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Baltic Bicycling – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

October 8, 2017

08 October 2017

In May of this year, I took a trip to the former Soviet countries of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The three Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have all moved on from their past to forge themselves as distinctive, unique and modern independent countries, with all three in the European Union, using the Euro as currency and very friendly for tourists. Parts of Ukraine have aspirations of that, notably the region around the capital of Kyiv. In the south-west, as we’ve seen with the situation in Crimea, the large Russian populations in those areas are highly resistant to it. Even without that, Ukraine still has a long journey to EU status – particularly with its visa requirements and lower standard of living. Belarus is much more proudly Russian – at least culturally – while beginning to make moves for better integration into Europe. Visa requirements are tougher than Ukraine in the sense they need to be obtained before travel whereas Ukraine allows visa-on-arrival for short term visits for certain countries like Australia. Very few people speak English in Belarus, and they don’t want to learn, while the young in Ukraine are generally proficient. Neither are friendly for tourists in terms of basic city maps and tourist offices, and the Cyrillic alphabet in use doesn’t make things easier either. Eventually, as with any foreign city, you quickly learn to get by and get around, and many of these traits become one of their charms.

TALLINN – Estonia

Viru Gate - Tallinn Estonia

Viru Gate – Tallinn, Estonia

I’ve been to Estonia 7 times on 5 different trips and I can’t stop going back. There’s truly something magical about this “modern day fairytale” that is the capital Tallinn, and the adorable little country as a whole. I was lured there for the first time in 2008 primarily to see a band called Vanilla Ninja, and never could I believe that Tallinn would leave almost an equally indelible memory as the band did – especially since this was my first ever trip to Europe and I expected the real highlights to be cities like Paris and Berlin. It’s Tallinn’s medieval charm, technologically advanced society, ease to get around and beautiful Estonian people that makes it such a winning combination. Obviously it’s my favourite European city with the Old Town the perpetual highlight. I never tire of walking the winding cobbled streets, and now, after so many visits, I can proudly say I can do so without getting lost.

Culture

With its compact size, small population of 450,000 people, and abundance of buses, trolley-buses and trams, it’s a city not in great need of cycling. There are two exceptions: 1) Estonians are an active people so there’s a good deal of recreational cycling, particularly along Pirita Beach and nearby national parks, and typically riders are in full cycling garb of lycra and helmets; 2) Going through the Old Town is the quickest way from one side of the city to the other, and the bicycle is the best and most convenient method for that. Overall, most cycling is general utility type, and mostly on footpaths in the city centre. The roads that circumnavigate the city lack space for bicycles and are quite busy so Estonians will hop onto the footpath in these cases. Footpaths are good and are often wide enough to be marked with a bike lane. Motorists, while seemingly always in a hurry, are considerate to both cyclists and pedestrians. Numbers of riders are good, at easily 5 times as many as you see in Australia, and gender split was even, if not slightly in favour of women.

Cycling in Tallinn Estonia

Bike Share

Only a small network with stations accommodating about 10 bikes. Most locals use their own bikes, while tourists can easily walk, or take a bus to the more distant sites, notably the Tallinn TV Tower and the adjacent Soviet Era Museum. Bike touring is popular, and there you’d use a specialised rental service.

Cycling in Tallinn Estonia

Helmet Use

For general utility cycling, barely any. On sports bikes for exercising, mostly helmets. Helmets are compulsory for children under 16. When I hired a bike, I made it known I didn’t want a helmet. They said they could lend me one if I wanted one. I recoiled in horror and said no way. When I explained I was from Australia wanting to escape helmet tyranny, again I was asked whether I wanted a helmet.

Rating

4/5

PÄRNU – Estonia

Old Town - Parnu

Old Town – Pärnu, Estonia

A small seaside town of 40,000 people in southern Estonia, the only reason for a stop there was to see Lenna Kuurmaa, the former lead singer of Vanilla Ninja, in concert. “Concert” might be an exaggeration because it was actually an intimate setting in a 100 year old barn 20km out of town. That actually made it all the more special! This concert was scheduled after plans for this trip were done so it was great fortune I could be there at the right time. Pärnu’s main claim to fame is its huge beaches, resorts and spas. Estonians (and Finns) flock there during the summer.

Culture

Typical for most small towns, cycling is so easy and convenient to get around, and that’s no different here. Numbers are about double than Tallinn and the gender split is even.

Cycling in Parnu Estonia

Bike Share

None

Helmet Use

None

Rating

4/5

RIGA – Latvia

Freedom Monument - Riga, Latvia

Freedom Monument – Riga, Latvia

Situated on the Daugava River, Riga is another pearl of the Baltic, and this was my third visit. While not as picturesque or alluring as Tallinn, it’s not without its charms, especially the huge market housed in former zeppelin hangars, the quaint canal running through the city, and its Old Town. Although, unlike Tallinn’s mostly original Old Town, much of Riga’s was rebuilt after being flattened in World War 2. There’s more of a Russian feel to the city, with a greater percentage of Russians (45% compared to 30%), a hint of a Russian sound to the language and dilapidated sections. Estonia is more a Nordic nation, with better roads and more modern buildings, while the Estonian language is closely related to Finnish. Population is about 50% more than Tallinn at 650,000 and you can definitely feel Riga is a much busier city than its Baltic neighbours.

Culture

There seems as many buses and trolley-buses as there are cars at times, so again, like Tallinn, not much need for bicycles in the city centre. Also similar to Tallinn, mostly you’ll see riders cruising through the Old Town, and the banks of the river take the place of Tallinn’s Pirita Beach. Latvians are really into extreme sports, so you’re more likely to see BMX bikes than the sporty road and mountain bikes of the Estonians. While the gender split was even, numbers riding seemed a bit less than Tallinn. Age-wise, it favours the young, just as it did in Tallinn. Older people stick with public transport.

Cycling in Riga Latvia

Bike Share

Probably a bit bigger than Tallinn’s, and has a bit more use, particularly by tourists.

Helmets

Barely any. According to wikipedia, only those under 12 are required to wear them.

Rating

3/5

VILNIUS – Lithuania

Neris River - Vilnius, Lithuania

Neris River – Vilnius, Lithuania

The third of the Baltic countries, this was my first visit and a really pleasant surprise. Despite being in the region so often before, I never came across anyone to recommend Vilnius, and I knew little about Lithuania either. The one exception was that with Lithuania being in the European Union, I expected it to be quite tourist friendly. So it proved! My best description of Vilnius is the “Paris of the North”. There’s so many cafes around, so much variety of restaurants, quaint side streets everywhere, and the supermarkets were overflowing with options. I’d just been in Belarus and Ukraine prior, so seeing the variety – and a familiar alphabet to help identify stuff – it was like heaven. In fact, the supermarkets in all three countries were superb. They have so many fresh options. Australia is only now catching up. To top it off, Vilnius is a wonderfully functional city and has the best bicycling scene in the region. It was the inspiration for this blog post and the point I began to take photos of cyclists. The city’s population is about 550,000.

Culture

Cycling seems ingrained in the people, as there’s all sorts of people getting around on bikes. The city, with its small streets and low speed limits, obvious facilitates as much bike use as possible. Mostly, the citizens of Vilnius want to cycle. They seem so happy on their bikes, and proud too. Vilnius even has the most courteous behaviour I’ve ever witnessed towards cyclists. A car decided to double-park on Gedimimas Avenue and did so about about 2 metres from the curb so not to block the bike lane. Yep, his attitude was, “If I’m to inconvenience someone, it will be a motorist”. The second astonishing act was a woman riding along the footpath to a bus, get off the bike, and then carry the bike into the bus. No bother! The only thing you could nitpick in Vilnius – as in all these countries – is it does lack separated bike lanes. Mostly they are painted lines. With the streets quite small and without the sheer population volume like in Copenhagen, it’s not really practical for anything more anyway. Considering the bike lanes are all quite wide and connected, and with speed limits low and with a full deference to cyclists on display, and with footpath cycling allowed, it also proves quite sufficient.

Cycling in Vilnius Lithuania

Bike Share

Flourishing. Plenty of bikes and plenty of stations. There’s also good rental opportunities for cycling along the river, which is also well used by locals for transport purposes.

Bike-share cycling in Vilnius Lithuania

Helmet Use

Barely any. There could be a law for those under 18. If it does exist, it’s obviously not enforced because I saw plenty of younger people going without.

Cycling in Vilnius Lithuania

Top right: this woman took her bike into a bus. Bottom right: this car is double-parked wide enough so not to block the bike lane.

Rating

Cycling in Vilnius Lithuania

5/5

Elsewhere…

MINSK – Belarus

Independence Square - Minsk, Belarus

Independence Square – Minsk, Belarus

Minsk is a very interesting city. Flattened during World War 2, it was rebuilt in a communist utopian style. It’s very clean and tidy and, despite a population of 2 million people, uncrowded. Unlike the countries to the north, Belarusians aren’t intent on purging their Soviet history so there’s plenty of remnants, particularly symbols, throughout the city and in subway stations. Roads and footpaths are wide, and there’s plenty of walking spaces in general. Consequently it’s easy and safe to get around by bicycle. Intersections on main roads have underpasses for pedestrians, which helps keep traffic flowing and pedestrians don’t need to wait at lights. That means riders must dismount and wheel their bikes underneath to get across. That’s a not a great concern as there are ramps along one side of the stairwell for wheeling bikes, prams or shopping carts.

Culture

For general bicycle use, there’s two distinct types of riders. Belarusians are a sports-minded people, and consequently many ride around on flashy mountain or road bikes, and typically with full cycling garb and helmets. Possibly they’ve come on longer commutes or are riding recreationally along the Svislach River and it’s only the sections closer to the city centre they are on the footpaths. Most of these are men. Given the vast boulevards in the city, most cycling in the city centre is on footpaths. The other class, which would be about 70% of all riders, are in normal clothes on basic bikes and no helmets, with gender favouring women slightly. Minsk is well served with a metro system and buses, so cycling numbers are at the lower end compared to other European nations.

Helmets

On expensive bikes, yes. On basic bikes, no. Legal requirements: none. Curiously, I saw this sign in Gorky Park warning cyclists not to ride down stairs.

Cycling in Minsk, Belarus

Rating

4/5

KYIV – Ukraine

Kyiv, Ukraine during the Eurovision Song Contest of 2017

Kyiv, Ukraine, during the Eurovision Song Contest

Kyiv was the start of the trip before moving north. It’s a tired city, with bumpy roads, crumbling footpaths and many, many old and ugly buildings. Clearly it’s a legacy of the Soviet era, and being a large city of 3 million people, it will take time and considerable money to transform things. That’s not to say the city doesn’t function well. It’s easy to get around on the metro and the many bus and trolley-bus options, and most of the city’s key attractions are within walking distance or a few stops away on the metro. Key retail centres are within walking distance too. Everything is so cheap, at about 20% the cost of something in Australia. A subway ride is 20c, a fast-food meal is $2 and a 600ml coke between 50c and 80c. In US dollars that would be about 15c, $1.50 and between 40c and 60c. As you go north, prices rice. Minsk is about double while Estonia and Lithuania are double again. Latvia is a bit cheaper than its two neighbours. Overall, all three Baltic countries are still quite cheaper than other European destinations, especially if you compare across the Baltic Sea to the Nordic countries.

Culture

In the busy city centre, there’s not much. Parts of the city are quite hilly so that makes it more difficult. Once you get a few kilometres out and into the residential areas, while not in prolific quantities, there are plenty of old bikes and people of all types cruising about doing their stuff. Even though there’s almost zero infrastructure or bike lanes to speak of, these local urban roads are quiet and safe. Occasionally, particularly along the Dnipro River, you’ll see more sporty types.

Helmets

Other than a few sporty type of cyclists around, none. No legal requirement for anyone either.

Bike Share

A small one and only moderately used. There’s simply better transport options about for most people.

Rating

2/5

Conclusion…

The lesson from all these countries is that if you want more people cycling, you need to remove all barriers to cycling, change your attitude to cycling, and be accommodating to cycling. You don’t need to go crazy with Copenhagen-style separate bike-lanes to get people cycling. Cheap and simple things like lower speed limits in urban areas, bike lanes where possible and allow people to ride on footpaths is enough to send the right message. Most of all it’s to treat cycling as a distinct class of transport and creating the right image so that the instinct for people to go somewhere is to get on a bike. It should be second nature, not an exercise of helmets, special clothes, special bikes and wrestling with traffic.

Cycling in Tallinn Estonia

Yours truly after experiencing a day of cycling in Tallinn, Estonia, free of helmet tyranny.

For the curious, Lenna Kuurmaa, ironically with a band called Traffic, with her most recent song, Varjud:

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One Comment
  1. MCL permalink

    Thanks for sharing. Had a blast recently in China. Distances tend to be vast for walking (unless you have time) and so it works well for cycling. There is infra where it’s needed, and bikes reign supreme elsewhere. Bike share works so well – easy, immediate and fun. Hard to comprehend how difficult (and not-fun) we manage to riding a bike here!

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