Issue 1, 2018. February-March

   

NEW HOPE FOR IMPROVED URBAN TRANSPORT IN TBILISI

Residents of Tbilisi have been hammering for reform of the city's transportation system for years. Over the past several months, finally it appears that Tbilisi City Hall is listening -- and acting. Despite urban planning mistakes made in the past, the municipality has repeatedly stated that Tbilisi's infrastructure issues are a top priority.

Inge Snip

The opening of a 1 km bicycle path on Pekini Street in September 2017 was met with both applause and derision on social media in Georgia: the bike path--promoted as a sign of progress in the fight against congested roads--lacked any safe access ramps for bicyclists to use the path.

Other decisions taken over the past year--including building a bridge over a recently discovered ancient city wall and increasing the number of parking places in green zones--have served to underscore the gap between the city planners' vision and the demands of activists.

There are small signs of change, however, including newly elected Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze's pledges to radically improve the transportation and urban development situation in the city.

"He [the new mayor] inherited an absolutely dire situation from his predecessor, and the challenges that Tbilisi faces at this stage of its development are going to be huge," says Joseph Alexander Smith, a journalist and the first Briton to run for the municipal elections in October 2017, about Mayor Kakha Kaladze.

Two of Smith's pressing campaign issues were urban infrastructure and road safety. But Smith tells Investor.ge he is slightly hopeful the city is at the start of "a radically different period for the urban governance of Tbilisi."

New initiatives

In the past few months, the new mayor has announced several different new measures to improve the city's urban infrastructure. These include time restrictions for delivery vans to deliver goods; a formal registration and a permit system for taxi drivers; allocating 40 million lari for the metro system; and promising to alleviate Tbilisi's traffic problems.

But change is not just occurring on the municipal level. The technical inspection of cars, a major policy issue, is scheduled to start in 2018.

The mandatory vehicle inspections will test the "road worthiness of vehicles before they are allowed to drive on roads" agenda.ge reports. Initially, the inspection is mandatory for buses, cargo, government cars, company cars, and cars bigger with a larger than 3000 cubic cm engine size. Starting January 2019, all private cars will be included in the inspections as well.

Gela Kvashilava, UNECE Lead National Consultant and elected member of the board of directors of the Global Alliance of NGOs for Road safety, says the inspections are a major step in the right direction.

"There used to be a system, but it was extremely open to corruption," Kvashilava explains to Investor.ge. The new system of inspections will cost the owners 60 lari for private cars and 100 lari for heavy vehicles, which can only be paid through Payboxes; no cash exchanges hands during the inspections.

In addition, all inspections are recorded on video, and there is no direct contact possible between the service personnel and the owner, decreasing corruption risks significantly, Kvashilava says.

And, if you do not fix your car as indicated, fines start at 50 lari--increasing exponentially, with traffic police able to check whether you have checked your car and whether you have complied.

Other road safety measures implemented in 2017, such as a driving license point system and speed cameras, have also led to an increasingly safer road system. "On the 1st of November, they included a new mass camera system, which has already resulted in a 10 percent decrease in car crashes, and that is huge," Kvashilava explains, stressing that the system needs to be maintained and improved regularly for it to be effective.

Important changes at City Hall

Giorgi Kankia, a member of the board of the pedestrian rights organization Iare Pekhit and an urban planner, is also optimistic about the future of Tbilisi's urban transportation, saying that City Hall's transport department is undergoing an important structural change, giving "the department more ownership on research-based urban transport policy and planning in the city."

One of the changes was signified by the municipality's disagreement with the City Institute over the central railway station, demonstrating that the local authorities have realized the importance of the already-existing railway infrastructure as a pillar for a future multimodal transport system in Tbilisi.

One major issue still exists, however.

Kankia says that "the fictional idea of 'more roads equal less traffic jams' is still very much alive," pointing to plans for a new road flyover project that were announced in January.

Smith tells Investor.ge that, despite his optimism, the municipality should make a decision about how to approach the issues at hand.

"We hear on the one hand that the number of cars must be reduced, and yet there are also plans for a new flyover in the Vere River Valley--so which one is it going to be?" he asks.

While Kvashilava believes that, despite the municipality's understanding and willingness to tackle the urban transport problems, there are basic things --like the need for access between transportation lines and cycling or walking paths --that are not fully understood yet.

"There is no problem with money; rather, [the problem is] how it is spent," Kvashilava says.