-euro tickets granted only to those who need them to cope with their lives."

The National Audit Office points out that the bus network may not meet the needs of all people as the actual mobility needs have been under-researched. "The network of county bus lines has so far been developed based on the needs of current public transport users," said Auditor General Janar Holm. "Changing habits is difficult, but if we were to increase the number of passengers and get more car users to use buses, we should be more aware of the preferences of car users and find out what would make them change their habits."

On the whole, Estonia is sparsely populated, which makes the economically viable planning of public transport difficult and expensive. In most cases, public transport in low density areas is organised by regular bus lines. This means long and slow lines and half-empty buses. Right now, there are few alternative transport options available. The data of the Transport Administration showed that some of the regular bus lines with on-demand stops are very expensive to maintain. Using the data of the Transport Administration, the National Audit Office calculated that in 2019, the average cost per passenger for one county bus line was 6.31 euros. At the same time, there were bus lines where this cost was over 100 euros, which is covered from the state budget. The state has not referred public transport operators to look for alternatives to regular line services, which in cooperation with modern information technology options would help organise public transport more flexibly and economically. An alternative can be, for example, passenger transport based on demand, i.e. upon reservation by minibus or car.

The National Audit Office found that the principles of bus transport organisation differ quite a lot across Estonia. The responsibilities and tasks of the organising agencies are not uniform and this leads to unjustified differences in funding and an increase in public spending.

The Public Transport Act does not provide an opportunity to clearly distinguish lines as county and local lines and it is not clear which line must be managed and funded by the state through a regional public transport centre and which by the municipality. This has led to a situation where the division of lines is decided on a case-by-case basis and municipalities are treated differently. Thus, some municipalities have had the opportunity to organise the mobility of their people largely by county transport, while others have had to organise the transport themselves and pay for it. "It is not just a question of money, but of equal treatment of municipalities, and that if it is not clear who has to organise bus services and pay for the costs, important bus lines may be left unopened altogether due to disputes, or reasonable changes not made in optimising the route network," commented Auditor General Janar Holm.

The audit showed that so far, there is no clear agreement on the funding principles of public transport centres or the tasks for which funds are allocated to the centres from the state budget, and on how to use the funds sustainably. Therefore, there is a difference between the experience of public transport centres in using subsidies and the costs, and the state pays more for organising bus transport in some counties than for bus transport in other counties. The rate of state support to cover the costs of public transport centres, including public regular service contracts in 2019 ranged from 0.83 euros per line kilometre in Northern Estonia to 1.31 euros per line kilometre in Pärnu county. Also, in 2019, local government subsidies to public transport centres varied, ranging from 0 euros in Tartu county to 630,000 euros in Northern Estonia.

The National Audit Office recommended that the Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure oblige the Transport Administration, public transport centres and municipalities to consider offering alternative mobility options instead of regular bus lines in low density areas. The National Audit Office recommended that the Transport Administration and public transport centres change the public transport route network based on the actual mobility needs of the population for existing lines and assess the economic feasibility of opening new lines, taking alternative mobility options into account as well. The National Audit Office also recommended that the Director General of the Transport Administration develop clear rules for funding public transport centres and for efficient use of the funds in organising county public transport, organise or create new information systems assembling public transport data and implement a common national ticketing system.

Background:

The National Audit Office analysed whether in the period 2017–2019 economic feasibility, i.e. purposefulness and economy of the expenditures has been taken into account in the planning, organisation and funding of county bus transport, and whether the county bus transport network has been planned based on the mobility needs of the people.

The institution coordinating national county and commercial bus transport is the Transport Administration, which has delegated the tasks of organising public transport in the counties to nine public transport centres and the rural municipality governments of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. In 2019, transportation was organised on a total of 1,502 county bus lines. In 2019, 72 municipalities had local bus lines, making a total of 654 rural municipality / urban lines.

The right to travel free of charge on the basis of a public service contract is valid on the Tartu, Jõgeva, Valga, Põlva, Võru, Viljandi, Ida-Viru, Järva, Lääne, Saare and Hiiu county bus lines. In Lääne county, riding a bus is free of charge in some regions.

 

Priit Simson
Head of Communications of the National Audit Office of Estonia
+372 640 0102
+372 5615 0280
priit.simson@riigikontroll.ee
press@riigikontroll.ee
http://www.riigikontroll.ee/

 

  • Posted: 3/10/2021 12:00 AM
  • Last Update: 3/9/2021 9:49 PM
  • Last Review: 3/9/2021 9:49 PM

The National Audit Office recommended to change the public transport route network based on the actual mobility needs of the population.

Sille Annuk/ Postimees/ Scanpix Baltics

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