Imagine a city, a beautiful city part European, part Oriental but wholly Georgian. A city that is fast being recognised as one of the hippest destinations on the planet. The architecture a delightful mix of dilapidated old-world grandeur and startling modernism. A population comprising of no less that 41 distinct ethnicities struggling to get by in the tough transition economy sandwiched between Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. A proud and fiercely independent nation of poets, musicians, warriors and artists with a clear understanding of their identity, trying to make sense of a modern world in which promises are easily made and more easily broken resulting in a continuing difficulty travelling to the EU where much-needed experience could be gathered. All of this meets in Tbilisi, yet more disconcertingly Tbilisi has a problem, a problem that seemingly no-one is willing to take seriously: Traffic.
It is true of all modern cities that the motor car is largely incompatible with high-density living and a decent quality of life. Globally different cities have dealt with the problem in varying ways:
London introduced a congestion charge, effectively taxing road users in the hope that the cost would modify their behaviour, at the same time it invested heavily in public transport and introduced bus-lanes and cameras to control these — so whilst there’s no real need for people in London to drive, they still do… thus we can conclude that the congestion charge has been a failure.
Athens introduced a ban on cars with odd or even numbers at the end of their registration on certain days. The Greeks just bought another car so they had one with odd and one with even. Another failure.
Only Amsterdam has managed to quell the tides of traffic by effectively making large areas of the city centre pedestrian only and adopting a cycling first policy intermixed with great public transport. Yet of course Amsterdam benefits from being largely flat and thus suited to cycling. Similar successes have been seen in Copenhagen, which is also rather flat. The major cities of Germany also see large percentages of cyclists and public transport users, and many have huge pedestrianised areas.
So what of Tbilisi? I was riding my bike home this evening and was shocked to find Rustaveli Avenue and Kostava Street entirely gridlocked. It’s not the first time, but this seemed to be more… and indeed it is. In the last year alone Georgia has seen 140,000 new car registrations — given the population spread and wealth concentration it’s reasonable to surmise that over 100,000 of these will be in Tbilisi. The traffic is a real killer, and I don’t mean that as a figure of speech. A recent study found that Tbilisi had the highest incidence of pollution related deaths per capita in the world. The huge opportunity costs to the economy of people not being able to get around go largely undiscussed, but they exist all the same. Incidences of respiratory illnesses amongst the population are incredibly high, yet are hardly discussed. Road-traffic deaths and injuries are also ridiculously high. Tbilisi has designs on being a hot-spot for tourism, yet it begs the question whether visitors will return after they’ve experienced the horrors of the driving, traffic, parking on pavements and pollution or any combination of the above
Now I realise that I am just a chamotreuli (a damn foreigner) who in the eyes of many has to right to tell Georgians how to manage their country. I should just accept the anarchy on the roads. But you see, the thing is that I’ve called this place home for 3 years and I care about the quality of life for everyone here, Georgians, foreigners, children… even vegans. So yeah, some of my more experienced friends who’ve been here longer will wince and think Georgians will call me a yovlismcodne (smart-ass) and maybe they will… but I’ve looked on long enough and feel it’s time to say that traffic IS a political issue. We are just before another election after the first one failed to bring a conclusive result, and indeed fixing the traffic has to be one of the most pressing issues for Tbilisi and Georgia as a whole. We see anarchy on the street due to the seeming complete lack of desire on the part of the police to enforce traffic laws, the total ineffectiveness of the City parking regulations as are supposed to be carried out by the private contractor C.T. Park which sees pedestrian footways parked all over by inconsiderate drivers who see themselves as a kind of ruling class. We see Marshutkas, Taxis and Buses driving in a downright dangerous manner regularly causing congestion by arbitrarily stopping when and where they like regardless of the consequences for all other road users. We find drivers of cars with state registrations such as secret police, SPSS, MIA and narcotics enforcement driving like they are above the law — something I’ve never seen happen in any other country in the world. We find a driving etiquette worse than anywhere this side of Saudi Arabia; I recently drove from London to Tbilisi, taking in 11 countries, for 4600km I experienced nothing but safe roads, good driving etiquette, respect of the rule of law and fully functioning traffic management. Then I got to Georgia. A huge multi-million dollar border control point and then the feeling of being transported back 50 years. After the incredible roads in Turkey and the largely good driving style of Turks Georgia was a truly horrific experience. Let’s not even talk about Europe. We arrived at night in the driving rain, but this is no excuse for roads totally unmarked so you can’t see the edges, roads with no markings in the middle. Suddenly changing road-surfaces and signage that is universally placed in the wrong place meaning turns are regularly missed. Once back in Tbilisi the roads are better, but the driving is far worse. You get the sense that no-one really cares… but that can’t be true? Can it?
Surely everyone that uses the roads would like for it to be a nicer, smoother experience. A safer experience. So yes, the pedestrians are also random and cause danger, but their behaviour is caused by a lack of crossing opportunities. So what to do about the roads? Here are a few simple suggestions, feel free to ignore these just as the German experts that were brought in to fix the problems were ignored:
- Introduce Bus Lanes on all major roads, these must be ONLY for buses and Marshutkas, and bicycles. These should be controlled with lane cameras. The fines levied for using these lanes will easily pay for the painting and cameras
- Enforce Zebra Crossings and make it law that the pedestrian has the right of way: Penalty for ignoring this: 500 GEL — cancel ALL Police leave for a month and enforce this law, they did this in Russia and now people stop. To make this work there is a need to run a public information campaign that ostracises those breaking the law. Publish photos of law-breakers in the newspaper for a while.
- Regulate Taxis — introduce a registration scheme (for free) where all taxis must be registered. Also make sure they ALL run on taximeters. Make sure ALL Taxis have a fixed registration plate. Have established Taxi-ranks and proper stopping places for Taxis that do NOT block the roads. Strictly penalise Taxi drivers using Bus lanes and randomly stopping. introduce a minimum safety standard for Taxis and insist on annual inspections. If cars are stopped by the police in a dangerous condition (no headlights, no brake lights, etc etc fine them 500 GEL and revoke their licence.
- Improve the driving tests — don’t just have 32 theoretical units and then a tiny practical test — introduce a real practical test and inspectorate to improve the standard of new drivers coming onto the roads. Whilst this will take time to filter-through the raising of standards is worth doing NOW because Georgians need to know how to drive safely at home and abroad.
- Stop allowing Marshutkas to stop anywhere, introduce official stops and build them properly. Fine the drivers if they stop randomly or drive dangerously. Make sure that these minibuses do not impede the flow of traffic.
- Come down far harder on Drink and Drug driving — introduce heavy fines, public photos, and even prison sentences for bad offenders. Also run big public information campaigns — there are plenty of empty billboards and state TV and radio can run repeated ads ALL day — there should be NO escape for people to understand that THEY must be responsible when getting into a car.
- Introduce paid parking, not a silly 50 GEL permit — how is it even possible that Yerevan, a city comparable in size and economic development can be so civilised to drive and park in? Build public car parks and make people understand that they have to walk a little and can’t park outside everywhere.
- Put traffic light cameras at ALL major junctions and clamp down on jumping red lights — introduce a 500 GEL fine for jumping a red.
- Introduce a points-based system for removing driving licences of repeat offenders, just like in Europe, a 12 point system like in the UK works well… 3 points per infringement and then at 12 you get an automatic 6 month ban, 1000 GEL fine and mandatory re-taking of the driving licence exam to the NEW standards.
- Ensure that the enforcement of road-traffic laws are not a political thing, it’s totally obvious that the Police have been instructed to do nothing but sit around in the run-up to the election, but this is crazy… how can public safety be thrown away to win votes? Surely everyone should be protected by the state (Police) whether there are elections or not, road safety is a major quality of life issue and enforcing the above will reduce congestion and pollution.
I could continue by talking about things like vehicle inspections (yes, I know it was corrupt and got disbanded) or perhaps introducing huge taxes on the import of old cars like Ukraine brought in last year — which means newer safer cars on the roads and far less polluting ones… but those steps will take time and are further steps. The 10 points above are the essentials that can be done at a low cost and huge benefit to everyone in the city of Tbilisi and Georgia as a whole.
I love Georgia, and I want it to be a pleasant place to be… that means less pollution, less traffic, less danger, more respect for the law, more protection of all citizens and a better life for all. I know that many families are fed by the salaries of Taxi drivers because there are no other jobs — but there needs to be a cross-party political will to fix these problems. Georgia is otherwise a wonderful safe place — and it is this way because a previous administration introduced standards, made tough and unpopular decisions but now everyone looks back and sees that those decisions had to be made. When you come to Tbilisi there is a public Wi-Fi called Tbilisi Loves You — wouldn’t it be great if we could make that true, whether you drive, bike, ride a bus or walk?