Tallinn debate concentrated on public transport and urban space

The "Valimisstuudio" elections debate for Tallinn. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Tallinn mayoral candidates discussed combating the coronavirus, public transport problems and the long-awaited main street project in Thursday's "Valimisstuudio" local elections debate.

Candidates have plans against the coronavirus

Conservative People's Party (EKRE) candidate Martin Helme said politicians should not be forcing people to vaccinate and should instead look for solutions and ways to solve the crisis that has been going on for a year and a half.

"The crisis is in its second year, while what we are seeing are skirmishes, attempts to pull one over on competitors. The price of electricity today speaks of the same thing: both the current and previous governments have failed to foresee it or take any kind of measures," said Züleyxa Izmailova for the Estonian Greens.

Social Democratic Party (SDE) candidate Raimond Kaljulaid said that those elected will have to seriously address the coronavirus crisis. Isamaa candidate Urmas Reinsalu said that getting the message to people is paramount. "The city must protect its citizens," he said.

Center Party candidate and incumbent mayor Mihhail Kõlvart said that the problem goes beyond the simplified treatments of other candidates. "I believe we can safely say that Tallinn has been one step ahead, especially compared to the central government, in the last two years. Tallinn was the first to start distributing personal protective devices, we have pursued a social campaign, launched vaccination drives and are now offering third doses in city departments," he said.

Izmailova said there are other things the city can do to manage coronavirus risks, such as new outdoor activities.

Kõlvart said it is no good stigmatizing people. "People need to have a choice. This has been a major problem and continues to affect these processes," he said.

Main street project in the works

Raimond Kaljulaid said that the cost of the Tallinn main street project cannot be forecast yet. "It is one of the most thoroughly considered traffic solutions in Tallinn. The reasons it was shelved were political rather than having to do with urban space," the SDE politician said.

"We have a situation today where 53 percent of people say they do not feel safe as pedestrians," Kaljulaid remarked.

Martin Helme for EKRE said that the main street project is absurd and will completely upend life in the city. "We can all understand that modern urban environments prioritize areas that are off limits for cars. But where will traffic go? It makes no sense talking about the project before we can answer that question," he added.

Züleyxa Izmailova said traffic needs to be rendered safe enough and public transport good enough for people to want to move on foot.

Isamaa's candidate Urmas Reinsalu said that pedestrians need more room, while alternatives are in order because people need to get to the other side of town to go to school or to the doctor, which currently requires one to drive though the city center. "The main street will happen if we have a traffic scheme that will not make getting around during rush hour impossible," he said. Reinsalu added that services need to be brought closer to people first.

Kõlvart said the main street project was not sufficiently thought out. "There was no analysis of what would happen to traffic in the city center and elsewhere, how it would affect other streets. There was no solution even for the most important junction, the Viru roundabout, in terms of how traffic would work," the incumbent mayor said.

Kõlvart said that realizing the main street project would have meant locking public transport in one massive traffic jam.

Reform Party mayoral candidate Kristen Michal said said that the 15-minute city principle where people would not need to drive on a daily basis needs to be realized first.

"Tallinn has fallen behind when it comes to urban space development. Looking at other cities, a lot of paved areas were taken away from cars and given to cafes so people could spend more time outside. We have suggested Tallinn do the same, while efforts need to be bolder," Michal said.

Marek Reinaas for Eesti 200 said that the ruling Center Party has realized just two out of 11 investment promises since last elections.

Kaljulaid said that the main street would not close the area to traffic completely as public transport would still be able to pass through and there would be other options. He said that investments Tallinn has made in recent years have only favored cars. "This means that the coming decades require investments in alternative modes of transport, such as new tram lines," he said.

Kaljulaid said that the main street would not require a Rävala street link that would disrupt the lives of local residents and that a tram line on Liivalaia street would be needed instead.

Helme described the idea as utopian. "We should first ask voters about the problem," he said. The EKRE candidate sees heavy traffic as people's main concern, which is why it should be diverted underground in many places.

Parties after more extensive tram network

Izmailova said that the Greens' proposed tram network investments would all fit in the city budget. "The problem in Tallinn is that we haven't constructed new tram lines in ages and have fallen behind the times," she said. Tram traffic can be developed using money from the city budget and EU support.

Reinaas said that it needs to be admitted that new tram lines would not be built simultaneously. "It is a long plan, with lines added one by one," he said, adding that the first new line should lead to Lasnamäe. "Rail transport is definitely the future of transport in Tallinn," he remarked.

Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart said that a kilometer of tram line costs €3.5 million that comes to €7 million two-way, while a single tram costs €2.7 million. "European resources need to be used, but promising people comprehensive tram developments in all directions is unrealistic," he said.

There are a couple of promising lines for the coming years and work is ongoing," Kõlvart said. "There is also an alternative – an underground bus. The fleet would cost two or three times less than procuring trams, could run on electricity and not require tracks," he said.

Reinsalu said there is no alternative to moving traffic underground in busier places, adding that developing an effective public transport network is the most cost-efficient solution.

Michal said that heads of the city need a vision for the future, while Tallinn's current ambitions are modest.

Current transport solutions ineffective

Kõlvart said that Tallinn's red bicycle paths constitute a temporary solution and that permanent solutions will be added when roads are reconstructed. The mayor added that the temporary paths have still improved the situation.

Izmailova said that people who use a bicycle to get around have said that at least something is being done and that the temporary solution is not too bad. "I know that while everyday cyclists are content, those who do not currently take the bike dare not go there," she said.

Kaljulaid said that the red paths endanger pedestrians in several places and that realizing the capital's bicycle strategy would be the solution.

Reinaas said that several solutions were put together and analyzed by experts, while Tallinn opted for the more convenient and cheaper options. "The city government has absolutely no plan for these paths, in terms of who approved them and how and why they are what they are."

Martin Helme described the paths marked in red paint as hurried and dangerous and said he would not ride on them. "I do not take kindly to attitudes where one form of movement is considered better than others. The city needs to accommodate everyone and solutions need to be found for everyone, while this [the red paths] is not one," he said.

Uneven kindergarten and school places problem remains

"The city needs to be planned in line with how some districts age, some have more children and some grow faster. There is no such planning with the next five, 10 or 15 years in mind today," Michal said.

Marek Reinaas said that districts need more say over their budgets, including as concerns education. "While Lasnamäe and Mustamäe largely do not have a kindergarten or school places problem, half of children living in Pirita are forced to commute to school somewhere else because there simply aren't enough places. Giving communities and districts more say over decisions and budget would likely see kindergarten places created where they are needed," he said.

The Reform Party wants free kindergarten places in Tallinn and preschool education should be predominantly Estonian, Michal said.

Kõlvart said that the city has taken several steps to lower the kindergarten place fee for large families, children with special educational needs, least fortunate families and is also paying for kindergarten meals. He said that schools need to be given additional resources so those in the city center could accommodate more students because demand will not fall any time soon.

Kaljulaid said that while the Center Party promised to construct an annex to the Tallinn Secondary Science School at last elections, the project has only gotten as far as an architectural contest. "Children have to attend class in the cafeteria at the Kalamaja Basic School in my district. That is not how things should be in 2021," he said.

Urmas Reinsalu said that Tallinn lacks an investment plan for all kindergartens and schools, adding that harmful school renovation contracts take a big bite out of the city budget and would have been better served using a loan.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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