Moscow is drowning in an ocean of traffic

Tie-ups: With millions more cars in the streets, Russia's capital grows increasingly congested, polluted and perilous.

July 20, 2004|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Make U-turns in midblock if you like. Drive on sidewalks if you must. Scream at oncoming traffic if you dare. But, increasingly, even the boldest and most resourceful of Moscow's drivers can't escape the city's probky, or "corks," the Russian word for traffic jams.

Since 1987, the number of cars here has nearly quadrupled, to nearly 3 million. Marina Vasilyeva, deputy chief of media relations for the traffic safety office, said there could be 5 million cars on Moscow's roads by 2010.

No other major city in Europe or the United States has seen its traffic grow so fast, Western experts say. As a result, Moscow's streets are often outrageously congested, noisy and polluted.

They're also increasingly perilous. Traffic deaths in Moscow rose almost 30 percent in the past three years, police say. Last year, 1,327 people died on Moscow roads, about 3 1/2 times the number in New York City, which has roughly the same population.

"From a European and U.S. point of view, Moscow is one of the worst cities in terms of traffic," said Ben Eijbergen, senior transport specialist with the World Bank.

A decade ago, Yuri Fremenov could drive his delivery truck around the Belorusskaya Station plaza in north Moscow in less than a minute. Now, it can take 40 minutes to inch his way through the square, where a tangle of roads meet in a series of closely spaced intersections. Motorists can sit through several light changes without budging. Traffic police call Belorusskaya the most congested spot in the city.

"It's because there are so many cars coming to Moscow," explained Fremenov, 54, as rain drummed, motors throbbed and horns bleated all around. "The more cars, the more problems. It's inevitable."

To cure the city's traffic sclerosis, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has proposed drastic measures, including making the maze of streets in the central city one-way. But most of the city's energy is going toward paving more roads, building bridges and digging tunnels. Luzhkov said in January that, to relieve congestion, Moscow needs 210 more miles of expressway.

Experts say the situation here is similar to that in U.S. cities in the 1950s. New roads were badly needed. But they filled up with traffic almost as soon as they opened. And inner-city expressways disrupted or destroyed neighborhoods.

Eventually, governments realized that they could never lay enough asphalt to meet demand. And citizens revolted. In Baltimore, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski began her political career as one of the leaders of an effort that saved historic Fells Point from a 16-lane highway.

Experts say the same thing will happen someday in Moscow.

`Playing catch-up'

"You have to make room for the car," Eijbergen said. "But the city is not designed for the car. At some point they have to realize that they can't build their way out of this."

"The city is playing catch-up with major road construction," said Richard Podolske, a World Bank engineering consultant. "They're only beginning to realize that road construction is only part of the answer."

During the Soviet era, there were few privately owned cars. Trucks, trams and buses sped around, interrupted only by the occasional high-speed convoy of government Zil limousines.

"All of a sudden, the lid came off and there was a boom," said Podolske. But the city wasn't prepared to handle it.

There is, for example, the problem of left turns. They're forbidden at many major intersections, requiring drivers to make a series of right turns, traveling blocks out of their way. That means more vehicle-miles traveled, and more congestion, pollution and wasted time.

Moscow has installed a system of automated traffic signals to regulate traffic flow, using a combination of in-ground detectors and a timing scheme based on an analysis of traffic patterns. But many of the detectors don't work, experts say, And the timing scheme appears to have been poorly designed.

Not that it matters much. Moscow's traffic police -- known as the GAI (guy-EE) -- have traditionally controlled traffic lights from booths at major intersections. Most of the GAI refuse to relinquish control, and regularly override the automated lights, disrupting the system since any officer who lets traffic flow freely at one intersection creates bottlenecks down the line.

"There is a lack of understanding of the problem," Podolske said. "There is this idea of keeping traffic moving, as opposed to breaking it into bite-sized bits."

Most Western cities transferred traffic control from police to transportation departments years ago. Western experts are urging Moscow to do the same.

The GAI, meanwhile, blame the traffic mess on the surge in automobile ownership, the antiquated road system and, especially, the flood of inexperienced drivers who have just purchased cars. Alexander I. Khodokov, a GAI spokesman, quoted the beloved 19th-century author Nikolai Gogol: "Russia is a land of hopeless roads and idiots."

Foreign engineers are slightly more diplomatic.

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