Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tartu Eastern Beltway: How Does It Influence the Downtown?

The largest traffic project in the coming years in Tartu is possibly the Eastern Beltway, including a long bridge over Emajõgi. This should lead some traffic away from the overloaded streets in the inner city. I have never seen a discussion about the potential impact of it on the downtown and the city structure. I give a few thoughts here, mostly from pedestrian and cyclist perspective.

The beltway improves the accessibility of outskirts, including South Mall (Lõunakeskus).

The new bridge, road, and railway underpass will facilitate the access to South Mall and other far-lying areas for the inhabitants of Annelinn, the largest residential neighborhood in Tartu. In this way the customer base in the outskirts may grow at the expense of the downtown. True, it may crowd out primarily the smaller shopping centers in Annelinn itself and the impact on downtown may be limited—it depends on where Annelinn inhabitants currently do their shopping. However, I can hardly see how the opposite could happen—the new ring road improving the competitiveness of the inner city. There is one potential case though—more customers will be attracted to the less trafficked downtown when transit moves increasingly to the beltway. As the accessibility of the outer areas improves substantially more than that of downtown, I do not expect this to happen.

In the long run, better accessibility encourages businesses and public sector institutions to locate to the outskirts. This further increases one of the main obstacles for cycling/walking in Tartu—many important institutions are too far away and hardly accessible without a car.


Tartu Kaubamaja IMG 5271 C
Cyclists not welcome here...
The new road will slightly lessen the traffic in the central areas. However, the city will not use that opportunity by making the streets better accessible for pedestrians/cyclists.

The previous expensive traffic project—Freedom Bridge in downtown—was intended to facilitate the traffic on the other bridges. Unfortunately, there has been no major improvement for pedestrians in the related area (we can rather talk about a slight worsening because of the new street). Theoretically, part of improved accessibility for motorists might be transformed to better conditions for other modes of transportation as well. Almost none of it has happened in the downtown (two-way Lai street improves access for cyclists, but this was not the primary goal of the project). No bicycle lanes were added when the Riia-Turu junction was reconstructed, and those along Narva street are still hardly usable. The sidewalks along a number of much trafficked streets (Jakobi, Kroonuaia) are still very narrow.

I do not believe anything will be different when Eastern Beltway opens. Bicycle lanes will probably be constructed along the new road, and with some good luck these will be largely usable. However, nothing will be done in the more important central districts. There will still be a minor improvement as the traffic load in downtown will slightly fall.


A major boost for downtown would require fast, convenient, and affordable mass transit lines that cross in downtown.

I can imagine two light rail lines -- one from Ihaste to where the Institute of Physics is currently located, and another from Ülenurme to the location of the University of Life Sciences, crossing in downtown. If these trains are fast, frequent, and affordable, they could potentially bring people from many areas (including Annelinn) into the center.
I do not expect any of this to be realized in my lifetime, but some exploratory analysis might well be worth doing.


Eastern Beltway is a step toward making Tartu a sprawled city where efficient public transport is hardly feasible and distances are too long for cycling/walking. The municipality should consider counter moves.