In Moscow, a revolution for transportation

Велодорожки МГУ from Alexander Tugunov on Vimeo.

The city of Moscow opened its first on-street bike path in September. It’s a small sign of a strategic change in the urban development of a city that has become legendary for bad traffic.

According to the article, behavior on the trail isn’t perfect: people are parking in the bike path! Unthinkable! But, also unthinkably, the police has promised to enforce the laws and educate drivers. Now, when I lived in Moscow, I saw the city rip up Leningradsky Prospekt to convert it into a highway. That remains unchanged, but now dedicated trolleybus lanes will run along the highway. The entire transportation and land use strategies are being upended because the mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, and the Kremlin have realized that you cannot build yourself out of congestion with still more roads.

If there’s any doubt as to whether this is a token effort, Sobyanin’s comments here and there are explicit commitment to a complete transportation strategy. Take this interview on

SOBYANINThe easiest option we could offer is: “Let’s build more roads and interchanges, at two levels, three levels, and, sure, everything will be wonderful.” : Yes, like in Tokyo, Beijing and other Asian cities.

SOBYANIN: Yes, but it’s a dead end. It is impossible, even if we had a lot of money. And, there can never be enough money, because the building of highways and interchanges costing absurd sums.

That is just the beginning. There’s trams, trolleys, and a hundred miles of metro construction after the break.

Sailing into congestion.

What he’s talking about are watershed shifts in the strategic plan that Moscow has followed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union 20 years – if not since Stalin broadened the streets into monumental avenues. In the Luzhkov era, which loved highways as much as it loved corruption and awful art, huge, poorly managed highway projects insinuated themselves into the city.

A year ago, I had been leery of Sobyanin’s tenure. His first suggestions upon being appointed Mayor were to build roads everywhere and ban trolleybuses from the center of the city. This interview, however, shows him to be much more interested in the sort of modern urban policies regarding sustainability, finance, and transportation. This is not to say that Sobyanin is free of the Kremlin’s autocratic tendencies and his biases.

Nevertheless, his planning and transportation policies are stellar. An earlier Echo of Moscow interview with Sobyanin shows the depth of his thought about the matter:

VENEDIKTOV: Mr. Sobyanin… Maybe it’s a narrow question, but you can interpret it broadly. What are you going to do with the development of public transportation and restricting private vehicles?

SOBYANIN: Well, you know, when we talk about the need to address the problem of traffic jams in Moscow, and we’ve heard about this at least once, I wouldn’t say it’s the “problem of traffic jams.” I think the problem we must address in Moscow is the movement of persons – citizens. Today 80% of Moscow’s citizens – or residents – moves by public transit…


SOBYANIN: 80%. And just over 20%, according to different estimates, from 23 to 25 percent drives a private vehicle.

SOBYANIN: Now you understand the problem. So if we solve the problem of clearing out congestion and don’t address the other issues… What do I mean? I mean: “I bought a car and now I drive where I want. You give me the road and the parking, and I don’t care about anything else.” I mean that if we double the number of lanes on a road, the amount of people with cars will not be 20 but 40 percent, and traffic jams will be just as bad as they are today. And the trams, trolleys, buses, which have to travel in the same flow, will also be stuck for hours.

So people will say: “Look, it’s all the same for me to be stuck in this jam. I’d rather wait in my car than wait in your bus. ” This situation must change dramatically. We should create a condition where public transport can move much faster than by car. And logistics should be optimized. Plus, the transport should be comfortable. Then we will solve the issue of transportation. Other solutions for Moscow’s problems do not exist, not in Paris or in London or New York, or anywhere in the world.

Then I read about Seoul, how they solved their problems. They built interchanges, roads and flyovers. Then six years ago, realizing it was going nowhere, they began to demolish what they had built. Overpasses, plazas, whatever was part of the interchange system and started to build pedestrian zones and so on, and decided: “We’ll make it less easy to drive around the city,” and simultaneously build a strong public transit system.

Seoul has an extensive system of separated transit lanes and a huge metro, the third busiest after Tokyo and Moscow’s.

VENEDIKTOV: So, what is the best system for Moscow?

SOBYANIN: Okay. Each road needs a separated strip for public transit, where no one can travel except buses. But the bus has to be on time, follow the schedule, and come often enough. Also, we need civilized taxis.

VENEDIKTOV: Do you see taxis as part of the same program?

SOBYANIN: Yes. Registered taxi drivers who meet certain standards will get privileges. After all, it is impossible to solve the problem with administrative sanctions alone. Taxis should be get incentives, such as permission to drive in the lane allocated to public transport, or park at a convenient platform and can calmly stop, et cetera. That’s how we make it advantageous to be registered, and standards-compliant, we give him more freedom.

VENEDIKTOV: Will you cancel any trolleybus service?

SOBYANIN: No. Why do you ask?

VENEDIKTOV: But people say they create traffic…

SOBYANIN: No. Why, if the trolleys are on a dedicated lane, for God’s sake? If it’s better to run a comfortable bus, we can replace it. If a tram would be better, then we will replace it with a tram.

VENEDIKTOV: So, will you build any trams?

SOBYANIN: Yes, of course.

VENEDIKTOV: You’re going to build tram lines? [Note: Russian governments have been aggressively ripping up tram lines for the past 18 years.] 

SOBYANIN: Yes. I believe that trams, as a form of public transit, are very promising. The only question is what kind of tram. It needs to not rattle,  to not create noise, to be comfortable, as if it had rubber tires. Modern trams are virtually noiseless. I mean, why not? …  All modes of transport should fill a niche. Including the metro.

I can’t think of too many United States Mayors explicitly outlining a policy like this, particularly the economic and logistical reasoning for the change. So, even if the creator of a cultural product as execrable as Everybody Loves Raymond can titter arrogantly about the infrastructural pains of modern Russia, perhaps those pains are what country has more incentive to be forward-thinking.

The biggest incentive, however, is Moscow’s extreme growth problem. The legal population of over 11.5 million has grown 30% since 1991, and exploded to about 10 times its pre-revolutionary size. So, in addition to the bus lanes and new trams, the government plans to construct 150 kilometers (90 miles) of subway, most with a standard station design (the future will be shiny) instead of the architectural showcases it is known for.

Moscow will double in size.

The pedestrian environment will also undergo alteration, as parking on sidewalks will be eliminated, asphalt sidewalks will be replaced for materials with a higher albedo and less offgassing, as well as the elimination of the kiosks that dot major streets. That you can’t just set up shop will chill the entrepreneurial spirit of dikiy kapitalizm, but it will unclutter streets.

The other grand project he is leading is the expansion of the urban area to more than double its size. The expansion would, if it is approved, reach out to the Southwest of the city and create a second massive downtown and plenty of residential areas.

This is where his planning may be in error. As Market Urbanism and Alain Bertaud (check his analysis of Mumbai’s zoning system) have argued, the problem with Moscow is not its concentration, but rather its flatness. I don’t know that flattening it out more will reduce traffic or make commutes easier. However, I don’t understand the plans that well, and will be keeping an eye on them.

So, amid the confused complaints of motorists,  the administration has turned a rather large bureaucracy around in a short period of time. The policies embraced by the new administration are quite dramatic and progressive for such a major city.  This is a big deal.

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