Opinion Festival panel: Estonia could repeat 4G success in transport turn

Electric car chargers.
Electric car chargers. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

If Estonia managed to cover a sparsely populated country in a 4G network, switching to green transport should not be an insurmountable task, British green transport pioneers found at the Paide Opinion Festival. Local experts said that cities and rural areas require separate approaches in Estonia.

The "How ready are we?" debate was held in the Opinion Festival's Earth section on August 13. Estonia's switch to green transport was debated by Kai Realo (Circle K), Tauri Tuvikene (Tallinn University), Kaia Treier (Environmental Investments Center), Peter Marland (Milton Keynes Council) and Fraser Crichton (Dundee City Council). The debate moderator was Ragmar Saksing (Tehnopol). Excerpts from the conversation.

Tauri Tuvikene: My three tenets are that cars should, firstly, be electric, secondly, there could be fewer of them and, thirdly, we should be concentrating on the pedestrian.

Peter Marland: Milton Keynes has more electric vehicle charging stations than anywhere else in the world. Transport is a tool that is closely tied to other walks of life and is not a goal in itself. Transport development needs to consider the whole picture: if a young person in Estonia fails to find work close to where they life and has to commute to work in Tallinn, they need a car. Because cars became an inseparable part of our comfortable way of life in the 1970s, moving away from them requires a broader view – for example, making sure people can find work close to home. Defeating climate change cannot depend solely on wealthy Westerners in wealthy Western cities.

Kai Realo: From the private consumer's point of view, the decision has already been made for us. Because Estonia does not manufacture cars, we need to use imported EVs. Integrating electric vehicles into our current fleet over the next decade is the challenge. The private consumer has no option but to adjust.

Fraser Crichton: I would not refer to an EV as a car. It is part of wider infrastructure and system, how we construct buildings. You are not just switching to another type of vehicle, you are entering an entirely new system.

Peter Marland: I do not own a car, I lease one. As the world moves forward, I will soon have a transport account that will allow me to use various modes of transport based on my needs. We are testing a demand-based transport system in Milton Keynes. Its wider adoption will free up land from under personal vehicles that can be used to erect cheaper real estate. In other words, changes in transport go beyond transport. A transport account that turns mobility into a service is the future.

Tauri Tuvikene: I always emphasize the link between city planning and mobility when talking to students. The concept of a 15-minute-city means living as close as possible to work and other services and not needing over 15 minutes to get there. This is perhaps possible in Estonian cities, while they are also expanding outward from the center. However, it is impossible to get by without a car in rural parts of Estonia. In other words, if we want to render EVs a benefit, we need to concentrate on rural areas where one really needs a car. We can walk in cities.

Kaia Treier: I'm one of only a handful of people who generate their own energy. I was the only one arriving in an EV when I drove from Western Estonia to Paide today. This needs to change, there should be more EVs. That said, the Environmental Investments Center's EV grant is very popular.

Fraser Crichton: If Estonia is worried about whether recharging EVs using dirty energy can solve anything, people can look for off-the-grid solutions. For example, we equipped charging stations with solar panels in Dundee. I believe we need to generate our own power instead of importing it.

Kai Realo: Estonia needs infrastructure investments if EVs are to become a thing. Looking at Norway, Circle K has separate charging stations that do not offer fossil fuels. They allow you to top off your EV for a range of 100-150 km in 10-15 minutes. We do not need rapid charging stations everywhere in Estonia, while they could be conveniently located. For example, charging the car overnight is fine at home where people are not in a hurry. You would have fast chargers in the shops and parking lots and ultrafast chargers at service stations. People want convenience and an EV can become the next smartphone that might need to be topped off spontaneously.

Peter Marland: Cars are much more than a means of transport. We have gotten used to their convenience. No one would be at this festival in Paide without cars. Which is why people will not adopt anything below their current living standard.

Kai Realo: But who should spearhead transport innovation?

Peter Marland: That depends on management proficiency and demand. Those who care will adopt electric transport first. Some will adopt it later and some never will.

Fraser Crichton: This adoption should start at the top. In other words, the government needs to phrase where the country is headed. Next, you have local governments funding transport innovators like me. In any case, a transport strategy needs to be flexible. Technology has developed much more quickly than we anticipated over the 11 years transport innovation has been happening in Dundee. Estonia's experience will be very different from ours again. You simply need to have a plan of where you want to go. Major companies and the public will understand then. I realize that reaching the ordinary person is a challenge. The Scots also don't like it when they are told what to do. But you need people to come along one way or another.

Tauri Tuvikene: The EU at least has plotted a clear course. All cars new cars sold need to be electric by 2030. Carmakers are counting on it, while we now need people to see EVs as being useful.

Peter Marland: Paide is a small city, while you have Wi-Fi here. I would be hard-pressed to find a signal in a town the size of Paide in the United Kingdom. Therefore, you have done well as a country in this regard at least. Why couldn't you repeat that success in another area? This very debate shows that you're trying to get there.

Fraser Crichton: Estonians need to start believing in electric transport. That said, no one in the audience except the British ambassador has an EV.

Kaia Treier: We should discuss green transport in rural areas separately in future debates as it seems problems are very different in cities and in the country. Tallinn will soon have electric buses that we can use to demonstrate that taking an EV is a pleasant experience. Perhaps it will motivate people to prefer an electric vehicle. People in the country first need a bus link as such before we can start talking about making them electric.

Kai Realo: I agree that the city and country are different. One does not strictly need a car in the city, while the level of freedom they provide has taken root. How should we explain to city dwellers that they no longer need their cars? I cannot see people opting for a less convenient option voluntarily.

Fraser Crichton: Norway is a good example. They put a popular band and the wealthiest man in the country in electric vehicles. This conveyed the message that EVs are cool. We also tried to find prominent people to promote the topic and act as an example in Dundee.

Peter Marland: Two things that people consider when making choices is whether I can afford it and whether it does what I want it to do.

Kai Realo: Estonians also have a third consideration – is it big enough? Estonians prefer family cars.

Peter Marland: The question is whether an EV fits my lifestyle. We have all become a little lazy and inhabit inconveniently planned cities.

Kai Realo: You gave the example of 4G. And a small country is relatively easy to cover in a network. That said, the next big step requires a government decision and giving the private sector certainty in terms of what it is. Estonia has been very gasoline and diesel-centered so far. What next? The private consumer needs to be told what the choice is. With local governments getting the last word.

Ragmar Saksing: Could we get closing thoughts from everyone?

Fraser Crichton: Conservations I've had with Estonians today have inspired me. If you approach green transport like you did 4G, I believe you will surprise me in a few years' time.

Kai Realo: It was exciting to realize that we are not replacing one type of cars with another but changing our energy system in general.

Tauri Tuvikene: I was left with the difference between the city and rural areas. The use of EVs in different environments. As we demonstrated in Estonia's human development report a few years ago, city centers, suburbs and rural areas are all very different, whereas the latter cannot be overlooked in Estonia.

Kaia Treier: We are testing demand-based transport in Sõrve, Saaremaa. I realized today that we need to merge demand-based transport and electric transport next.

Peter Marland: I was surprised by the fact almost no one in the audience owns an electric vehicle. At the same time, the temperature in Sicily is 43 degrees, Greece is ravaged by forest fires and California is suffering from a drought. Climate change is not a distant future, it is already here. Change is needed today, and if you want to change something, go buy an electric vehicle.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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