Issue 6, 2014. December-January

   

TBILISI'S TRAFFIC NIGHTMARE: A PERFECT STORM OF PLANNING, POLLUTION AND POPULAR CULTURE

The fact that traffic in the capital is getting worse is not news to anyone who lives in the city - especially to those who commute by car, bus or marshrutka. Analysts say a fatal combination of no planning, little political will, and too many cars is making the situation worse.

Heather Yundt

With the number of vehicles on Georgia's roads increasing at about 10 percent a year — compared to about one percent in the United States — traffic is becoming an increasing concern in the country's capital. Yet residents' shared frustration with driving and walking in the city cannot be explained by the number of vehicles alone.


The 2014 Tbilisi In Your Pocket guide put it aptly: "On the face of it, Georgians don't seem the most disciplined motorists. Driving speeds are often fast and lane changes can be erratic. At rush-hour the experience is further intensified by heavy city traffic."

With the number of vehicles on Georgia's roads increasing at about 10 percent per year — compared to about one percent per year in the United States — traffic is becoming an increasing concern in the country's capital. Yet residents' shared frustration with driving and walking in the city cannot be explained by the number of vehicles alone.

Gela Kvashilava, chairman of Partnership for Road Safety, says Tbilisi's traffic problem is strongly linked to culture.

"The major problem is that road users...they don't respect each other. They behave in a way as though they have priority and the road belongs only to them. This is a culture of not sharing roads," he said. "The road has become (about) social status."

Kvashilava says traffic congestion and flow ultimately matters because it affects residents' well-being in terms of health, business and tourism.

Lado Vardosanidze, an urban planner specializing in sociocultural aspects of urban development, says Georgia is a rural culture that has become urban in geography only recently. He says that this contributes to the average Georgian's self-centered pattern of spatial behavior.

"[Georgians] don't pay attention to the surrounding situation, to other people. We see many examples of this, particularly in the behavior of drivers and in competition between drivers and pedestrians," Vardosanidze said.

Culture is also tied to Georgia's rapid increase in car ownership.

"For the statistical Georgian, it's very important to have a car. It's prestige," he said. "I'm not sure that all owners of those big black jeeps need to drive. Many cars are driven from home to the office, and they stay all day by the office and only in the evening are they coming back."

Vardosanidze argues that there are two other important elements that affect Tbilisi's traffic congestion: the construction and the running of the transportation system. He points to the example of Heroes Square, the intricate traffic circle built by Mikheil Saakashvili's government, where the lanes wind around one another like spaghetti.

"The problem is that no preliminary study was made," Vardosanidze said. "And you notice in rush hour, some of the directions are free, others are overloaded. (For) the transportation system, it's absolutely necessary to make a calculation before starting with concrete."

"It means that, unfortunately, the profession of urban planners was forgotten. Politicians took decisions without any consultation with professionals, city planners, engineers, and so on."

But Vardosanidze emphasizes that fixing one trouble spot isn't enough. Congestion will simply be created in another place.

"It's like a blood system," he said.

Kvashilava says the lack of car inspections aggravates the problem. While car inspections were eliminated due to corruption entrenched in the inspection process, without them many vehicles are polluting at rates above international standards.

As for the functioning of the system, Kvashilava stresses that crosswalks and sidewalks must be respected by drivers in order to protect pedestrians. Kvashilava's Partnership for Road Safety is currently trying to convince companies to sign a pledge that their drivers will stop for pedestrians at crosswalks.

Transparency International Georgia took aim at the city's tolerance of cars parking on sidewalks in a September blog post written by Erekle Urushadze.

"If the City Hall aspires to transform Tbilisi into a civilized, modern city and if it does not consider pedestrians and people with disabilities to be second-rate citizens, it should immediately start removing cars parked in violation of the law from the city's sidewalks," he wrote.

Added to all of this is the fact that data are lacking. Investor.ge could not locate any data on traffic jams in Tbilisi, and while Georgia is currently undergoing a census that will clarify the current population of Tbilisi, it will not reveal how many commuters enter the city every day.

Data provided by the interior ministry, however, indicates that there are over a million cars in the country - 368,873 registered in Tbilisi alone.

Vardosanidze calls this latter number essential.

"The transportation system serves not only the stable population, but also commuters," Vardosanidze said. "The transportation system should respond to this additional kind of population. So it also should be calculated."

Attempts to manage Tbilisi's traffic have taken a variety of forms over the years. During the Soviet Union, city plans were used to organize traffic flows by focusing on buses and electric transport, but this system fell apart in the 1990s. Private operators began to fill the gap in public transportation through marshrutkas. After the Rose Revolution, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) helped the city purchase 150 municipal buses, among other things, to reform the public transit system.

According to a 2008 report from Green Alternative, an environmental NGO, it was assumed that the modernization of the bus fleet "would decrease traffic congestion, increase traffic safety, improve air quality and reduce emissions." But Green Alternative says this did not happen. In 2006, the government banned minibuses from main avenues and discontinued the trams and trolleys. These moves overloaded the public transit system and, according to Green Alternative, made the environmental situation in Tbilisi worse.

Now Tbilisi's City Hall is trying again to improve the situation. Mayor Davit Narmania says the city is cooperating with the EBRD to develop a feasibility study to examine traffic flows.

"Once the feasibility study is over, we'll have a clearer picture of the problems and what aspect needs to be improved," Narmania said to Investor.ge through a translator. "Some streets might be widened, some might be narrowed. It means not only change of traffic flow but also infrastructure projects."

Narmania says that the study should be completed by the spring.

However, many of Tbilisi's residents are not waiting for the government to take action. Some have created an online buzz by putting stickers on cars parked on sidewalks. Facebook pages and websites have been set up to help shame drivers not following the rules. A group of entrepreneurs even recently held a Saturday session to brainstorm ideas to address the city's parking problem.

Kvashilava says there is one concept that will definitely help: implementing a park and ride system, which allows drivers to park outside of the city center and take public transportation for the rest of their journey.

"(The city is) thinking of building a new road inside the small Old City. A new road means new cars. This is not a solution," said Kvashilava.

Elene Margvelashvili, of Iare Pekhit, a pedestrians' rights organization, says in addition to improving public transportation, society should treat driving like North America treats smoking, by limiting the spaces drivers can occupy.

"We need to start making these people feel uncomfortable, feel ashamed, feel uncool, and feel, you know, just silly," Margevelashvili said. "If a person doesn't feel cool owning this big jeep, why would they pay so much for petrol? Why would they put so much effort into sustaining this big jeep and sitting in this traffic jam and never having a parking space?"

Margvelashvili noted that Georgians need to make the connection between their quality of life and their everyday decisions.

She says drivers don't seem to realize that they are contributing to the problem: "They think they're sitting in the traffic jam, but they don't understand that they're one of the people creating this traffic jam."

"People don't even understand — even the young people — what it is that they like in the foreign countries that they go to," she said.

"They just feel good, and you know this is not something that you can prove mathematically, that a sidewalk should be this wide or that wide. This is something that you feel with your heart or soul, that you are respected by your government. You can have this in your own country too, but you have to work for it."

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