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Moscow traffic: jam today and more jams tomorrow

Mumin Shakirov
14 October 2009

"Russia has two problems: fools and roads", the writer Nikolai Gogol said of his country almost two centuries ago. Russians tend to object that there are fools the world over, but when it comes to roads... This is indeed Russia's Achilles heel, they agree with Gogol, a calamity from which there is no salvation.

Moscow traffic jams have become as much a dubious feature of the Russian capital as Lenin in his mausoleum, prostitutes on Leningradskoe shosse and illegal taxi drivers from the ‘'stans' who drive round the city in clapped-out Russian bangers.

Moscow's roads aren't just congested at rush hour, but even during the day. However much the roads are widened, however many new interchanges are built, the speed of traffic drops from year to year. At the moment it is 22 km per hour. In comparison with Moscow, big cities in developed countries ‘move' one and a half times to twice as fast, according to the director of the Institute for Scientific Research into Traffic Management, Alexander Sarychev LINK(, in his study "The Fruits of Enlightenment" on the site www.polit.ru).

In New York, there are 910 cars per 1,000 residents, and just 340 cars per 1,000 residents in Moscow. This flies in the face of the popular belief that the main problem in Moscow is that there are too many cars in the city. According to the State Road Safety Inspectorate, there are just over 3 million drivers registered in Moscow at the moment. Every day, around 400,000 vehicles drive into Moscow from the Moscow Oblast and other regions of Moscow.

There are 18 cars per one hectare of land in New York, and 34 in the Russian capital. So despite its modest level of car ownership, the Russian capital is facing a severe shortage of space. Because of the density of residential housing, office blocks and shops traffic is pretty well gridlocked, according to Alexander Sarychev. In winter the congestion is even worse, as the snow is not removed and covers not just roads, but footpaths, where drivers often park.

People coming to Moscow find it amazing that the city, with its thousands and thousands of offices has become such a magnet, drawing cars in on weekdays not just from the suburbs, but from far further out. Some 1.25 million people commute to Moscow every day from oneighbouring regions. Just over 2 million jobs, or 38%, are concentrated on 6.5% of the city territory, in a five kilometer radius from the Kremlin. Every morning, a massive tide of people engulfs the "historic" city centre, and in the evening the tide goes out again beyond the Garden ring. The metro and above-ground transport is just as overcrowded at these times. You can spend up to five hours in Moscow sitting in traffic jams these days.

Nikolai Pereslegin, the advisor to the chairman of the committee of the cultural heritage of Moscow complain s that today "the area round the Kremlin is one great office. There is little real life there. If you walk round the city centre at night, you see few windows with the lights on, where people live. It would be more sensible to build offices along the Moscow ring road, to decentralize the city, and create job sites on the outskirts. But there's been no planning. So it's the people who have to keep moving in and out'.

The trouble is that the capital's streets and peripheral ring roads were planned in the 1970s-1080s and have two (at best four) lanes. The main radial highways become narrower as they get nearer to the centre, and at the exit points out of Moscow. These places become narrow bottlenecks where the dense traffic piles up. The only exceptions are Kashirskoe Shosse  and Leninsky Prospekt, the longest road in Moscow, which starts one kilometre from the Kremlin. Leninsky Prospekt, often called the "presidential" road", smoothly flows into another highway, the Kievskoe Shosse. Putin and Medvedev often take this direct route to the presidential airport Vnukovo-2. No expense was spared on the construction of this road five years ago, and there is virtually no traffic congestion on the way out of the city. The Kashirskoe Shosse, which leads to the country's largest airport, Domodedovo also works well, thanks to the Germans, who built a modern road there 20 years ago. And that's it! All the other radial roads leading out of the city from the Kremlin are blocked with traffic. There are traffic lights, exhaust fumes, and road rage, where people often resort to using weapons. These conflicts often end tragically, as you can learn from the crime reports. And this is in a country  where some 30,000 people die in car accidents every year. "That's the population of a small town", as the head of the Federation Council Sergei Mironov pointed out when presenting these dire statistics at the Senate.

Although there are no perfect answers as to how to save Moscow from its traffic problems, fantastic theories abound and unpopular measures have been discussed by officials, experts and traffic police. The traffic police propose to introduce a toll for driving in the center, as in London. They would divide drivers into two groups, those with odd-numbered and those with even-numbered number plates. One group would drive on odd-numbered dates, the other on even-numbered dates. These proposals were promptly rejected as unacceptable by officials and drivers.

A couple of years ago, Moscow deputies proposed to build more roads 12 meters off the ground, as in Japan. But the economic crisis put an end to this futuristic project, and it is unlikely that it would have been supported by architects and ecologists. Officials also floated the idea of making drivers from outside the city take public transport and leave their cars at car parks at the end of metro lines. But this project never got off the ground either. There is no room to park thousands and thousands of cars by the metro station, and there is no spare land available.

Officials and traffic police also gave up on another apparently sensible idea, to allocate a special lane for public transport, as is they do in London and other European cities. But since Moscow drivers behave like "gladiators", buses and trolleybuses would be unlikely to be able to protect their special lane.

Although the reconstruction of the city's road network has started, it has been considerably delayed, according to Alexander Sarychev. Instead of increasing the network of small and medium roads, the city authorities began by building short road and bridge projects which do not always solve the problems. But how can one build road networks when every spare patch of land in Moscow is being fought over by the developers?

The building sites in the city centre, which block the streets and increase the parking problem, are another problem. Even unique projects like that of ‘Moscow City', officials and architects failed to address the issue of road junctions properly. Even before the tower-blocks have been finished, it is clear that are too few parking spaces, let alone enough roads connecting it to the third ring road which runs round the outskirts of the city. Thank goodness the crisis stopped the investors and at least partly sobered up the builders.

Alexander Sarychev has LINK no revolutionary proposals to make. But he proposes that you have to build the Moscow's road system first. There is also nothing new about the idea of  extending the metro beyond the Moscow ring road. The only question is where to find the funding. Money has been splashed about carelessly, as many people have pointed out. This is what opposition politicians Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov concluded, in their recent shocking report "Luzhkov. Results": "The average cost of the Moscow ring road is $100 million per km. The cost of building the third ring road is $117 million per km. In comparison with western building norms, this is an exorbitant price. In the USA the cost of building one kilometer of a four-lane road comes to $4-6 million. A high-class autobahn in Germany cost 8 million Euros per km. One kilometre of a four-lane highway in China costs $3 million, and $3.6 million in Brazil. So the price of building roads in Moscow is at least 10 times higher than elsewhere in the world".  

Some transport experts and ecologists have proposed moving the capital to the far side of the Volga, or in the last resort to St. Petersburg. Then over-populated Moscow (over 10 million people) could revert to its status as Russia's cultural capital. This idea has been proposed at various times by the mayors of Russian cities and regions, State Duma deputies, analysts and journalists. They all say the same: Moscow is not elastic. It is becoming increasingly difficult to cram the offices of the administration, law courts and military , the centres of business, culture and sport into the boundaries of the Moscow ring road. But no leader is likely to act on this in the near future, as those who run Russia are not enthusiastic about the notion of a mass relocation of officials and businessmen.

The only solution is to build new bridges, tunnels and road junctions, and to widen roads if possible, at the expense of the yards, squares and footpaths. City dwellers will be able to breathe freely only when they get out of the city, where there are still forests, trees and lakes, the vast expanses of Russia, and enough fresh air for everyone.

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