By Masha Pashkova-Dzneladze
Have you ever pass down a street in your city and asked yourself: Who is the person that made this pedestrian sidewalk so narrow? Who decided to remove the bus stop from a place where it used to be for decades? Who made the dumb decision to cut the trees and widened the road? You are probably not alone as most people don’t like the decisions made without consulting with the population or any explanations. Nor does anyone try to persuade us that any particular decision is justified. Instead, our protests and petitions are just ignored. In most Eastern European cities, there is no dialogue between the municipality and citizens. Thus, their needs and wants are unsatisfied.
I have lived in 3 big cities so far: Tbilisi, where I was born and I grew up, Prague, where I lived for 2,5 years and Belgrade, where I moved in September 2019.
I remember the times in my home city, when the street I was living on was two way. Then, one day it became one way, surprisingly for the younger me. In fact, more and more streets were becoming one way, more crossroads were setting up traffic lights with timers, so even if there were no cars around, you would have to wait to cross. More and more people were migrating to the capital because the government was not taking care of the rural areas and more and more ugly buildings were built. The tram lines that were once covering the whole city disappeared in the 90s, as people were selling the metal as raw material during the huge economic crisis that came after the civil war and gaining the independence from the “Socialist” USSR and slipping into capitalism.
Luckily, today there is a metro in Tbilisi, which has 2 lines, but is absolutely not sufficient for the population, nor does it cover all the neighbourhoods. There are some buses, but much more “Marshrutkas” a cancer of post-USSR countries, ugly minibuses, totally uncomfortable for everyone that is taller than 175cm. They are stopped anywhere in the middle of the road by shaking your hand up in the air, like how the people in American movies stop a taxi but the comfort is far from it. Before, it was many small “companies” that were competing with each other and there-fore driving super-fast to “catch” as many passengers as possible. Now all Marshrutkas belong to Tbilisi Transport Company – a privately owned monopolist that doesn’t care for the passengers or the workers. These “minibuses” are usually full and drive in an unsafe manner.
The bicycle infrastructure is practically nonexistent. In the best case, there will be a bike lane on one side of the street in several places. So you can more or less safely use your bike to go from one end of the street to another. Some brave people bike all over Tbilisi, risking their lives doing so. There is a train line going through the whole of Georgia all the way to Azerbaijan, and crossing the capital from North to South-East, there are several stops inside the city, located near the metro stations, but unfortunately, the city government made a decision to move it away from the city centre to the other side of the Tbilisi sea, thus making it more difficult to get to for everyone. There are talks that this was done to sell the land where the railway lines are. Another “Smart” decision of the City government was to fill up kilometres of the already dug tunnel where the third line of metro was planned. All in all, the Tbilisi transport system pushes you to purchase a car and for those that can’t afford that, which is around 65% of the city population, it stays as a torture mechanism.
When I moved to the Czech Republic and actively started to travel around the city, I was truly shocked. Could a transport system work and actually… be a system? There is a metro, trams, buses and train that are all interconnected and accessible through a simple payment method, that was, by the way, invented by the Green Party (if you were wondering if public transport is political). The transport is always on time, it is clean and spacious. Very rarely, during the rush hours, you need to ask 1 or 2 people to move so you can go out. The price is more than acceptable for the quality of the service. All the stations are nicely and clearly connected to each other and even if you don’t have your smart-phone, you can easily read on the map that is located on each of the stations which bus, tram or metro line goes to which part of the city. Or you can just download the Czech transport application or check your connection on Google Maps. You can also use the cable car with the same card (litacka).
Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot for Prague transport to improve! e.g. the biking in this City is pretty difficult for beginners. There are not many bike lanes. In some places, they are painted, but then they suddenly disappear, leaving you in the middle of the street unsure where to go. You can take your bike on public transport after an additional payment and for free on some of the trains. The night bus system could be improved as well. But the state that the Prague public transport system is now in should truly be an example for other Eastern European capitals, whose decision-makers do not consider decent and accessible mobility a human right.
Coming to live in Belgrade was an exciting experience for me, but after living in Prague, the car-centric capital of Serbia was difficult to adjust to. Here, just like in Tbilisi, people are pushed to buy cars, pay for the petrol, stay sober in the evening, or drive drunk, pay fines because of driving drunk, and pay fines because of parking in the “wrong” places. Where else would they park if the government pushes everyone to buy the cars?! There simply can’t be as many parking spaces as there are the dwellers in the city. Every morning, when I was walking from my flat to the office for 30 minutes, I would see 4-5 different inspectors, looking at car plates and giving away fines. In Belgrade, I became very cautious again. You never know from which corner car will jump out because everyone is in rush. And I understand them – they are rushing to save several seconds on every corner because after, they will stand minutes and maybe even hour in different parts of the city in a traffic jam.
The problem in Belgrade is not only the large number of cars and a lack of public transport though. The city itself has very weirdly planned elements e.g. the tram lines in some areas are in the middle of the street and in some parts on the sides of the street, which means that the trams are forced to drive slower than the cars and the parked cars often interfere with the movement of the tram. The metro in Belgrade is being built now, let’s hope that it is planned properly and overcomes the cramped traffic of the city. Biking in Belgrade, just like in Tbilisi, is a fairly extreme sport, however, I see a lot of people biking still, mostly in the summer, but in the winter as well.
Lessons to be learned
What can Tbilisi, Prague and Belgrade teach us about cities? We Greens agree, that urban planning should happen with the maximum inclusion of the inhabitants of the particular city – as it is these people that will be using the transport. Not everyone has to have a degree in urban planning, but everyone can express their needs and it is the duty of the city to satisfy them. Then, it is the task of the planner to transfer these needs into the urban intervention and through change that satisfies the above-mentioned needs.
One of the biggest issues that Eastern European cities are facing is the collapsing public transport systems. This is a need that is most obvious for any visitor. In all Eastern European cities I have been to, the transport is not adequate. Here I will explain what the city government needs to do to transform the Public transport from a torture mechanism to a service that the population does not neglect to use. These can be outlined in six simple truths:
Simple truth #1: A lack of adequate public transport and bike infrastructure in the city leads to inhabitants buying more and more cars.
Sounds simple right? How can we blame the people for not being willing to stand in buses that are so full of people that even if you faint from lack of air in August Tbilisi or Belgrade, there is no space to fall down? When there is a struggle at the metro stations for getting in and out from the train cars because there are too many people in them, buying a small, cheap car seems to be an easy solution. You have your personal vehicle, and you go from point A to B without needing to lean against 6 other strangers standing next to you. Except, not everyone can afford a car, and even if they could, the traffic jams would be endless.
Simple truth #2: No matter how much you widen the roads, you will not be able to accommodate ever-growing car space demand.
There is just not that much space in the city. Even if it was, you should consider the social effects of too wide, autobahn like streets on the city. Moreover, it’s been proven that adding car lanes just makes using cars more appealing instead of lessening the strain on the traffic (just think of cities like Los Angeles). So what can be done? One solution can be to stop wasting the taxpayers’ money and invest it into the public transport infra-structure instead; hire professionals to study the city and the transport behaviour and come up with best mass transit solutions. Another solution is technological. Nowadays, cities collect vast amounts of data. It is very easy to estimate the number of passengers using public transport. This is the data the planners can base their decision regarding the bus numbers, frequency and locations for the new bus/tram lines, making them more cost-efficient.
Simple truth #3: Private transport feels good
We associate private transport not only with convenience but also with comfort. However, bicycles are also private transport even if for many they aren’t on the radar. A bike gives you the same flexibility and independence as the car. Riding it is practically free. Of course, not all of us can cover 10km per day, this is why it should be allowed to take bikes onto public transport. This way people would be able to combine available means of transportation and have more routes and chances to be on time. People should be motivated to cycle. A bike renting service would help this, and smart city solutions like a digital map of the bike rental stations and bike lanes would be an extra bonus.
Simple truth #4 People need to know where they are going
Online maps changed our perception of the city, how we communicate and commute in it. If we want citizens not to get lost, make sure to create apps that show transport in real-time, the schedule, and the best connections. This should include biking as an option: A map that shows the bike routes and sorts them by difficulty, steepness and travel time (these already exist in some cities, like this one: mapa.prahounakole.cz).
Simple truth #5 Combining different transport means often makes for the fastest route
Therefore, existing train routes should be included in the city transport network. In most cases they go through the city anyway, so they are a fast and practical way to connect the near-by cities. Before I discovered the bike+train connection from my flat in Prague to my office, I was spending up to 1 hour on the commute with bus+metro+bus, after I would spend just 25 minutes. Through the same logic, ferries and cable cars can also be included in the city transport, depending on the city landscape. This way the dwellers can cover big distances in little time.
Simple truth #6 People like to walk if there is walking space
The five previous findings lead to reclaiming more space for pedestrians. In fact, some streets can be reserved for pedestrians and bikes, allowing only those car drivers that live or work there enter. Barcelona is implementing this approach and with huge success – the pedestrian 3×3 blocks became livelier and safer.
Instead of a conclusion, I would like to again outline the criteria of a good public transport system:
Fast – allows you to cover big distances in a short time;
Accessible – physically based on your location or ability
Affordable – shouldn’t be expensive and there should be particular benefits for the underprivileged.
Clean – the passengers will not use the public transport if they are repulsed by it.
Connected – it should be easy to switch between different types of transport.
Let’s hope one day we will see the implementation of these solutions in our cities altogether.
Illustrations: Haris Begic