The Tartu Perspective

There is an urban legend about a French radio broadcast during a surprise snowstorm, warning motorists to be extra careful on the roads … and if you are overtaken on the freeway by a car with Swedish or Estonian license plates, do not try to keep up with them – unlike you, the driver knows what they’re doing. Indeed, Estonia is one of the last countries in the EU to allow studded tires in the winter. But in other ways, this Northern nation shares enough similarities with the island of Malta to perhaps make a useful contribution to a debate about public transport.

By any standard, I am a car guy. I’ve been fascinated with things that go “vroom” for as long as I can remember, and my own stable has been modest but varied, from tiny city runabouts to big rumbling Volvo estates. My last motor was a Ford Puma, a sportscar renowned for being cheap to own and far more fun to drive in real-world conditions than most BMWs or Audis. Mine was bright red; it had white rally stripes down the middle; and yes, they added fifteen horsepower.

But early this March, the car went off to a new (and very excited) owner, someone who agreed to the fairly high price I wanted for the car (more than I paid for it myself, two years prior). My initial motivation was to save up some extra cash and get something newer and better: while the 13-year-old Puma was still a pleasure to drive, I’d found that I spent too much time behind the wheel with three passengers and a boot full of luggage. In Tartu, Estonia’s second biggest city with a population of 100,000 (many of them students), I only ever really needed a car when I was taking a road trip with friends. So the little Ford would have to make room for something more spacious.

It has been almost four months, and I still have not bought a car. Part of it is because I have found nothing that was as fun to drive without losing my license. In Malta, with year-round sunshine (or at least above-freezing temperatures), I would be happy with a rear-wheel-drive roadster – but I need something far more practical in a country where annual temperatures range from +30C to -30C. More importantly, I have found that I can get away with not having a car very well indeed – especially since I treated myself to a bicycle, my first one since I was in my early teens. (No rally stripes on this one, but I’ve got a few ideas.)

Because the bike allows me to ignore the restrictions of one-way streets and use pedestrian bridges over the river that bisects this town, I found that in reality, my work commute is as fast when powered by pedals as it is with internal combustion – something that is probably obvious to experienced cyclists. Nothing in this town is outside reasonable bicycling range, and a single guy’s shopping will fit on a luggage rack nicely enough.

The idea of settling for the reasonable seems to be supported by the Estonian government. In a recent deal, the state handed over a large chunk of its unused carbon credits to Japan (since they are calculated against a baseline that was established when Estonia was still home to Soviet factories, we have a larger pollution quota than we know what to do with). In return, Japanese industrial corporations will cover the country in a network of charging stations for electric vehicles. The government will get 500 free electric cars (for use by social workers), and subsidize private purchases of another 500.

The little Mitsubishi runabouts included in the deal don’t have a lot of range, but will probably serve their purpose – and the subsidy covers any EU-certified electric vehicle. The best of these can’t quite make it from Tallinn to Tartu without a stopover, but the Japanese rapid charging standard means a fillup will only take around a half-hour; still not as convenient as regular cars, but approaching reasonable. And Estonia has one of the lowest population densities in Europe; this kind of infrastructure would make a lot more sense on a tiny crowded island.
As for myself, I will still be buying a car sooner or later – certainly before winter hits. It still won’t be a strict necessity. A friend who has one small child and another on the way insists that taking taxies when you can’t just walk is both easier and cheaper than maintaining a car; I haven’t crunched the numbers myself, but I cannot confidently argue against the idea. Still, I will want something to reliably move me across town and country when the snow is on the ground; maybe a small 4×4. It won’t be quite as fun to drive next summer… but that’s why I am getting a motorcycle license.


Andrei blogs regularly at Antyx (an inside perspective for an outside audience).


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