diff: Roads and Navigation in Tallinn

I’m gonna resume the blog with a series of posts about differences or surprising non-differences I notice in my life compared to Riga. Some are broad, some are tiny details. I’ll start with a topic you start noticing even when visiting with a car.

Traffic Lights

The very first things are those that betray your instincts or muscle memory. Just one exposure to such a change instantly sets something inside you head off. For example, traffic lights timings: time from red to green is so much shorter in Tallinn I’m surprised they don’t just skip the yellow light. Even when I’m looking at the traffic light, I can’t change gears during yellow and I’m still sometimes left with a feeling that I or someone else is stalling, since it’s already green and the car isn’t moving.

On the topic of yellow, Tallinn switches off most of the traffic lights after 10 or 11pm — even in the centre — and turns on blinking yellow. And there are really few cars after that time. This is really the only thing that reminds of Tallinn being smaller than Riga. Well, maybe also the fact that stuff is really closer and I very rarely drive into places which are farther than a 15 minute drive.

Separate lights section, photo from foor.ee

Another lights difference in Tallinn is using second set of traffic lights for turn navigation, not just a section on the bottom, which I find much better. In an unknown intersection in Riga I might not pay enough attention to notice the fact that not the whole bottom section is green, as opposed to seeing an actual red light in front of you, which is hard to dismiss. And I often see other drivers in Riga starting to move for an upcoming left turn and only noticing the missing bottom left section after several feet or in the middle of the intersection.

At the same time, for some reason Estonians don’t bother with large lights, and are transitioning to LED-based ones quite slowly. After being used to large and bright lights in Riga I sometimes find myself searching for a light that isn’t there or noticing one in the last moment (thankfully, I notice red earlier than greens). And to add to the problem, they can be quite dim, which is a pain in the sun.

Dim lights at Paldiski/Mustamäe/Endla intersection

Intersections and Complexity

One of those intersections you hate the first few times, photo from Bing Maps

Whenever I travel, I understand that Riga is probably the easiest capital in Europe in terms of driving complexity.

Tallinn feels much more complex. Roads split into many lanes, and you may end up turning with no prior notice because even though it was a one or two lane road a few hundred metres back, now it’s 6 lanes. Sometimes, there’s a bus lane appearing in the middle. Or there are just 2 bus lanes, why not. And in one intersection you have to cross over the right hand side bus lane, get into the right lanes which weren’t there a moment ago, just to go straight. At least the very rightmost one often turns right without a traffic light, which is a bliss.

Road Quality

Roads are generally better in Tallinn than in Riga. Maybe I’m just lucky here, but the contrast is quite significant. One of the reason could be because in Tallinn you don’t wait to fix the whole road to make it better, you just fix the rut under the wheels. Not sure how much money is saved that way, but it’s definitely much faster fix — a block overnight — than a proper replacement. And much better than pothole fixing that’s happening in Riga on major roads like Krasta and Brivibas.

Rut repaired in the middle, work in progress on the right

Driving and Car Culture

Some Estonians are complaining that others don’t show turn signals or aren’t respectful on the road, but I don’t see any difference or any particular issues. After some little experience you notice behavioural patterns in other drivers or on particular roads and often they’re more important than turn signals. Compared to southern nations, the Baltics have good enough culture, and I am yet to be cut off by a BMW here.

Still, there are enough of people accelerating for two seconds just to brake vigorously on a yielding intersection right away. But I’ll have hard time believing there are cities where this doesn’t happen. One last thing is I can’t help but notice people have more love for old cars in Tallinn. It really seems people hold on to cars longer. And I don’t only mean restored 1960s muscle cars, but also some nice and tidy cars from the 80s, like Peugeot 405, Saab 90, old Volvos. I noticed something similar in Helsinki, and I wonder if this is something that is influenced by Finns or Swedes.

Car Registration

By law, you have to register your car in 5 days after becoming a resident or after bringing your car from another country. I delayed this a bit to align with my roadworthiness test and time to pay for the new insurance.

So, it cost me 190€ for registering, 260€ for year of insurance and 40€ for roadworthiness test. No road tax, but insurance fee is higher than in Latvia. Having a car is bloody expensive. Let me explain the process for the sake of fellow nomads.

Bye-bye, LV

First, you register for a specific time on Road Administration website. Then you go to Mäepealse 19, drive to the garage and get your car inspected. VIN numbers checked, maybe something else. This is not roadworthiness test. If your car is 2011 or newer, you drive home and wait for Tax Office to verify something (no idea what, they asked me if it’s my personal car in Latvia and will it be my car in Estonia). Then you go back to the same place again, give in the prepared form, and in the office get the new registration plates. Be prepared to submit foreign ones at the same time. You’ll pay the fee right there, and you must get an insurance before you leave the building.

Roadworthiness test in Estonia can be done by numerous private car services, not by Road Administration like in Latvia. Sounds very fishy to me, but at least there are no queues and you can go in any place you fancy. For cars newer than 10 years you’ll even get only one roadworthiness check in 2 years, unlike every year in Latvia.

Do I need even a car?

If I didn’t have a child, I’d probably sell the car and get by without one, or at least try. Living in the city centre, having free public transport and cheap Uber rides, car becomes quite an expensive way to get groceries. And you can’t even have any drinks unlike in Latvia, which means you need to ditch a car even for a restaurant visit, or skip the glass of wine. But so far I’m sticking with the car.