an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

See the Real Tallinn on a Bus


Tallinn’s buses don’t get much respect. I know I often don’t give them the full credit they’re due. After all, buses are the backbone of Tallinn’s public transportation system. They’re the true workhorses that deliver Tallinners to wherever they need to go, day in and day out. Yes, a bus may not be as cool as a tram or as fast as a train or as quirky as a trolleybus – and yet, these self-propelled green giants still manage to get the job done. Tallinn today is crisscrossed by at least 60 different bus routes while the city is served by just four tram lines and only four surviving trolleybus routes.

Tallinn’s first omnibuses – or horse-drawn buses – started plying the capital’s streets back in the 1860s, several decades after they had already become fixtures in cities across France and England. And while the first motorized buses hit the roads before the First World War led to Estonia’s Independence, it wasn’t until 1922 that Estonian entrepreneur Fromhold Kangro launched Tallinn’s first regular bus service when he set up the first five routes with the approval of Tallinn’s City Government. These early bus lines ran from the Russian Market (present-day Viru Square) to various outlying Tallinn neighborhoods. To this day, Viru – or at least the huge bus depot underneath the mall – is the city’s most important public transportation hub with its numerous outgoing spokes taking you all across the city. Kangro set this template almost 100 years ago – even if he went bankrupt several years after he started. Fortunately, a company called Mootor (Motor) picked up where Kangro left off.

While I’ll confess that my first choice for getting around Tallinn is always the tram – followed by the train or the trolleybus whenever they’re an option, each time I ride on a bus I inevitably ask myself why I don’t take it more often. After all, Tallinn’s buses are incredibly reliable. Even if you don’t use an app, you can always refer to the bus schedule posted at any bus stop to find out when the next one is due. Yes, more and more of Tallinn’s major bus stops now have those electronic boards that will tell you when your next bus will arrive, but I’m still impressed by the accuracy of each one of these printed schedules. As they’re adjusted for traffic patterns at different times of each weekday or weekend, you’ll find that your bus almost always arrives right on time – or perhaps just a minute or two late. Sometimes, your bus will even arrive a bit early and so I’ve found that it always makes sense to be at the stop a couple of minutes before the posted time.

But the main comparative advantage that a bus offers is that it will take you to those parts of Tallinn that you just can’t get to by any other means of public transportation. During all the times that I’ve lived in or visited Tallinn over the last few decades, I’ve probably ridden on as many as 30 different bus routes as I’ve explored the city in search of those places most tourists never visit. Fortunately, I’m not quite obsessive-compulsive enough to have wanted to travel on every single bus route ….  Maybe one part of my continuing hesitation towards taking the bus in Tallinn might be psychological as I still equate them with those Soviet-era fume-spewing monsters of the past. As a case in point, here’s what I once wrote about them in RFEAJ – my Tallinn proto-blog from 1993:

EXHAUST. Just in case you were starting to think that Estonia is too much like the West, I decided it was time for a dose of post-Soviet reality. I get one almost every time I walk along the street. For a city as small as Tallinn, the amount of leaded and diesel exhaust fumes emitted from various vehicles is pretty impressive. You can just about taste the lead in the dirty fumes spewed out by cars, trucks, and – especially – buses. One of the reasons that post-Soviet cities are so gray is because of the filthy fuel and poor filtering used for both private and public transportation. Since I live walking distance from work, I’ve tried walking home several times only to be suffocated by the exhaust. One of the main streets on my walk home is lined with tall and tightly packed buildings and filled with traffic – mainly buses – taking everyone back home to their eastern Tallinn suburb. Walking home, means walking through a wall of exhaust – which leaves me exhausted. And breathing in all those fumes might be one of the reasons why I felt so exhausted during my first weeks here.

Fortunately, those Soviet-era buses – mainly Hungarian-made articulated Ikarus 280s or regular Ikarus 260s always painted in the same sickly shade of yellow – were finally phased out in 2003. Tallinn’s new fleet – whether articulated or regular – is now made up of a variety of much more fuel-efficient, environmentally-friendly, as well as comfortable MAN, Volvo, Scania, and Iveco buses made in Germany, Sweden, and the Czech Republic (or under license in Poland and Estonia) to meet the latest EU standards. Those who complain about EU regulations must have simply forgotten what it was like to breathe Tallinn’s air just twenty years ago. The other positive change I’ve noticed when I look back on Tallinn’s vintage 1993 buses is the growing number of women bus drivers. As I also wrote in RFEAJ that year:

GETTING AROUND TOWN. It’s no problem at all. The public transportation system works quite well. I paid 15 EEK (a little over a buck) for my monthly transportation pass which lets me ride on any tram, trolley, or bus whenever I want. As a result, you can always get anywhere you want to without much problem. However, you will notice that all the bus drivers are men. Most of the tram drivers – and many of the trolleybus drivers – are women. According to the old Soviet way of macho-thinking and macho-driving, it is OK for women to drive along tracks or guided by wires because that isn’t really considered to be “real” driving …. The other thing that surprises me here the most is whenever people get on the tram and take it for just one stop. Tallinn is not that big a city – especially when you talk about downtown and its more interesting parts. But it seems like whenever the distances are short, then things just seem to be further apart ….

Yes, inflation and price adjustments have hit Estonia over the last twenty-five years as it will now cost you a little over a dollar (or 1.1 Euros to be exact) to ride the bus for just an hour if you use a Smartcard. If you don’t use one or don’t have one, then you’ll need to buy a ticket from the driver for 2 Euros. Of course, there are various discounts available for senior citizens and students – plus TallinnCard holders can ride at no extra cost. Speaking of which, Tallinn’s legal residents are now entitled to a personal Smartcard which lets them ride on any form of public transportation for free. Given that travel is subsidized for so many, I’m still amazed by the number of people who get on the bus – or tram or trolley – without ever tapping in. Yes, inspectors are few and far between these days and so it is unlikely that you’ll get hit with a 40 Euro fine. But without a proper passenger count, how will the city’s transportation company – TLT: Tallinna Linnatranspordi Aksiaselts – ever be able to adjust their routes? As a result, there is an active Estonian-language campaign – as well regular announcements – to remind locals to tap in each time they get on.

Given all the improvement to Tallinn’s bus network over the years, I guess I should really try to ride the bus more often. Yes, I do have my personal list of “go to” buses that I tend to take most often – starting with the no. 3 which stops less than a block away from my fish flat and takes me straight downtown. Sometimes I also take the no. 73 which also runs through my Kalamaja neighborhood. Of course, there are other routes that I use from time to time including the workhorse no. 40 which takes me to Pelguranna, the 1A which will get me to Pirita, or the no. 43 which will deliver me out to Haabersti. And yet I’m only taking advantage of one tiny part of Tallinn’s extensive bus network. Maybe it’s time for me to just get on a bus and ride …. As George Takei once said, a bus is a “wonderful way to get to know the city.” After all, you’ll always find real people riding the bus.


Image: My pay-as-you-go ticket to ride – aka my Tallinn Smartcard – which comes in “city bus green.” If you’re interested, you can find out more about the early history of Tallinn’s bus network on the TLT website.

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