Recommendations to prefer public transport come across naive in rural Estonia

"Siin me oleme" host Mirjam Mõttus. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

Estonia is on track to lay down a vehicle tax and families all over Estonia are crunching the numbers to see how they'll cope. The tax sums are just one half of the equation – it is a far more important question whether it is even possible for people to prefer public transport to owning a car outside major cities.

ETV's "Siin me oleme" program (set to air on ETV Monday, October 16) spoke to rural area residents and experts to move closer to an answer.

Mari Kübarsepp, her husband and children moved from the city of Tartu to Sõrve on the island of Saaremaa over two decades ago. She has an organic farm where she grows herbs and helps organize local cultural life. Kübarsepp harks back to a time when her children were still young and had to spend hours riding buses to get an education. That remains the reality for many Sõrve children to this day.

If you live in a peripheral part of the country and want to make sure your children have access to education and hobbies, driving is your lot. Kübarsepp drives a large and old Volvo saloon car she affectionately calls "old man." "This old thing is unfazed by water on the road and crosswind. It's simple to fix – the local mechanic gives it a once over and it will serve me for another year. It does not have fancy electronics to go wrong all the time. And even if something happens, it's simple to fix. This old car can take all kinds of punishment. We also have gravel roads in these parts," she said.

Kübarsepp is convinced the family could not make do without a car living on the Sõrve Peninsula. While she has tried on a few occasions, the time and nerves it takes are not worth it.

Asko lives in the village of Ratla on Saaremaa. He said that the family has a dog, two rabbits, three cats, four hens and five kids. Four of the five still go to school. To make sure they get a full education, driving is a daily necessity for the father. While there is a public transport link, some family members need to drive if the whole family wants to be together at least once a day.

"The kids are so active, but there are no more buses to nearby Valjala by the time they're all done with their hobby school activities. Therefore, my spouse and I are half-time drivers for them. It takes quite a bit of planning to get the whole family together.

"Siin me oleme" concludes that free or not, public transport simply isn't working. While there are buses, they either do not meet people's needs or are too time-consuming.

But it is not just a question of getting around but also one of rural enterprise. Asko is active in the field of tourism. He owns a company called Saare Safari that organizes off-road adventures. The four-by-fours he uses are far from new and cannot be described as environmentally friendly either. But Saare Safari employs quite a few people, including small business owners. The company struggling because of the looming car tax would be a blow to many.

Saaremaa experimented with on-demand transport a few years ago. Mari Kübarsepp, who also heads up the Torgu Service Center, helped launch the project. While the conclusion in the media after a few years was that on-demand transport is not cost-effective, Kübarsepp describes it as a brilliant opportunity in sparsely populated areas. Two small couches offered the service for free on the Sõrve Peninsula. Unfortunately, project funding ran out.

"It could have continued. People are willing to pay a little and it would not have to be free, which it was for the duration of the test project. But the municipality wants to develop the idea in altered form. It is possible people who live out on Sõrve will be driven to Salme using passenger cars and more buses added there. Perhaps the service will return," Kübarsepp said.

Tallinn and the neighboring municipalities see the busiest traffic and commutes in Estonia. Rapid motorization and regional economic development means that 50 percent of all transport in Estonia and its environmental effect happens there.

Mobility expert Aksel Part believes that the car tax is a step in the right direction. "It would make it possible to fund turning our cities into better places for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport. Vehicle taxes are justified from society's point of view because car use creates a lot of expenses that are currently largely covered by all taxpayers, irrespective of whether they use a car or not. I believe that the time is right for a car tax," Part said.

But the expert also said that a car tax would not be as big of a problem if people had access to needs-based public transport. As long they don't, cars, no matter how costly and polluting, will not be going anywhere.


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Editor: Piret Suurväli, Marcus Turovski

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