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Economic Lesson of the week: Tbilisi - a city for cars, not for people

Written by Florian Biermann, ISET

08/07/2013 11:03 (283 Day 20:56 minutes ago)


The FINANCIAL -- The Quality of Living Survey 2012 of the international consultancy group Mercer ranks 222 cities in the world according to how liveable they are. Tbilisi was ranked on Place 213, provoking furious reactions by many Georgians. On the internet, it is easy to find wild slanders against those who created the ranking and even against those who just referred to it, and there was even an online petition initiated against the ranking.


Without any question, the survey does not capture crucial factors that impact the quality of life. Tbilisi , unlike Lagos in Nigeria that was ranked on Place 202, is a city where one can walk around even at night without being harassed or mugged. Street crime is almost non existent. Moreover, since the anti-corruption measures took effect, Tbilisi ’s citizens and visitors are not bothered unnecessarily by government representatives. There is no abuse of power by the police, and government officials do not charge bribes for their services. This is worlds apart from other cities that were ranked close to Tbilisi , like Khartoum in the Sudan. Last not least, Georgians have a culture of decency and hospitality that largely prevents them from cheating or ripping off guests and their fellow citizens. This hugely increases life quality. And one could further extend this list of Tbilisi ’s advantages...

However, if one compares Tbilisi with some of the cities in the top 10 of the ranking, like Vienna (Place 1), Zurich (Place 2), Vancouver (Place 5), and Copenhagen (Place 9), there is one striking factor that distinguishes all these places from Tbilisi . The most liveable cities in the world go a long way to make the inner city districts attractive for pedestrians, not for cars. Tbilisi , on the other hand, is a city for cars, not for people.

ANTIQUATED CITY PLANNING -- Up to the 60ies of the preceding century, the ideal of a “car city” was pursued by progressive city planners worldwide. The idea of pedestrian subways originated in that time – while cars had the privilege to drive on the surface, enjoying sun and fresh air, pedestrians had to go through tunnels that were built under the streets. Complex road structures as the one on Heroes Square in Tbilisi were typical for those times and could be found all over Europe. Nobody anticipated the problems of automobile transportation, everybody was expected to have a car, and it was deemed unnecessary to take into account pedestrians’ needs. On the wave of car enthusiasm, even public transport was reduced. Many cities got rid of their light rails (trams), considered to be mere obstacles for smooth car traffic. While this happened in many cities decades ago, in Tbilisi the light rail was crapped after the Rose Revolution.

Very soon, however, the vision of a car city turned into a nightmare. As we know today, positive atmosphere in a city is a comprehensive experience that consists of shopping opportunities, cafes and restaurants that preferably have their tables under the open sky, and walking around in a nice environment that comprises green areas, street artists, and beautiful buildings. In a car city, on the other hand, walking around is unpleasant. There is noise and pollution, and cafes and restaurants do not have their tables outside. Street life is non existent, and with it any positive urban atmosphere goes down the drain. Due to the lack of customers, shops and department stores disappear, and the inner districts of car cities become concrete deserts. The pedestrian subways become stinky, dark tunnels, and people go a long way to avoid using them.

Already in the 70ies, municipalities all over the world tried to correct their mistakes. Broad sidewalks came at the price of having fewer lanes for the cars. Not so in Tbilisi : on the newly renovated Agmashenebeli Ave the sidewalks are often so crowded that one can walk only at snail’s pace. At the same time, the planners decided to have three car lanes in the middle. The Agmashenebeli concept would already have been outdated in the 70ies.

In many car cities, the inner districts had transformed into giant parking decks. The beauty of buildings was hardly enjoyable if cars piled up in front of them, and the sidewalks were misused as parking space, further deteriorating the walking experience. Tbilisi today gives a good impression how it was elsewhere in the world in the beginning of the 70ies. In response, cities began to reserve parking lots to the residents of the inner city districts, and parking bans were strictly enforced. Some cities set up large central parking decks, but it turned out that the ample parking space they provided drew additional cars into the city. The most prudent municipalities therefore opted for artificially restricting the availability of parking space, forcing people to resort to means of public transport.

Pedestrian subways were systematically shut down. In order to allow people to cross streets, there was a high density of traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. Speed limits reduced pollution and made cycling less hazardous. Today the central avenues in cities that live up to modern standards have strictly enforced speed limits. Rustaveli Avenue, on the other hand, is like a 6 lane high way. But who wants to drink a coffee and enjoy street life next to a highway?

Prudent cities try actively to deter people from entering the inner city districts by car. All over the world, there are now sophisticated systems in place that allow commuters to park their cars in the outskirts and then continue to the city center by public transport. This requires an upgrade of public transport, which indeed takes place in many cities – new light railways are built from Jerusalem to Berlin at high costs. In some cities that now build new light rails, trams were abolished 50 years ago.

WHY CHANGE ANYTHING? -- Don’t dismiss the Mercer ranking too lightheartedly – if you are used to Tbilisi and you walk through Vienna or Kopenhagen, you will feel the difference immediately. Tbilisi ’s city planning is not lagging some years behind, but it is outdated by 40 years. Yet it is not only some ranking where Tbilisi could improve considerably through the application of modern city planning. The issue has also concrete economic implications.

One is health. Georgia ranks Place 98 according to its life expectancy. Switzerland, represented with Geneva and Zurich in the top 10 of the Mercer ranking, is the country with the second highest life expectancy in the world. While the average Georgian gets 73 years old, the average Swiss citizen dies at an age of 83 years. Of course, there are multiple reasons that cause this difference, but there is no question that car pollution is highly detrimental for health. This is particularly true in a country like Georgia, where many cars with old and very old engines are populating the streets.

In the last years, it became clear that so called particulates emitted from car engines are highly carcinogen and can cause lung problems. These tiny particles, much smaller than ordinary dust, can get into the finest capillaries of the lung and from there even into the blood vessels. As a reaction, strict regulations have been imposed in the European Union, on some days forcing municipalities to block cars from entering the inner city districts to keep the particulate density below the allowance. Without any doubt, the European standards are violated in Tbilisi each and every day.

Another issue is tourism. I was amused to read that an official of the tourism authority claimed that tourists were more concerned about the availability of public toilets in Tbilisi than about the difficulties to cross streets. While virtually no tourist uses public toilets, walking around in Tbilisi is a stressful and unpleasant experience no tourist can escape from. Surely, this is no minor concern for people who want to enjoy their holidays here.     

While many problems of Tbilisi are related to a lack of financial resources, making the city attractive through a modern city planning would cost nothing.



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