“Cycling gives me freedom”: Why Martin Villig stopped driving to work

Jun 6, 2023

Martin Villig is the co-founder of Bolt. He’s been an entrepreneur for 25 years and has held management positions at Skype, Fortumo, and NASDAQ Tallinn Stock Exchange.

His business experience led to him becoming a leading figure in the Estonian startup community. And along with his brother, Markus Villig, the founder and CEO of Bolt, was awarded the E&Y Entrepreneur of the Year in Estonia 2018.

Most business people of Martin’s stature turn up to work in the latest Audi or Tesla, but in 2018 Martin ditched his car keys in favour of pedal power.

Martin sat down with Bolt’s Content team to discuss why he transformed his commute.

Great minds ride a bike

Martin arrives at our interview with a blue bicycle helmet clipped to his backpack. Naturally, he cycled to the office today.

And it’s a good time of year to be cycling to work in Estonia — while there’s a moderate breeze, the sky’s blue, and the sun’s shining. But a few gusts of wind is nothing to somebody who cycles to work all year round in Estonia.

Despite being such an enthusiast for cycling, Martin hasn’t always cycled to work. In fact, he’s spent most of his working life behind the wheel of a car. 

“For 80% of my working years, I was a daily car user and drove 12+ kilometres to work every day. But in 2018, we moved from the suburbs to the city centre, and since then, I’ve been commuting by bike every day.”

You’d think it would be tough to give up a car after relying on one every day for 20 years, but as a family living in the suburbs with commitments in the city, Martin knew it was time for a change. 

Martin Villig riding a cargo bike

Suburban parents, the unofficial taxi drivers

Suburban living sounds ideal. You can live in a house, tend to your garden, and park your car(s) on your private driveway — all things that are hard to come by when living in the centre of a city.

And for Martin’s young children, it was perfect, too: “It’s good to live in the suburbs when you have small kids. They’re mostly running around playing in the garden or the street.”

But as the children grew older, problems began to arrive, and Martin inadvertently became a taxi driver for his kids.

“With our children growing up, they needed to be at school by 8 a.m. — they also had after-school activities and sports training to attend in the city centre. This meant the whole family had to wake up early to be in the car on time. If someone was late for breakfast, it created a lot of tension.

“As the parents, we became taxi drivers — a role that was too much for me. When you live out in the suburbs and have no kindergartens or schools in your area, it becomes pretty challenging as everyone spends a lot of time commuting. Our kids were using public transport to get home after school. Still, it took 45 minutes and was inconvenient before going to training or other after-school activities, which mostly happened in the city.”

Finding independence in the city

Martin and his family decided they couldn’t live like this, so they moved from the suburbs into the centre of Tallinn. 

“We found an apartment near our son’s school and ditched the car keys. This gave independence to the whole family as everyone could walk or ride a bike to school and work.” 

By ditching the car keys, Martin had to find an alternative to driving to work and used his wife’s old city bike.

“For the first 4 years of living in the city, I used a regular €200 city bike I bought for my wife. And I started to like it! I then had to buy my wife a new city bike while I rode her old, brown bicycle with a basket at the front.”

Discovering cargo bikes

Nowadays, you’re more likely to see Martin cycling around Tallinn on a cargo bike — he’s become a vocal advocate for them.

“In autumn 2022, I saw a cargo bike somewhere, and I wanted to try it. I tested a few models, and 3 months later, I found the model I liked — I mostly ride that now.”

A cargo bike turned out to be an excellent investment not only for commuting but for the whole family. 

“If you try a cargo bike with kids, they’ll become fans immediately and won’t want to return to the car! When smaller kids are in the backseat of a car, they can’t properly see what’s out of the window. But when they’re in a cargo bike, they’re outside and get to see what’s around. It gives them a totally new perspective on the city.”

Martin Villing riding a cargo bike

The benefits of cycling to work

Martin’s commute is 3km long and takes him around 12 minutes by bike. But during the day, he often cycles between offices to various meetings and ends up cycling for 30-50 minutes (between 7-10km). 

“Sometimes the car is a faster way to travel than a bike, but travelling by car can sometimes be three times slower due to congestion. This makes commuting times difficult to predict. With the bike, my commuting time is the same every day, so I always know exactly when to leave.”

As well as a consistent commute time, cycling has freed Martin from his least favourite things about driving: finding a parking spot and sitting in traffic. 

“Now that I’m cycling, I’m getting more fresh air and some mild exercise between meetings — I don’t try to go too fast as I don’t want to be sweaty. The time I spend cycling gives me a chance to think, and I find that it makes me more productive. When you’re in a car, you move much less, which can impact your long-term health.”

And if Martin ever wants to stop along the way, there’s no trouble finding a parking spot. He can park outside the office or even a café in Tallinn without finding a space.

There’s no such thing as bad weather — even in Estonia

Many commuters often cite the weather as an obstacle to cycling. But Martin commutes all year round in a country known for its long, dark, and cold winters. He believes that as long as you’re well prepared, you can cycle in any weather — and he’s proving it!

“The weather can be a challenge — but only sometimes. If you think about it, prepare, and dress reasonably, then it’s fine. I haven’t written it down, but I feel like there are only about 5 days each year when I’m cycling in really heavy rain or snow. But I’m quite used to that weather now.”

Suppose you find yourself putting your bike away as soon as the temperature drops. In that case, Martin advises investing in a winter coat, snowboarding helmet, mudguards with extensions (to avoid dirty shoes), and a biking poncho that goes over the handlebars (which will keep your knees and trousers dry). 

“Add these things to your commute then you can continue riding in bad weather.”

Martin Villig riding a cargo bike to work during winter

More pressing than lousy weather is poor infrastructure

A lack of safe, reliable infrastructure within cities is the biggest challenge facing many people who commute by bike. And this is something Martin faces in Tallinn: “There aren’t enough separate bike lanes in Tallinn, so I try to use smaller roads.”

Some cities have got it right, though. Martin believes there are 4 cities in Europe leading the way: “The cycling infrastructure in Copenhagen is excellent, and it’s easy to take a bike on the train to visit other areas of Denmark. I’ve also had similar cycling experiences in Helsinki, Stockholm, and Amsterdam.”

With or without great cycling infrastructure, cycling is still the best way to discover your own city, or somewhere you’re visiting: “With a bike, you end up in areas you wouldn’t usually visit. It’s a cool way to get to know a city.” 

Feel free by cycling to work

The case for owning a private car doesn’t hold as much weight as it once did. A growing number of sustainable mobility options offer a viable alternative to car ownership that will benefit your health, social life, and productivity. 

“It’s time to move on from the idea that owning a car is a status symbol. The younger generation understands that owning a car isn’t essential and finds that it’s possible to live more lightweight by using bikes, micromobility, and shared transport.”

Martin’s commute transformation is an extreme example. He ditched his car keys and started cycling daily to and from work. For you, it doesn’t have to be so black and white.

“Try different ways of commuting and find what works for you. Many options exist, such as electric bikes, cargo bikes, and e-scooters. Start by leaving the car at home once or twice a week or when the weather’s nice. See how you get on, then increase it step by step. I’ve found that travelling between 1-7 km is an ideal distance for cycling and electric scooters.”

If somebody who commuted by car for 20 years can dramatically change their commute, you can too — and Bolt Business can help

If Martin’s story inspired you, then discover how changing your commuting habits can benefit your health, your bank balance, and the planet.

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