19 January 2020

Hafiz Adewuyi

Travelling by bus in Kaunas, Lithuania - a Nigerian's perspective

Troleibusas Kaune snieguotą dieną (Trolleybus in Kaunas on a snowy day)
I have found it to be super convenient to travel around Kaunas by bus since I arrived Lithuania in October 2019. My office is a 10-minute walk away from my house, so I don't have to use any vehicle for my daily commute. However, whenever I am travelling farther from home than my office or the nearby Kaunas Akropolis mall, I usually opt to take a bus.

One working day in my second week in Kaunas, a member of Afriko came over to my office to hand me my Kaunas bus card which was preloaded with 5 Euros. The bus card has a wallet which can be loaded with money for buying bus tickets. Also, each bus card is tied to an individual passenger account which can be accessed through through the Kaunas public transport website. Via the website, the card wallet can be loaded, period-based subscription tickets can be purchased, the wallet balance and travel history can be checked among other things.

Kaunas public transport account online dashboard

The night I dumped my Kaunas bus card for a Žiogas eBus-ticket profile

Not long after I got my Kaunas bus card, I took my first bus trip in Kaunas to only God remembers where. One evening, when I had almost used up the initial 5 € on my bus card, I recharged the card at the Narvesen retail shop in the Kaunas bus station. The cashier took my bus card from me and in three seconds, the transaction was done. I was a bit worried though when she gave me a slip of paper and referred to it as a ticket. I feared that I might have bought a 5 € paper ticket instead of having my card wallet loaded with that amount. However, when I took a moment to sit and login to my online account, I discovered that contrary to my fears, I now had 5 € more in my Kaunas bus wallet.

Another evening in early November 2019, I was about to get on my way back from an appointment in another part of Kaunas where I had traveled to by bus. I checked my online bus account and saw that I had only 70 cents left - just enough money for a one-off bus trip. However, I had noticed from my previous bus trips that sometimes, it takes a few minutes for the balance of the bus card to synchronize to the online account. So I feared that I might actually not have enough money to take a bus trip back home.

Fortunately, there was an IKI retail shop close to my location. I walked into the store and asked a uniformed staffer who was busy with some shelf arrangement to confirm if I could reload my Kaunas bus card in that store. "Unfortunately, you cannot do that here", she said. Disappointed, I walked back out of the store onto a sidewalk inside the same 'prematurely' dark Tuesday evening where I had stood earlier while checking my online bus account.

Žiogas: Kaunas bus tickets mobile app

After taking a few moments to contemplate my next steps, I remembered that Eglė, my main contact at Afriko had mentioned on the Digital Explorers Lithuanian culture training day that we could use a mobile app: Žiogas to buy bus tickets. I went on to download the Žiogas app from the Play store to my Tecno Android phone and loaded it with 3.5 € - enough money for 5 trips. Ever since that evening, I have abandoned the Kaunas bus card in my wardrobe on a shelf on my home wardrobe, as the convenience of funding the Žiogas app outstrips that of the bus card. 

Thinking about it, I can actually also fund my bus card wallet online. But ever since I tried to do that and abandoned the payment, the button for online funding of my bus card has disappeared from my profile on the website. Apparently I need to complete that payment which I have no easy way of finding my way to ever again.

One thing I quickly noticed about the Žiogas app which I liked was that it actually adds up the amounts of your one-off bus tickets in a calendar month until it's up to the price of a monthly bus pass, after which all your subsequent trips will be free. I like this because it actually removes the incentive to buy a monthly pass upfront at no extra cost. Sweet deal!

I don't take a lot of bus trips in Kaunas so I've never spent up to 28 € for one-off tickets in a month

Cross section of your typical bus trip in Kaunas

1. Planning your Kaunastic bus trip

A bus trip in Kaunas always starts in the mind and then proceeds to your phone or computer. If you have never been to a place in Kaunas, days ahead, you would consult Google maps and apply some considerations to the different routes that are applicable for the intended arrival date+time:
  • How long does it take to walk to the target bus-stop?
  • How long is the trip for?
  • How long is the walk from the target bus-stop to my final destination?
  • What side of the road is the bus-station on; will you have to cross the road on your way to/from the source/destination bus-stop?
  • Is the destination close enough and the roads level enough for you to cycle in sub-10 degrees Celsius weather?
Based on a combination those considerations, you would then make a mental note of your preferred route and if the search was done on a PC, send the route as a push notification or text message to your phone.

2. Waiting for your Kaunastic bus

The next step is to remember to get yourself out of the house or office early enough to reach the bus-station at least, 5 minutes before the scheduled departure time. Yes. Even though the buses are more often than not, either right on time or at most, 1 or 2 minutes late, it has happened a few times when you reached the bus stop just a few seconds short of catching the bus, even though you were 1.50 minutes early according to the schedule on the maps.

Enough of you for a minute. My most frequent bus stations to leave from in Kaunas are:
  • S. Daukanto gatve - the closest stop to work at TransUnion, Zalgiris arena; howbeit a long 7-minute walk away
  • Kaunakiemio gatve - a paltry 2-minute walk away from home; the closest stop to home
  • Geležinkelio tiltas: This is a 5-minute walk away from home; the second closest stop to home
Except for once in a blue moon, you often have to walk between 3 and 10 minutes from your departure point to the nearest bus stop. Once there, you step under the bus stop shelter in the hopes that they do something to reduce the effect on the cold wind on your real temperature feel while you await the bus. You would consider sitting on the chair in the shade but a look at them suggests that it's been a while since anyone bothered to clean it. 

So you stand in wait, hoping that the data in Google maps is accurate and that your wait this evening is not in vain. Sometimes, your paranoia would drive you to open Trafi (another bus mobile app which also has local bus routes) and confirm that the suggested route matches that on Google maps - the one that told you to come to this stop in the first place.

Your first impression of waiting for a bus in Kaunas is cold hands. Those few seconds of bringing out your phone to cross-reference your bus route on Trafi often cost some precious body heat from your poorly circulated hands.

3. Getting on board your Kaunastic bus

With up to a 2-minute error rate, your bus will arrive at the bus stop right on time. It always fills you with relief; seeing the bus approach from the distance. Even after 4 months, you have not been able to do away with your fear that the schedule might change because for example, the bus broke down at the previous stop.

As the bus slows down to let alighting and boarding passengers do their thing, you divert your attention to the Žiogas sticker close to the front door on the right side of the bus. While waiting, you had taken a moment to open the Žiogas app. The Žiogas sticker displays a 3-digit code and a QR code, either of which can be entered or scanned respectively into the Žiogas app on your phone. 

As it takes some time to scan a QR code and people typically hurry into the bus, you memorize the bus code at a glance of the sticker and enter it into Žiogas at the same time as you step onto the bus. By the time you're passing by the driver's cabin, your one-off ticket is ready for inspection. You turn your phone screen around and show it briefly to the driver through his tall cabin window - if they are paying any attention and not just staring straight ahead.

Most times, the Kaunastic driver seems not to care about your in-app e-ticket. You never used to display your ticket to the driver until that one time when you had the driver request to see your ticket after you'd breezed through him to a seat right behind him. During that trip, you read the instructions poster in the bus and learned from it your obligation as a passenger to display your ticket to the driver while boarding.

[Picture of Žiogas bus sticker with QR code]

The boarding process is a little different if you're using a Kaunas bus card. In that case, there is no ticket to show to the driver. Instead, you would simply have to tap your bus card against one of the yellow NFC scanners on the bus: right by the driver's cabin or near the back of the bus. This was the case for me in my first several weeks in Kaunas before I ditched my card for Žiogas.

[Picture of Kaunas bus NFC card reader]

After ensuring that you are not a freeloader on the current bus, the next priority is to find yourself a good spot for the rest of the trip. As it appears that the people of Lithuania generally love their personal space, your ideal seat is a vacant two-seater and that is what you try to spot initially. If that is not available, the next option is to find a seat next to a person who based on mental heuristics, is least likely to be flustered by having you seat beside them.

If I could guess, I would say that a friendly face/welcoming aura is the most important factor in this calculation. Which in your opinion is not so easy to come by. Your understanding of a friendly face is... far fetched from what generally obtains in this new home of yours. Or maybe you're just paranoid; still have not recovered from the culture shock.

4. Riding on a Kaunas city bus

The seats are pretty comfortable; wide enough for an average person to sit comfortably. Also, while not all the seats have a lot of leg room for vertically gifted folks like yourself, it's easy to find that kind of seat on any bus that is not much more than half full - which is often the case in Kaunas judging by your bus trips so far. 

The most crowded bus that I myself have boarded since my arrival in Lithuania last October was in Vilnius last Friday on my way back from a Digital explorers Deep Learning training at the Vilnius Tech Park. The bus travelling towards the Vilnius Stotis stop was so full that it felt like I was in an Oshodi Molue all over again. However, after 4 or 5 stops, the crowding reduced and I was able to find myself a seat.

Most of the bus trips that you take are 30 minutes long - or more or less. Anywhere that is not that far away by bus is likely better reached on foot or by bicycle. During these short bus trips, you would spend your time doing one of three things:
  • Taking in the faces of the people around you, hoping not to catch anyone's eye because someone might find that creepy?
  • If the bus trip is up to 30 minutes long, you might pop out a physical book to occupy your mind and make you look smart to absolutely no one
  • Sometimes you also enjoy looking out the window to get a better sense of your new city
Knowing that all of these are activities that you quite enjoy, I dare to say that many an intra-city bus trip in Kaunas passes too quickly for you.

5. Alighting from a Kaunas city bus

But as an adult, you've got to do what you've got to do. You noticed from your first couple of bus trips that passengers would move from their seat to a standing position close to one of the two exit doors of the regular sized Kaunas bus/trolleybus. At first, you thought, "Why the rush? Why not just wait till the bus arrives at your target stop, then walk briskly from your seat to the exit?". However you stopped asking this question and just learned to follow suit after that time when the driver opened the door at your target stop and closed it almost immediately before you reached the exit door. Just before opening the doors, he must have seen from his camera and/or convex mirror view that no one was standing at the door to alight.

As you always have Google maps navigation on during your Kaunas city bus trips, the voice would prompt you one or two stops before your final stop to prepare to alight which is really useful as there is the thin chance that you get carried away reading a book and also not hear the stop announcement since you always have your ears blocked with headphones.

Ears covered with headphones on a Kaunas city bus

That one time I encountered passenger control in Kaunas

In the "getting on board" section of this article, you might have noticed that there is easy opportunity to be a freeloader on a bus trip in Kaunas. 

First, if you're using a bus card, you have total justification to enter through the back door after which you have the choice to tap (or not) your card against the reader as there is no official on the bus to get you to do that. Even if you are using the Žiogas app, the driver more often than not looks like they don’t care to see your e-ticket or if they do, do not scrutinize it. Hence, even if you are going through the front door, you can choose to just walk past the driver's cabin if you notice that the driver is not intent on the queue of passengers streaming through the front door.

The white passenger-control bus has "Keleivių kontrolė" written in blue just above the window. The red bus (taking off) has just been checked for freeloaders
The Kaunas city bus transport company's response to the ever-present risk of freeloaders is a system known as Passenger control - Keleivių kontrolė. This is a group of uniformed officials who drive in a labelled minibus between bus stations, conducting random checks on the passengers of buses/trolleybuses that stop at whatever bus station they happen to be at. 

To be found on a bus without a valid ticket or e-ticket is to be liable to pay a fine of up to 30 Euros. Despite this control measure, it is pretty clear to see that the Kaunas bus transport operation is relying mostly on the propensity of the commuter to do what is right. I have been in Kaunas for 16 weeks now and in all that time - after at least 20 bus trips - I've had only one encounter with passenger control officials. 

If someone is really intent on freeloading, it is pretty easy because they could simply keep watch from the window and buy an e-ticket as soon as they spot a passenger control bus at the next stop which is rarely. Every other time - most of the time, they actually get the chance to travel for free. But I guess that's not how Kaunas people do, so this trust based system works just fine. In Kaunas, I have encountered several instances of public systems that betray an assumption of trust on the public, but my impression of this unfamiliar reality deserves an article of its own.

My cold-room experience on an old Kaunastic Trolleybus

An old Kaunas trolley bus - KaunasIn
Two weeks ago, on the way back from an appointment in another part of Kaunas, I took bus 14 from the Pakraščio g. stop to the S. Daukanto g. stop where I had parked my bicycle when leaving home base a couple of hours earlier. From the street art on the trolley bus, I could tell that it was an old bus, perhaps one of those that had been in an exhibition in Kaunas in late 2019.

After settling into the bus, I removed my gloves and unzipped my jacket as I am wont to do when I step into a newer model Kaunas bus/trolleybus - whose internal temperature is always conducive for that. However, after sitting for a few minutes in this case, I realized that instead of getting warmer, I was actually feeling colder! Well, the moment I realized this, I promptly jumped back into my warm clothing (winter jacket and woolen gloves).

Inside an old Kaunas bus with a cold interior temperature

My Vilnius bus trips compared to Kaunas bus trips

Two Saturdays ago, I traveled from Kaunas to Vilnius by train for a Digital Explorers machine learning training. From the Stotis bus stop (right outside the Vilnius train station), I had boarded a bus to Sauletekis Valley Science and Technology park - training center. A few things about this bus trip were different from the typical one in Kaunas.

For one, the mobile app for buying tickets in Vilnius is Trafi (versus Žiogas in Kaunas) - I had first learned of this difference from Emmanuel (a fellow Digital explorer who lives and works in Vilnius) during one of our training sessions in Kaunas. The Trafi wallet operates quite differently from the Žiogas one in that while you have to buy one or multiple one-off tickets (or other types of longer-period tickets) in Trafi while paying, Žiogas allows you to fund your wallet with any amount and buy tickets only when you're checking in to a bus. Hence, while you can have a one-off ticket that is not attached to any bus in Trafi, all one-off Žiogas tickets are attached to a single bus number.

Another major difference between the Vilnius and Kaunas mobile bus e-tickets is that while for Kaunas, a one-off ticket is valid for a single trip irrespective of how long it is, the Vilnius one is only valid for either 30 minutes or 60 minutes. This means that as a passenger, one needs to do the added trouble of mapping the expected length of their trip to a ticket that covers for that period; if they are not a dishonest freeloader that is.

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Write comments
24 April 2020 at 11:17 delete

This brings back so many memories!
Especially the old trolleybuses in winter, where you almost needed an extra blanket to survive. And at each stop, when the doors opened, the wind blew in more snow.

I have only been to Kaunas once, because I lived in Vilnius. But generally, I loved the bus system in Lithuania. Not expensive, buses going to almost anywhere, and quite a good frequency too.

25 April 2020 at 09:02 delete

Thanks for the comment Andreas. It did not snow enough in the just passed winter for me to experience snow blowing into a bus I was travelling on. I wish it did 😭

9 April 2021 at 10:52 delete

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