Tartu city leaders at odds over cancelled cycle lane plans

Tartu's Car-Free Avenue.
Tartu's Car-Free Avenue. Source: Tõnis Arjus.

Monday's decision by Tartu Mayor Urmas Klaas (Reform Party) to no longer open cycle lanes on Riia tänav has caused unease among coalition partners. A health and safety assessment of the proposed project found no reason for it not to go ahead.

Tartu City Government has decided to cancel the planned opening of experimental cycle lanes  between July 1 and the end of September on the city's Riia tänav. Mayor Urmas Klaas explained the decision as necessary in order to reduce the risk of traffic accidents in the area.

"There are still safety concerns regarding the narrow spots which have been left – (such as) the movement of operational vehicles, public transport (and) the situation on side streets. /.../ The road safety audit identified risks, eight of them of minor injuries and two of serious injuries. It is clear that we must not create more dangerous situations," Klaas explained to "Aktuaalne Kaamera."

However, according to the safety auditor, these risks could have been minimized, enabling the experiment to continue as planned.

Gea Kangilaski (Social Democrats), who is one of Tartu's five deputy mayors, only learned of the decision to cancel the Riia tänav cycle path project via the media. "Initially, we had an agreement in the municipality that we would discuss the matter further. Later we read in the newspaper that it will definitely be cancelled," Kangilaski told ERR.

The decision not to proceed with the Riia tänav project was taken by the city government, following the presentation of a road safety audit produced by Viavelo Inseneribüroos, which concluded that the plans involved some risks. The audit pointed out for instance, that on one section of the road, cyclists and pedestrians cross paths, creating the risk of collisions. Further concerns related to the narrow gaps between the proposed cycle lanes and areas used by passengers when alighting local buses.

However, Kangilaski said that these risk factors were not enough to halt the project entirely. "Many members of the Tartu City Council have probably never seen a road safety audit before with their own eyes, (so), they (probably) imagine that the result has to be zero risk. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as zero risk when it comes to traffic. A person can fall to their death even by tripping on their own shoelaces," Kangilaski said.

If you look at what the City of Tartu has been building for years, these streets are not safe, the deputy mayor stressed. "On the contrary, these streets are very dangerous, especially for more vulnerable people. And if we now think that segregating traffic groups and creating safety for them is a threat, then that is not the case. Yes, a certain danger remains, because there are a lot of road users and Riia tänav is a busy street, but the new situation would not be any more dangerous than the one that already exists," said Kangilaski.

Kangilaski believes that the real reason for the termination of the Riia tänav project is Tartu City Council's fear of major changes. "It is much cheaper and easier to draw cycle paths on paper, and you don't have to argue with so many people. But the real question is, whether we have the courage to create the cycle lanes and put our green goals into practice," said Kangilaski.

Asked whether the decision by the Social Democrats' coalition partner may also have political implications, Kangilaski replied, that she had not claimed the decision was without consequences. "We don't know if our partner has already shaken hands with someone, maybe I will read about it in this newspaper," Kangilaski said.

Another of Tartu's deputy mayors, Priit Humal of Isamaa, said the main reason for shutting down the project was safety related. "The question has always been whether the safety of road users will improve as a result (of opening the cycle lanes), both during the experiment and in the long term. It is clear that it will make the situation more inconvenient for certain road users, but will it also make it more dangerous? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? As time went on, it became apparent that the risks - especially in light of the audit - are considerable, and the benefits are not so great as to outweigh them. As Deputy Mayor Gea Kangilaski also said, there is no such things as (completely) safe, but it is a question of assessing the risks," said Humal.

Humal was unable to say exactly which risk was ultimately key in the decision to scrap the project. "Is the greater risk to cyclists, or that operational vehicles may be delayed? There is no ranking here, what matters to us is the overall result," he said.

Cars come to 'car free' street

Humal pointed out, that one major risk is, that encouraging cyclists to use Riia tänav, would result in increased traffic on other streets. "Some road users are likely to avoid Riia tänav and choose other nearby streets, which are not used to this kind of traffic. This would make (those streets) more dangerous," said Humal.

According to Humal, rather than modify and improve the proposed project, the only option was to scrap it altogether. "As preparations for the project were taking a long time, there was no point in postponing it indefinitely, because then we would not have been able to analyze the results of the experiment," he explained.

Tartu municipality is now conducting experiments to reduce and calm traffic on the city's Autovabaduse (car free in English) puiestee. Where previously the section of Vabaduse puistee between Raekoja Plats and the car park of Kaubamaja was completely free of cars, it will now have one lane of traffic in each direction.

"This doesn't mean we are creating better conditions (to encourage more) car traffic, but we want to test out the situation where there are fewer lanes on such a busy street. We'll see how the traffic starts to adapt to it and (also) how we are able to manage the traffic," explained Humal.

The risks of this experiment on Vabaduse puiestee are lower, because the traffic volume there is less than on Riga tänav, Humal added.

However, traffic expert Reigo Ude, who carried out the original audit, told the press that Riia tänav would also have been a suitable location for the experiment. "From a road safety point of view, some improvements could have been made, which would have allowed the project to get underway quickly. In my opinion, the experiment would have provided a lot of necessary information about how to organize similar projects in big cities in the future, which bottlenecks need more attention, and how local citizens feel about it," Ude told Tartu Postimees.

Staff at Tartu's Department of Urban Space preferred not to comment on the U-turn by city leaders.

Tartu's Riia tänav cycle lane project had been due to run from July 1 until the end of September. The plan entailed designating one of Riia tänav's existing lanes in each direction, for the exclusive use of cyclists.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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